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By Steven Friedman, 27 MAY 2015, Business Day (South Africa)
OUR government and those who form opinion here love Africa — it is Africans they dislike.
This week began with Africa Day, marked by ceremonies at which leaders vied to show their enthusiasm for Africanness — President Jacob Zuma exhorted us to learn the African Union anthem and fly its flag. Parts of the broadcast media offered programmes in which citizens showed similar zeal for open shows of love for the continent: declaring Africa Day a public holiday, for example.
All of which sounds odd in a country obsessed with chasing away fellow Africans. The period since the latest round of violence against immigrants, most of whom are African, has been predictable. After an obligatory period in which anyone who mattered joined in the pious denunciation of those who spilt blood, our elite, public and private, has returned to doing what it does best — keeping alive the hostility to immigrants that caused the blood-letting in the first place.
Zuma says we welcome foreign tourists and business people but not, it seems, anyone else: deportations of those who do not jump through the hoops set for them by the law will, he promises, continue. Eager to match words with action, the government initiated Operation Fiela, a “crime prevention” exercise in which a frequently targeted crime is being born elsewhere in Africa: there is an eerie parallel with the apartheid state’s “anti-crime” exercises, which mainly arrested black people who lacked the right documents. While Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa did condemn xenophobia, the government in which he serves seems to feel that we should wave Africa’s flag and sing its anthem — as long as we do not have to share our space with too many of its citizens.
It is not only the government that sees other Africans as “them”, not “us”. Journalists have, since the violence, demanded that the government show it is serious about keeping Africans out while citizens call into talk shows and post on social media a torrent of abuse at immigrants strikingly similar to the things racists say about black people: some have even designed offensive labels for nationals of particular African states. They will, no doubt, be the loudest voices denouncing any new violence all this hostility may encourage.
To talk of loyalty to Africa in this climate is surely absurd. It becomes all the more fanciful when we consider that the latest wave of anti-African sentiment is no surprise in a society that tends to see the rest of the continent as an alien, violent and backward place not worth our interest. We are often ignorant about the rest of the continent because we show little enthusiasm for learning about it.
The media, as this column has pointed out, are happy to send full-time correspondents to London and New York, but never to Abuja, Dar es Salaam or Cairo. With some exceptions, coverage of the rest of the continent is restricted to cursory reportage of elections or violence. Our universities cocoon study of the continent in African studies courses if they bother at all — humanities courses rarely discuss African ideas or experiences. And our policy debates are filled with examples from Australia, Canada, the UK and the US — never from Ghana or Botswana or Senegal. It is small wonder that many of us still talk about Africa as though it were a foreign continent — and that we know little about the politics and economics, and the ideas, of other Africans.
The reason is surely the peculiar way in which our racial politics have ensured that key prejudices of much of the apartheid-era white minority are now shared by a nonracial elite. Since apartheid ended, the key goal has not been building a new society, but including as many black people as possible in the old one’s elite. One reason is a desire to confound the prejudice which claims that blacks are not good enough to lead the kind of society the minority values. While this is understandable, it can be achieved only by accepting many of the minority’s biases, including that which sees Europe and North America as the apex of civilisation and Africa as a place which, at best, can show its worth only by becoming like the western countries. This is not new — academic research has shown that, as early as the 1950s, many people in townships aspired to own US goods and follow that country’s fashions.
White bigots, it is assumed, will not be impressed by anything African and so, while political change has ensured a new willingness to adopt the trappings of Africanness, it has brought no greater understanding of the rest of the continent as a place from which we can learn and about which we should learn. We often seem as remote from African developments as we were 20 years ago. We are certainly as remote from African people, whatever syrupy slogans are embraced on Africa Day.
We cannot identify with a continent and treat the rest of those who live in it as aliens. We should sing Africa’s anthem and wave its flags only after we have learned to live with and understand its people.
• Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.