Before you dismantle Africa

On the processes that have historically undervalued African lives

William Kentridge Drawing for 'Other Faces', (Protestors - close up), 2011 Charcoal and coloured pencil on paper 62 x 121 cm Source:
William Kentridge. Drawing for ‘Other Faces’, (Protestors – close up), 2011

No African is a foreigner in Africa! No African is a migrant in Africa! Africa is where we all belong, notwithstanding the foolishness of our boundaries. No amount of national-chauvinism will erase this. No amount of deportations will erase this. Instead of spilling black blood on no other than Pixley ka Seme Avenue (!), we should all be making sure that we rebuild this Continent and bring to an end a long and painful history — that which, for too long, has dictated that to be black (it does not matter where or when), is a liability. – ACHILLE MBEMBE, Africa Is A Country

No use in underlining the seemingly futile act of turning to writing during these turbulent times. How can the pen counter a grove of machetes, wrenches, spears slashing into history, making deeper cuts into Africa that no words know how to heal? How can a scribble of ink stand its own against the unfathomable spilling of blood in the streets of Alexandra? Of course it cannot do any of this. It can only beg the question, When will African lives matter?

When will this question matter beyond columns in newspapers or in Twitter hash tags?

The sheer brutality of the xenophobic attacks in Durban and Johannesburg this week is exposing a reality that turns stomachs. It is so uncomfortable, because of the scale of the violence and the knowledge that it is true. Most of us are only experiencing this through images and media reports, and perhaps many are turning a blind eye, apathetic and lethargic from their Sunday lunches; but viewed from afar, what is so unsettling is the realisation that the South African story is deviating spectacularly from its ‘miracle’ narrative of ‘Rainbow Nation exceptionalism’ that many of us still naively cling to (despite the plethora of crises that are increasing as Jacob Zuma’s presidency continue). And it is perhaps for this very reason that many of us are so unfamiliar with this reality – we have tried to avoid looking at the unravelling of our uniquely South African patchwork. It hasn’t been around for long enough to be gone. The little progress we have made cannot be undone just like that. It’s all we have left. And nobody likes to get woken up from a good dream.

How is it possible to believe in our ‘miracle nation’ when fellow South Africans dispose of such cruelty?

South Africa can no longer close its eyes, hold its breath and hope for the best. For too long this country’s deepest concerns have been ignored, cast aside, in the hope that it would just go away – much like running a red light, as one does in South Africa, fingers crossed that you make it through. This tactic has proven itself disastrous – our social inequalities are unbearable. It just cannot continue this way. And now innocent lives of foreign nationals are being lost at the hands of monsters. But that part we have all agreed upon.

The perpetrators were not born intrinsically evil. It is fairly easy to deduce that only a sick society can push its citizens to such inhumane acts. And there are millions of others, equally riddled by the same societal ills and inequalities, who resist this pitfall, who will never even be tempted into doing such a thing – those who show kindness and compassion to their neighbours despite being destitute. We should remember that these people are still the majority.

What has been ignored for too long are the processes that create these ‘monsters’. Nobody will accept complicity, and finger-pointing persists. On the one hand, a large portion of white South Africans blame inefficient government for issues that often extend further back into the past, and they are dismissive of the fact that centuries of economic exclusion have recklessly cast millions of black South Africans in a sort of socio-economic ‘no exit’ that will remain a reality for generations to come. On the other hand, the ANC systematically blames white rule for issues that have either worsened or arisen out of the ANC’s own mismanagement. The ANC would rather plunder the country in the dark than govern efficiently, all in the name of a misapplied ideology and misappropriated funds.

Today, there seems to be little space for post-apartheid South Africa to recognise its collective misconduct. All that is being perpetuated by dominating discourse on either side is that there is Us, and Them. On the surface there is little regard for all the richness and complexities that fill the space between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ – that which, in the spirit of Ubuntu, connects us.

As a white person, I can only speak from my own vantage point and I am really not comfortable speaking ‘on behalf of white people’ as though we are all one homogenous blob of like-minded whiteness. But I have much in common with other white people in South Africa insofar as the fact that we form a minority that historically benefitted from centuries of oppression of San, Khoikhoi, black, Coloured and Indian people. I have much in common with white people around the world insofar as white people have never been typecast, over and over again, as primitive, dangerous, uncouth or automatically considered as downtrodden, disadvantaged, poor. I have much in common with other white people insofar as Western history is taught as being central to how our world works, and as such, being white is being at the centre of everything.

When Achille Mbembe says, ‘to be black is to be a liability’ in reference to Africa, – it is quite unsettling when considering the amount of young black men shot and killed by white police men in America. In a different context, ‘to be black is to be a liability’ also extends to humour, and Western ‘irony’: a person’s blackness is supposedly something to be laughed at – when a person’s accent gives away a different background or culture, why is the reaction to laugh and to mock? Why does this premise even exist? It only reflects what centuries of colonising and patronising achieved.

So I cannot, as much as I would like to, proclaim that we are all the same, that there is no such thing as ‘race’. While I firmly believe in the intrinsically ‘bastardised’ condition of the world – in the way the diaspora of the world today means that we are all made up of many different interactions and configurations, have intermixed over the ages — one cannot consider these processes of ‘bastardisation’ without being painfully aware of how history unfolded in (and been willed into) favour of the West, and how society has always been forced apart, despite our tendency towards miscegenation. In parallel to our moving towards each other, we have been pulled away from each other; borders erected and people classified according to race and treated accordingly. South Africa’s very own process-of-becoming is perpetually plagued by this tug-and-pull between apartness and wholeness.

When I was writing my thesis about this topic a year ago, I focussed on the idea of movement – the idea that a dynamic force is pulling South Africa forward because it is a country that is defined by the influx of peoples and by its own métissage and dynamism, something which has become South Africa’s motor. The very thing that defines South Africa’s character – movement, progress, flow – is what is under attack today.  I suggest you read Achille Mbembe’s powerful commentary on the matter; he offers insight into the phenomenon of Africa-turning-on-Africa – and asks why “has [South Africa] historically [been] represented a “circle of death” for anything and anybody ‘African’?”


An almost farcical interlude to these attacks was the much mediatised removal of the Rhodes statue. Now, what has been so farcical about this event was the number of people mocking the protest itself. Many asked what the point was in removing an ‘object’ from a ‘place’ (preferring to focus on other pressing issues, like electricity cuts), and soon social media was a-buzz with sarcastic memes about statues being vandalised all over the place, dismissing one of the most important debates on whiteness and white privilege the country has had (and needed) in a long time. Some people at least acknowledged that statues are connoted, but they did not go much further: “leave it alone, it’s history!” they would say. So, to some, the statue represents ‘history’ only – or a sort of Anonymous History, an intangible, unintelligible thing that is just there; and so the statue, too, is just there, being historical. But ‘historical’ seems to bear no further impact than being something that vaguely reflects the past. As though history is not heavy with processes of conquering and casting aside, the impact of which is still playing into our everyday lives – for some it is just more comfortable than for others. For a privileged minority, I suppose ‘history’ is reduced to just that – the past. When people say, ‘What’s done is done’, they refuse to grapple head-on with the consequences or impact of past actions. If statues really were only inanimate objects erected for decorative purposes, one would certainly not opt for an old geezer from colonial times to spruce up the campuses of our great educational institutions, such as the University of Cape Town, right? That is what public art is for; but statues celebrate something – usually a legacy. For me, the removal of the Rhodes statue was a no-brainer. It was in fact surprising that a statue so accurately representing South Africa’s burdens had remained intact, peering over Cape Town, its affluent neighbourhoods and shanty towns nestled side-by-side, for so long. People do not have to worry about ‘forgetting’ history by removing this statue either – one look outside your car window during your drive from Pretoria to OR Tambo airport would suffice in order to not forget the effects of the racial economic segregation which Rhodes pioneered in the 1800s and Afrikaner Nationalists pushed to its conclusion in the twentieth century.


Why is being black in Africa a curse? After the Afrikaners were defeated and humiliated by the British during the Anglo-Boer war through Scorched Earth tactics, and thousands of women and children died in concentration camps, the National Party, whose aim was to re-instil pride among the Afrikaner people, sought to consolidate their power: they would do so by cordoning themselves off, by building an idealised haven in the clouds, so to speak, and by institutionalising a system of racial segregation and black economic exploitation. They would thereby immunise themselves against any further threats to their existence. Once more, black Africans paid the price.

What has been so difficult to drive home in the Rhodes debate a few weeks ago, is what came alive during this week’s attacks: the fact that these brutal processes of exploitation created a society that is so acutely off-balance, so deeply miserable and desperate that Africa turns against itself. The powers-that-be around the world that keep large pockets of Africa poor and powerless indeed continue to divide and rule.

Just think of Marikana: South African police against South African miners in the name of a mining company that isn’t even South African-owned. If our discourse can’t move forward and rid itself of the hierarchical patterns that perpetuate the little value society, in their daily attitudes, attribute to African lives, how will we move forward at all?

Africa has bled too long at the hands of other people’s battles. We need an Africa that is for-Africa, one that actively counters the idea, as Mbembe describes, that “being black is a liability”. In order to make these mind shifts, it is necessary to remove symbols that celebrate the systematic dismantling of black Africans. If you refuse to understand why Rhodes had to go, how will you attempt to understand the deeper complexities giving rise to xenophobic violence? These issues are related, because xenophobia is the opposite of what it means to be African.

* * * * *

I would like to emphasise, in the form of a disclaimer, that this article by no means seeks to make argumentative shortcuts or draw direct lines between Cecil John Rhodes himself and last week’s xenophobic attacks (some people tend to overlook details). I can neither claim to know or understand the socio-economic contexts of the perpetrators or their victims, it is something that I am still trying to wrap my head around. This is an attempt to respond to white discourse (as perceived on social media) that dismisses South Africa’s particular history of oppression. It feels like I am saying the most obvious thing that can be said about South Africa, and yet it remains a challenge. We cannot move forward without acknowledging that this discourse has to change. This article also doesn’t seek to tell white people that they are not feeling guilty enough; it merely seeks to shed light on the dismissive, destructive nature of a dominant attitude.



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