Our country (and its leaders) has had sufficient time and opportunity to lead on human rights across Africa and the world since 1994. To whom much is given, much is expected: had South Africa used the opportunity to speak decisively on human rights both domestically and abroad, there would have been fewer human rights’ violations on our continent.
The number of refugee immigrations from the continent would have been digestible, administratively, and as a result, there would have been less camouflage for criminal elements sneaking through our borders. Because the higher the number of refugees coming in, the higher the number of criminals slipping in among them.
In other words, South Africa has had a vested interest in leading well on human rights. Is the violence that’s erupted against foreign nationals excusable? By no means. Should we tighten up on refugees who’ve breached our checks and measures? That would be inhumane, further victimizing victims. Should we violate people’s privacy and dignity so as to figure out whether “they ” are here with good intentions, or that they have the “correct papers” before welcoming them with open arms? No. We are not that country. “That’s the problem,” many will say. “South Africa is too liberal, allowing whoever has need to come to us.” The solution is to eliminate the need itself by upping the volume on our stand on human rights both domestically and internationally.
But South Africa is “too liberal” only on paper. The real problem is that we have not been liberal enough. We’ve been lukewarm where we should have been dead cold or scorching hot on human rights, and because we’ve been nauseatingly lukewarm, history has vomited us out. “Our foreign policy does not allow us to criticize laws in other countries,” our leaders said on a number of issues. But that excuse is only true because it’s expedient. Generally speaking, the leadership of other African countries failed first, and the leadership of ours failed afterwards, and none of them want to call one another out on those failures even if lives are endangered. Many say, “Those countries sheltered South Africans too when black South Africans needed it,” which is correct. But if those countries have been liberated, why do they need that favour returned now? I’m not asking this to wash our hands of what’s happened or to ignore the complexity of what happens on our continent; I’m asking because South Africa alone is being blamed for the xenophobic violence as though it alone is at fault. “Why are you beating our refugees up?” other countries ask. Well, why are your people refugees? Note, that isn’t, “Why did they come here?” because anybody should be able to come here. But anybody should be able to go there too, and everyone is scared to becacuse everyone intuitively knows that Africa is tough.
And to what degree have refugees internalized and normalized whatever it was that made them leave their homes? Oppression is a strange thing. Black people who were once oppressed will chant against racism in one breath, and chant against other Africans in the next. In other words, the victim can become the victimizer. A refugee can defend the mindset that led to their oppression without even realizing it. You cannot eliminate one form of oppression without fighting against all, and whoever fights against one while leaving another unquestioned, supports all. For each one leaves only to bring back seven more demons.
Subjugated for centuries and held back from decent educations, our people use violence to solve problems. Our leaders don’t challenge and educate us to rise above tribalistic simplicity. They instead exploit tribalism when it suits their agendas and recoil against it when it embarrasses them as it has embarrassed South African leaders now. For example, the ANC-led government has no direct control over what Zulus and other tribes do, and much to gain from keeping the controls loose and the consequences unpredictable. Even God knows that randomness is needed for predictability. If the ANC did exert more influence, its culpable deniability (where human rights violations occur) would vanish and they would be more directly accountable. As it is, that they exert such tenuous control over everything (thank you democracy) allows them to pass the buck on every time. Zuma didn’t know about Nkandla, and whichever government ministry now oversees any of the struggling parastatals is not accountable for their performance or lack thereof.
If the ANC can just play to Zulus tribal love of all things Zulu, and hire Zulu persons into positions of prominence, then the Party will always have an army of loyal Zulu disciples ready to (physically, if need be) defend the Party that recognizes its cultural prominence. The fact that the ANC buys this loyalty without being able to control how the loyalty is expressed means that the ANC cannot be held responsible for what the Zulus do, and as a result, cannot help being in power “until Jesus returns.” Trapped in a sweet spot, they are indeed victims of their own success.
If you tell Jacob Zuma (the magnet for Zulu votes) to step down, he’ll respond that he cannot help that the oldest liberation movement in Africa has appointed him as president. If you look to the ANC for answers, it will respond that it cannot help that the black majority voted it into power, and cannot help that Zuma gets reelected as president at party national congresses. That motions of no confidence against him are given open votes means the ANC cannot help that those who would have Zuma gone are scared to say so openly. If you ask members of the black majority that voted the ANC into power why they did so, they will respond that they cannot help voting for the one party that has validated the claims to superiority of the Zulu nation over every other. One might point out the objective truth, specifically, that the ANC is destroying South Africa. But the problem with “objective truth” is that it’s been tainted. The colonialist hijacked it once. It is said that when European missionaries found black people on the land, handed them bibles and told them to close their eyes to pray, the natives opened their eyes and had bibles in our hands and the missionaries had the land. Truth? Reason? Those words are how black people allowed the bright “white” light of white rightness* to blind them once. Never again; now, they are Afrikan and how dare you speak of a reality where 1 + 1 is 2 and the ANC is bad for you.
See? A lot of black people will now cut off their nose to spite their face. They cannot help doing so.
If the government is embarrassed by some of the actions resulting from any of this, then it need merely issue token condemnations of such actions in English (where the main violators are Zulu) so as to distance itself from what it has had a hand in. The ANC needs a volatile voter base so that if anyone were to speak out too loudly against it, it could say to that person, “We might not be able to hurt you directly as government, but we cannot help it if they decide to.” So is the government’s condemnation of xenophobic attacks genuine, or is it covering its ass where human rights’ bodies are concerned? Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba made a speech warning leaders in general to watch their words. The Zulu king rumbled. Gigaba scraped and bowed, apologizing where he should have been apologized to. Why? He who will be South Africa’s president must remember that the Zulu king is even further above the law and accountability than the national president is. So South Africa has continuously failed itself and the rest of Africa on human rights because its leaders will throw human bodies under the bus of political aspiration; we cannot help that this is how it is.
But this problem is by no means limited to just our leadership. Having fought colonialism together, African statesmen’s fates are bound together by loyalties stronger than any principle. “I’ll let you have your anti-gay bills, racism and subtly misogynistic laws, seeing as your voting majority only forgives your failings when you scapegoat those they fear, if you keep your mouth shut about how I stoke the fires of this tribal infighting on this little corner of this here country. It serves my purposes not to shut it down (I do have an election to rig, you know, so I’ll also play to ethnic divisions so the numbers don’t rouse suspicions when the count is done – the lesser of two evils and all that), and I in turn will support you despite your lack of political will on that issue you’ve kept brewing there, for which my human rights’ bodies continuously demand that I condemn your leadership.”
Tribalism is the puzzle piece that holds xenophobia, racism, ethnicism, homophobia, and sexism together. If the government actually took decisive (not just token) steps towards eradicating these attitudes, it would also erode the unquestioning loyalty with which these tribalists worship it. Copy and paste this tack throughout Africa and extend it back in liberation history, and then ask me again why our country, which briefly upheld the beacon of the most progressive Constitution on the continent, attracted and then attacked refugees as they fled from the violence that exactly this tribalistic approach had sparked in their varying homes throughout Africa.
Tribalism is why African leaders cannot make stands on human rights’ issues. They’d lose the only magic power they can maintain over people. Just days before the xenophobic violence flared up, DA Ward Councilor Martin Meyer had homophobic slurs shouted at him – again – by members of the ANC caucus in City Hall, which the Speaker (ANC) Logie Naidoo seems not to lose any sleep over. If the dignity of a councilor cannot be defended in city hall, where does the foreigner expect to stand? The ANC keeps people divided, and conquered, by making it okay to fear difference and then lash out at it. As with many leaders across the continent, this is the only way they can get votes.
Knowing that this is how they stay in power, the leaders of this continent’s countries don’t call one another out. It’s impolite to say out loud that the relationship among African statesmen is about the corrupt shielding one another from the bright, “white” light of accountability because if you do, you’re a house nigger who’s disloyally bought into the story of white incorruptibility, which in turn needs the story of black moral, well…blackness. You then must have your mind decolonized (read, taught to tolerate corruption and human rights’ violations as long as it’s from black quarters) and failing this, you’re a traitor, not “one of us,” and you lose your black card and black identity. And yes, some people fall for this cultural blackmail and watch the food being eaten straight out of their mouths without saying any word.
“House niggers” – that is, truth tellers and anglophiles unfairly lumped together – were once accused of having the blackness baptized off of them in the white man’s snow-white Christianity, which, as a political movement, was complicit in Europe’s scramble for Africa. I identify as Christian yet I am disgusted with what has been done in the name of God.
“House niggers” have been accused, fairly or not, of loathing their own and trying to be better than fellow black people; they have sold their own out to unjust laws and systems in the name of “objective truths,” namely, one plus one is two and the ANC’s bad for you. They are cleva blaqs like Barack Maimane.
These accusations had merit when laws, law enforcement and systems were unjust, bent to oppressing black people. Do they have merit now? No; they are more heat than light, but that heat is scary.
History (or the victors’ version of history) says European found and settled Africa. But Africa had already been found and it already had people living in it; they happened to be black. Language itself has long been complicit in the invisibling of black lives; for centuries, black people have been footnotes in the triumphalism of European stories of the rightness of European whiteness. As Suntosh Pillay pointed out, race filters the way we make moral assessments.
This begins early in life. Children are told stories that begin with the words, “Once upon a time there was a girl whose skin was white as snow.” Its villains ask questions like, “Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” Do they mean fair as in beautiful, or fair as in light-skinned? Either or both, you don’t get fairer than Snow White, and she had a heart of gold to boot. Because she was white and white is right.
And would Trevor Noah be in New York without his jokes about black women’s weaves, or the
inferiority complex that has made that such a successful business?
Do the accusations against so-called house niggers have merit? Fairly or not, Jan van Riebeeck has become a lightning rod for black people’s frustrations, and many of those frustrations are valid. The examples above are by no means exhaustive nor tell the whole story, but I submit the story of the whiteness [read, goodness] of being white and the blackness [read, evil] of being black has been internalized, and has induced more allergic reactions, more than we care to admit.
The tragedy is that black people’s need to avoid corroborating or even engaging these myths is why many were happier to destroy a dead white man’s statue for their current sufferings, than take down current black leaders for their role in their current sufferings. No, Mbeki’s recall doesn’t count; he wasn’t black enough for many black people to feel that they’d cashed out on their own. So much for I Am An African.
If it’s about refusing to corroborate the myths of black “blackness” and white “whiteness,” I believe that tearing down a bad black leader isn’t an admission that the myth of black badness is true, but proof that black people can make objective moral assessments like 1 + 1 = 2 and the ANC is bad for you, without having to defend against the perception that they’ve admitted a black leader had proven the myth of black badness; that is the test we face now. Denying the badness of leaders who happen to be black substantiates the myth even as the denial seeks to escape it. As Macbeth’s witches put it, “Fair is foul and foul is fair,” whether you read “white,” “right,” or “what we should do next” into the word “fair.”
In response to the point that Zuma’s fall was more urgent than Rhodes’ (the statue had been there a while and it wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon) many insisted that #RhodesHasFallen is the “first of many steps” towards fixing systemic injustices. What does that mean? That to fell a living black leader who happens to be bad, they need to muster up courage by practicing on a piece of rock representing a bad dead leader who happened to be white? I say pick on someone your own size who can at least talk back; the dead cannot spit at the living.
Rhodes’ statue was offensive, but I found prioritizing its fall over the fall of Jacob Zuma (and other bad leaders who happen to be black such as royal figurehead King Goodwill Zwelithini) far more offensive than the statue’s presence. The statue gets a nonstop sea breeze and bird pooh courtesy of Mother Nature; Zuma gets a R250 000 000.00 mansion courtesy of you and me. Zwelithini gets more money than we know about and the power to start genocides without consequences for himself. And the students want #Rhodes to fall? Rhodes? Cecil John Rhodes, Rhodes? Dead Rhodes? NOW? Look, I do not have any fancy degrees or anything but what are they studying? I get their reasoning, but their timing sucks because they are very late on Rhodes, who is dead, and even later about Zuma, who is living. As a friend said to me on whatsapp once he’d heard of the xenophobic attacks, #WeAreRhodes.
But South Africa isn’t the only guilty country, though it’s being slammed by itself. This proves that we have so deeply internalized and normalized Africa’s chronic “issues” that we are more offended when South Africa has flared up than we are that the rest of Africa is perpetually on fire. It’s like #JeSuisCharlie, but different. Do human rights’ violations that happen on South African soil count for less than those that happen in France, but for more than those that happen on another African country? Do #BlackLivesMatter more in America than they do in East Africa? Like the deployment of the army “at the right time,” the global outcry has come too little too late. We should have stood up for humans rights before refugees became refugees, not after.
The comforting thing is that if we continue this way, then South African violence, too, will become too normal to notice. Eventually, all of Africa will become a human rights’ blind spot, the human rights’ “black hole” where no “white” light shines, the way it’s wanted to be all along. Refugee Africans of every hue will be migrating to Europe to unknowingly give back to former colonialists the violence that kicked it all off.
Those who have refused to face the bright, “white” light of the “objective truth” that we can be as bad as the settlers that activists want to put one bullet into each, will finally get their revenge: masses of suffering Africans and other foreign nationals will – and indeed, have already begun to – crowd and colour Europe’s snow-white cities. There, they will proceed to use political correctness and white guilt to coerce in ways of life that compromise liberty, and, in the long run, human rights in Europe too. Because political correctness makes it nearly impossible to interrogate certain cultures and religions without being labeled racist, oppressed people will unwittingly begin oppressing others while muzzling their questioning of those micro-oppressions.
And like Rhodes, black people will finally get to export the misery they’ve been blaming Rhodes of importing. They’d have become mirror images of the one whose legacy they thought they could eradicate by toppling statues. They would have become Rhodes, multiplied. The sins of the father would finally have been visited on the sons, and history would have come full circle. At the end of the day, #WeAreRhodes because we do not want to admit the possibility of our own evil even exists though the blood of men like Emmanuel Sithole says otherwise.
Have a cry for Africa.
*In case #ABCScandal / #TheFixer fans are wondering, I picked the phrase bright white light from this line by character Rowan Pope.
“You wanted to stand in the sun. In the bright white light. It blinded you. Those people that you’ve chosen over me. You do not see who they are, what they want, how they see you. Those people are not your people, they never will be, you’ll never be one of them.”