Why are we failing as Africans?

2015-04-19 15:00

Xenophobic attacks are targeted at people who look like the attackers, but we make must peace with ourselves, and stop pussyfooting around the king

In the movie Separate but Equal, which dealt with the celebrated US case of attempts to integrate education, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which led the campaign, hires a psychologist to demonstrate what segregation has done to black children in one sample community.

The psychologist brings black dolls and white dolls and sits with the black children one by one, asking simple questions, such as which doll is beautiful? Which doll do you like? Which doll looks like you? And which doll do you hate?

In all instances, the black kids see the white dolls as beautiful and are the ones they like. They identify the black dolls as the ones looking like them – but which they hate.

A more poignant way of demonstrating an induced inferiority complex that culminates in self-hate is difficult to imagine.

What is self-hate? It is not that someone consciously hates him or herself at a personal level, but it is instead the subliminal alienation from self at the identity level that leads to a lack of affinity with things and institutions associated with that identity.

In our case, it is prevalent everywhere, everyday. The paradoxical destruction of the few facilities in place in townships and villages – because we think we should have more facilities – leaves whole communities without schools, clinics and libraries. It is a manifestation of this concept of self-hate.

Stopping your own children from going to school for months because you want a tarred road or a municipality is the madness of self-hate. The violence that accompanies almost every demonstration, including looting – even of hawkers’ tomatoes along city streets – also illustrates this point clearly.

What has all this mumbo jumbo got to do with what some people call xenophobia? What is xenophobia anyway? The Oxford dictionary defines it as “intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries”.

That would mean all foreigners. In our case, the ongoing pogrom is not a general attack on any foreigner. It is specific to black foreigners, with an emphasis on those from our continent and sometimes from an Asian background. But there has so far been no attack on any foreigner from a European background.

And that is why, for me, this is more Afro-phobia than xenophobia, with the former a subset of the latter. But all pictures and stories have been clear – the attacks are targeted at people who look like the attackers.

Why? There are obviously many reasons and these may vary from area to area in terms of the spark, but once ignited the fire burns the same way. Find a shop or business owned by an African or black foreigner, threaten them, beat them up if they don’t run away, loot and move on.

There is, of course, the fact that this mostly happens in poor areas where it can be understood as a battle for scarce resources at the bottom of the food chain.

Some foreigners corruptly access social grants, are prepared to work for less money, sell their stock at cheaper prices for whatever reason and therefore undermine what is left of locally owned same-scale businesses. This breeds jealousy and hatred.

There is also the criminal element, which will move into any chaotic situation and take what it can while it lasts, the world over. So, in a way, the attacks may even be explained in terms of geography.

African foreigners live within the communities that are turning against them. The attackers don’t have to hire buses to go searching for victims.

But I want to argue that there is more to it. Three centuries of indoctrination of black people in this country – that they and their African brethren are inferior – took root in many people.

There are many who are walking around with these beliefs and, for them, the African foreigners bring nothing but leeching, whereas the white ones from Europe bring investment and economic progress.

In 1994, when apartheid as a formal policy of government was removed and replaced by a black-led democratic government, the delivery of hard goods such as houses, clinics, schools and roads took centre stage.

The undoing of the soft but hard damage of the subliminal impact of colonialism on the psyche of the formerly oppressed – and the self-loathing it internalised – was too far back on the list of priorities of things to be done at the time.

Hence, the representations of people in our public spaces – through statues and monuments that should have been dealt with just after 1994 – to create a new ambience that spoke to a new ethos, did not happen.

Leaders of Boer commandos on horseback, rifles in hand, are still in place at the entrances to most towns, welcoming – or unwelcoming you – to their places. It is only now that they are being hounded out of their moorings by the poo-and-paint brigades.

A concerted campaign should have been unleashed post-1994 that would have focused on reintegrating our psyche into our Africanness, into love for ourselves and for what was ours, into understanding that burning your own is damage, not progress.

It did not happen and must happen now.

But before that, the fires must be put out. Misguided political arguments that want to justify targeting African foreigners have to be exposed.

King Goodwill Zwelithini and his misguided comments must be called to order by the leadership of President Jacob Zuma and KwaZulu-Natal Premier Senzo Mchunu – no matter how difficult it might be to do so to a man considered beyond reproach and who they consider their ISilo. The pussyfooting around him must stop.

The criminal elements taking advantage of the situations must be apprehended, locked up and made an example of. They must work in centres housing African foreigners in the same way community-service sentencing sends people who mistreat children to child-care centres.

And at the next gathering of the African Union here in Johannesburg in July, President Zuma must bow in shame on behalf of all of us – and apologise for our failing to be good Africans.

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