Let our crises unite us

2018-01-21 05:43
US President Donald Trump. (Evan Vucci, AP, File)

US President Donald Trump. (Evan Vucci, AP, File)

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We must overcome race and ethnicity to combat global ills, writes Jeffrey Sehume.

In response to the hegemony of colonialism, Jamaican black nationalist Marcus Garvey emphasised self-help through self-reliance. This guiding mantra is urgent today to counter the subtle and virulent racism of presidents Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron. Garvey’s prescient mantra also finds an echo in the legitimate demands of young people in the #DecolonisationMovement.

As a reminder, at the G20 summit in July last year, Macron heaped infamy on himself by saying a “Marshall Plan for Africa” would be futile since Africa is overpopulated. In his words, Africa’s development is held back by households where there are “seven or eight children per woman”. According to him, uncontrolled birth rates are compounded by patriarchy, religious extremism and a lack of democratic states and institutions. Therefore, Africa’s problems stem from its inability to be “civilised”.

Likewise, Trump’s rabid racism is an open secret. His unguarded statement that Africa is a “s**thole” has raised the most ire among progressives and liberals for its boorish ignorance. However, to his defenders – including educated and uneducated white groups – Trump remains relatively popular since he speaks things many fear to articulate. The argument runs that his politically incorrect tweets express beliefs, prejudiced as they are, which many white folks hold dear. What are these discriminatory and stereotypical attitudes?

That postcolonial Africa remains the darkest continent, largely due to internal structural factors ranging from corrupt leaders and the scourge of ethnicity to a lack of innovation.

Firstly, to deny these internal factors would be to adopt an ostrich mentality, which is not useful. Individual and collective leadership has made a difference in some countries more than 50 years after independence from Western colonial powers. For instance, the fortunes of Libya, Botswana, Mauritius and Rwanda owe much to their practical policies and selfless leaders. The high human development index of these countries demonstrates that, having leaders who are pragmatic, instead of dogmatic, plus self-sacrificing, instead of kleptocratic, can contribute to state legitimacy and national goodwill.

When leaders fail to guarantee acceptable levels of development in healthcare, education, employment and safety, it is not unthinkable to have uprisings, protests and revolution. This is what is threatening to reoccur in Tunisia in 2018 and in other countries which suffered (or gained) through the 2011 Arab Spring. An elemental instigator of such uprisings in these countries is a failure to convert youth underemployment into functional opportunities.

In other words, they have botched capitalising on their demographic dividend. Equally, South Africa’s youth unemployment is a powder keg that renders the country malleable to record-high protests and populism in both left wing and right wing variants.

Secondly, another factor which has been used by malign leaders to prop up their power is ethnicity. Of all the factors which have reduced Africa to underdevelopment status, the inability to mobilise society to transcend primeval tribalist instincts is the most damning. The irrefutable genius of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu was their focus on conceptualising a South African society, after apartheid, as definable not by primary affinity to Zulu, Sotho or Venda identities. It is tragic to then witness tribal inclinations rearing their ugly heads, three decades since 1994, as indicated by the burning of schools in Vuwani, Limpopo, or seeing car stickers like “Shumela Venda”.

In such sad circumstances, Mandela and Tutu’s vision of nonracialism and a rainbow nation remains relevant in our globalised world, where identities travel and cultures are diffuse. As the Commonwealth-based scholar Stuart Hall famously stated, in an interconnected globe such as ours, a person can never be, but is always becoming. Former Mozambican leader Samora Machel said something similar: “For the nation to live, the tribe must die.” Extending this truism, for the continent to survive and triumph beyond its present cultural crises, national identities and cultures should be of secondary consideration in realigning borders and sovereignty.

“Problems without passports”

Of course, what Trump and Macron deliberately ignored, in their Conradian nationalist bigotry, is the continued contribution of Africa to the development and enrichment of the West. Study after study has detailed how incorrect is the story that Africa is wholly dependent on aid from Europe and North America.

In an article by political economist Jason Hickel, published in The Guardian in January 2017, he profiles studies by the US-based Global Financial Integrity (GFI) think-tank and the Centre for Applied Research (CAR) at the Norwegian School of Economics. The GFI and the CAR studies discovered that “the flow of money from rich countries ($1.3 trillion) [R16.03 trillion] to poor countries pales in comparison to the flow that runs in the other direction ($3.3 trillion)”.

These outflows from Africa to the West include unaffordable debt payments, interest payments, profits by multinationals mining for natural resources, and recorded and unrecorded capital flight. In fact, according to Hickel’s article, the GFI calculated that developing countries have lost $13.4 trillion through unrecorded capital flight since 1980, as highlighted in the Mbeki High Panel on Illicit Financial Flows.

Garvey’s relevance in countering the racial chauvinism of Trump and Macron is significant since it reminds us that, to paraphrase Toni Morrison, racism is a distraction that keeps us from focusing on bettering the lives of all people. As Morrison says about race and racism: “It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend 20 years proving that you do.”

The urgent task is to mobilise and marshal all resources to deal with migration, poverty, corruption, inequality, sexism and climate change. These crises affect everyone and have no regard for race, geography, religion or gender. In Kofi Annan’s memorable phrase, they are “problems without passports”.

South Africa begins 2018 led ideally by an incorruptible new president of the governing party, Cyril Ramaphosa. Much is expected, fairly and unfairly, of him to deliver on the messianic dream deferred since the misfortunes we’ve suffered since 2007.

One hopes and prays, practising atheist that I am, that Ramaphosa will be guided by the daring and gallantry of democratic South Africa’s founding fathers, Madiba and Tutu, especially the latter’s counsel to “do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world”.

Sehume is an emeritus stonethrower

Read more on:    racism

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