Only Africans can be the saving grace of Africa

2016-04-14 10:39

I wish to begin by posing the following question to every young person reading this post, what role do we envisage as youth to integrate Africa for the economic prosperity of the continent? I ask because regional trade in Africa continues to mimic colonial trade patterns based on an anti-African development trade regimes. In fact, Yash Tandon writes magnificently about trade in his book 'Trade is War'. Ha Joon Chang, among many others, has also shown how industrialized countries are denying developing countries the opportunity to grow economically. He calls the macroeconomic policies recommended to developing nations as tantamount to ‘Kicking away the ladder’.

On the notion of integration,  Latin America learned the importance of regional integration (see Dr. Samuel Oloruntoba who advocates for this in Africa) and new regionalism (see Prof. Lorenzo Fioramonti) as an integral aspect of responding to the global imbalances in power and economic development by fostering intra-regional trade. It is saddening that Africa trades within itself the least. This situation puts us at the bottom of the ladder and it is partly sustained by the failure to industrialize and we are performing satisfactorily in taking advantage of the potential for diversification of our African economies. It is useful to know that the year in which Ghana reported the most impressive GDP growth percentage, is the year that the country diversified. Kindly note that I do not glorify GDP because in the same country human development levels are very low and South Africa's wealth has not eradicated poverty in the country. Inequalities in countries such as Nigeria and many other rich African countries reported as the fastest growing economies in the world are disheartening.

The configuration of the international division of labour (see Samir Amin) disempowers Africa. Moreover, Africa’s specialization in raw material export renders industrial countries as manufacturing hubs that reproduce their own economic growth at the expense of Africa.  It is also important for Africa to shun economic theories that sustain its dependency. Finding alternative methods of financing our infrastructural development, criminalizing mismanagement and curbing corruption through strengthening our institutions and  getting rid of leaders that encourage weak governance because it benefits their looting is one of the important ways of leading Africa to super power status. In that process, we should not forget the international criminals who play a role in Africa's underdevelopment and instability. Conflict in African enabled the theft of resources in countries such as the DRC (were Illicit flows and theft of minerals proliferated). Moreover, conflict keeps employment levels of war exporting countries low subsequently curbing unemployment crisis.

On xenophobic violence in the South African context, we should ponder more about how the accusations influence regional integration. I will not regurgitate the arguments pertaining to the economic insecurities of township life in South Africa which have been part of the main discourse around the causes of the attacks. I only wish to contextualize what happened from my own understanding and perspective. I will also briefly touch on the unpublished findings from a recent study by researchers at the  Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute (TMALI) whose non-South African sampled respondents said they feel welcomed in South Africa while others felt threatened by xenophobic sentiments. Those who felt welcomes were mostly the people who has been integrated within the communities they lived in. This highlights the importance of social integration in our communities and the need for this to be facilitated through constructing a United Africa where each continental citizen will freely choose where to live. Apart from the threats and violence which in 2015 resulted in the death of  7 people, 3 being South Africans, one of them killed by a Somali national and 4 non-South Africans, 3 killed by South African nationals. Moreover, in 2008 over 60 people died and some of them were South Africans killed mostly by fellow South Africans.

This brings me to journalism in South Africa, a while ago some South African journalists met with the patron of TMALI and one of them was said to be a senior journalist in African political affairs. This journo of African political affairs when asked which country in the continent was the first to gain its independence, he reply was: "South Africa". This is an example of the crisis of education and journalism we have in this country, this of course does not overshadow many other great journalists. Unfortunately a journalist who is a sensationalist and lacks background in the awareness of the sociological dynamics of the story he/she reports is a danger to the nation and continental community. I am one of the people who feel that it was problematic the manner in which the labeling of the violent attacks transpired. This is because of the lack of historical and sociological awareness of some of the leading journalists in that topic. Now, kindly allow me to give you a glimpse of ordinary South African township lifestyle, especially in the poorest townships which will highlight the shortfalls in the reporting of the incidents that have been labeled xenophobia.

I was told that in Soweto, it is very possible for you to get stabbed for looking at another person’s girlfriend. Yes, it is hard to imagine but it is possible. These days you need not an okapi for this, a broken bottle of beer can become a weapon of masculine terror. Okapi is a knife which for a long time was a symbol of fearful violent township masculinity, in fact, I can bet my 5 cents that no person my age who grew up in a township will tell you they have never seen an okapi before. Okapis are simply not for peeling apples, their owners bought/buy them with the intention to stab should a “need” arise. The criminal that was photographed stabbing a Mozambican national expressed a masculine performance typical to some violent township masculinities. This is the same South Africa where women are raped and beaten up as if it is normal sport. In my own community, there is a group of young boys who call themselves “ma wrong turns”.  They go around butchering any person they find on the street and I mean butcher in the literal sense. They are said to run around carrying machetes and other dangerous weapons and they would simply kill you for no reason, at least in Soweto your crime would be justified with the patriarchal chauvinist argument that you looked at another person’s commodified property (the girlfriend).

In Sebokeng, you may get killed not because you resisted a robbery or a mugging as in many other places in the country, you’ll simply die because killing is a hobby for some people. This of course is over simplifying the phenomenon; I think it is up to other researchers to find out more to offer us a richer analysis of the cause of the violent attacks by those young men in Sebokeng because it is evident that they are deeply troubled.  Moreover, the analysis of the victimization of foreign nationals must also be located in the the culture of looting during times of ‘crisis’.

When I was in high school, the Coca Cola trucks that transported the company’s products had the occasional misfortune of overturning somewhere in Bedworth park near the Vaal University of Technology campus. When such happened, almost a quarter of my high school peers would have coke cans in their hands shamelessly drinking products from looting in the morning, of course many poor students who hardly tasted the ever advertised beverage of global citizenry and fashion, envied those who  sipped down their “free” cool drink. 

Stories of the accidents would narrate how professionals also quickly stopped their cars to collect some drinks to pack in the boots of their cars. There is also looting at state levels and the looting of African resources by international businesses, so we generally live in a world of looters who are seldom punished. This partially explains how endemic the culture of looting is, which partly explains the images of young people looting other African’s shops during those protests. By the way, some of the protests were sparked by the killings of locals by some of the non-South African shop owners and the automated response was mob justice. These are stories that went missing in the domineering journalistic reporting of what happened during the attacks.

I once found myself in a peculiar situation in my own township a few years ago when a mob of people where trying to take justice into their own hands by brutally attacking a young South African boy who had stolen something from one local household. I had to beg and shield that young boy who was said to be a nyaope addict (nyaope is a drug which is plaguing South African young people mostly in townships). The rage and  anger of the mob rendered me powerless and I was lucky they didn’t turn on me, i think it is because they knew me and i am aware the intention was to rattle him and not to kill him. Sadly the same couldn’t be said when I was at the heart of stun grenades thrown at students at the Union Buildings in Pretoria in 2015 during the FeesMustFall protest.

The young, justifiably angry, students were throwing stones and in their attempt to attack the police, myself and another student sister were at danger of being hit because we were right on the front-line. Upon arguing and pleading with one of the male student protestors to be mindful and cease being violent, he refused and I asked him if he is willing to hurt us and kill me in this whole thing. His answer was an unequivocal yes. I thought I didn’t hear him well, so I asked him for clarity and he repeated his statement that he would kill me. So the willingness to kill someone in South Africa is common. By the way, South Africans who migrated to Eastern Cape, a poor province of South Africa, were at some point also accused of "taking away the locals’ jobs". The taking-away-of-jobs argument is very common and not limited to non-south Africans. In Sebokeng, there have been cases of tenders given to contractors who brought their own workers from other areas within the same province and the locals would argue or in some extreme cases march in protest against such. Hence the policies existing now to ensure companies employ local labour.

As for taking away our women, i’ll have to talk separately somewhere else about ‘nationalisms, patriarchy and women’s bodies as markers of national boundaries’. This is an analysis for another day. I briefly touched on this during a presentation I did at a Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) conference for young people in February this year. The topic was ‘the social integration of African Youth in South Africa’.

Going back to journalism in South Africa, a reporter failing to understand the dynamics of township life or black existence and running with a tag line that has economic implications and unity for our continent is a challenge. Let me offer my own perspective of the contemporary ‘genesis’ of the story of protests against non-South African shop owners in townships since I am from the township myself. It has been argued by some locals that the failure to bank the monies gained from selling by the so called "Pakistani" shop owners was contributing to crippling the township economy, these are arguments that came out of Sharpville residents many years ago and thus their opposition to their competitors setting up shop. It is important to note that non-South Africans do have bank accounts. The good part in this story is that the response was not violence. A group of local business people offered to train locals on how to sustain and run their businesses effectively and profitably instead of attacking anyone.

Moreover, some local shop owners were said to protest as they felt their competitors used unfair strategies to put locals out of business. These included erecting multiple shops around a local’s store which ended up putting the local out of business mainly due to cheaper prices and ease of access for consumers. The advantage of non-South African shop owners was collaborative economics unlike South Africans who failed to practice such especially in response to the threat of big retail companies that competed with local shop owners. Sadly many local shop owners lost that battle and were pushed out of business. A conversation with a certain non-South African shop owner alleged that some big retail companies’ managers instigated the violence against non-local shop owners as means of putting them out of business. The truth to this claim cannot be validated by me but I do not think it is farfetched idea considering the pressure in making profits as a franchise.

Sadly strategies of getting rid of competition in poor areas entail capitalizing on insecurity and violent culture for instance the research project undertaken by TMALI  shows that Mozambicans in Zimbabwe have been harassed by local Zimbabweans in Harare. Some argued that they have suffered violence under the locals and have had their goods forcefully taken by them and they feel the police are not helpful. Many could not report to the authorities because of their "illlegal" status in the country because they either migrated to Zimbabwe without permits or were trading without a vendor permit. One local Zimbabwean respondent explained that Mozambicans are not allowed to trade certain goods in the township of Mbare. This behavior cannot simply be labeled xenophobia outside analyzing the socio-economic crisis facing the country and the high levels of visible poverty and stiff competition within penury. These are strategies used by some shrewd informal business people to eliminate competition. This of course is a challenge for intra-regional integration where the informal sector and informal cross border migrants have largely been championing ‘regionalism’ in the continent. The argument above does not mean I am denying xenophobic sentiments in African societies. Xenophobia is a global problem, it is prevalent in Europe and in the African context, Prof. Kwesi Kaa Prah has written informatively about it. However we need to think carefully about concepts before using them.

The reports about the violence yielded negatives for South Africa’s  relationship with other nations, one being one of the most powerful nations in Africa, Nigeria. On the other hand, the harsh responses by African governments to the criminal behaviors of a few shameful South African nationals has positively forced the South African government to respond to the  crisis. However, it will take each person in the country to make the interventions effective. One way of achieving this is through raising awareness about the importance of unity and peace in the country and in the continent. It is also worth noting that there were many young South African people, from organizations aimed at dealing with conflict in townships such as Alexander, who used their bodies as barricades to protect non-South African shop owners who were threatened by local thugs planning to loot and attack. This happened mainly because many South Africans took a stand that criminal behavior will not be carried out in their names, hence phrases such as “not in our name”. I also want to highlight the work that I and hundreds of facilitators in Gauteng do in townships through a government funded NGO named MGSLG to create awareness and device ways of eradicating xenophobia in the townships. The workshops have also forced me to confront the negative sentiments held by some people by talking about the CODESRIA funded research project I coordinated for TMALI. I used the study's findings to help people understand the importance of integration and the consequences of xenophobia or Afrophobia on regional integration especially intra-regional trade and Africa's economic prosperity as a whole.

I highlight the limitations we are imposing on our efforts for unity and the necessary collaborations for growth. I am hoping that we as young people in Africa will courageously take on the mission to unite Africa. To the few South Africans who still harbor negative attitudes towards the rest of Africa marred in some superiority complex, I hope you will notice that South African exceptionalism is a myth (see Prof. Patricia McFadden) and that we need the rest of Africa for common economic prosperity. Before I end this long post, I want to celebrate South African women who, already in greater numbers, are absorbing West African cultures as we witness in the printed materials many of us wear. It is unfortunate that non-African manufacturers are also selling us some of these fabrics but it is encouraging to know that some of the fabrics are imported from African manufacturers. I would also be delighted to see Basotho printed materials worn in the rest of the continent. I am going to gift one special woman in West Africa a Lesotho printed cloth which I hope will create enough interest among her peers. Who knows, maybe one day some young East or West African traders would be importing printed materials from the Southern African region. Imagine what the dashiki print, which is Mozambican, could have done for the Mozambican economy had the materials been imported from there.

The day we substitute imports for our own locally produced brands and other commodities, as the legendary Thomas Sankara urged the Burkinabe people, Africa will thrive because we are potentially the most powerful market. We need to ‘transform’ and expand our economic base and curb activities that stunt our growth and human capabilities. The journey to this realization is complex but possible with willingness of each African to play an active role in building our continent. Africa is rich in cultural diversity, may we as the youth of Africa take advantage of this and make the continent prosper. I know I would be happy to find cassava flour or fufu in a South African grocery store and this would be possible on a large scale if we open ourselves to other cultures and most importantly getting rid of attitudes that bar us from drawing and learning from each other. We need to unite socio-culturally as means of facilitating economic integration, the media has a fundamental role in achieving this and I beg African journalists to try and give context to their facts and attempt that thing they call responsible journalism ;)

Random Announcement: HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my beautiful friend POLITE MATJILA, O sthandwa sam'

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