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In the week where the world remembered the mass kidnapping of young girls in Nigeria, as the savagery that is ISIS and the murderous tendencies of US police simmered on in the background, we were hit with a side-blow – xenophobia: South African style. I’m just going to think aloud on this one, as an outsider not privy to, or fully cognisant of the intricacies involved in the evolution of this nation:

We all like to think that when Nelson Mandela was freed in 1994, to declare SA a ‘rainbow nation’, all would surely be well. But in reality nearly 21 years later, South Africans, black, white and every shade in between, are basically just breaching through the perimeter of the misogynistic bubble that is apartheid. As xenophobia again rears its ugly head in SA,  the wide-reaching ramifications of this system again come centre-stage; this is just one of many chapters of the story of the rebirth of a broken nation.

When apartheid was ratified by law in the 1940’s, racial segregation was already woven tightly into the fabric of SA’s society. The Dutch had kicked it all off in the 1700s, with the British duly perfecting the regime in the 1800s. Legislation in 1948 was a mere formality for a totally irrational system where Filipinos were classified as black, because whites worked out that they were…well…black. And yet Malays were classified as ‘coloreds’. Television was only introduced in the 1970s, and when it was, it too was segregated. One cannot believe how ‘nuts’ that system was…and is.

Apartheid means literally ‘the state of being apart’ – and the system not only kept the races within SA apart from each other, but also kept South Africans, especially black South Africans apart from the rest of Africa and the rest of the world. The concept of pan-Africanism is foreign to a significant proportion of black South Africans. Apartheid led to the evolution of generations who knew and still know very little of the great continent to which they belong. My own experience is that this ignorance and insularity is not limited to black South Africans alone either. I have a vague recollection of a conversation with some white and ‘colored’ South Africans soon after 1994, during which it became apparent that these seemingly enlightened individuals couldn’t tell you the first thing about any of the countries neighboring theirs – not a thing. You could argue the same about a lot of other people, but at least Americans could tell you that some Canadians speak French, and the English could tell you that the Germans speak German, and Indians could tell you how Pakistan became separated from India. These South Africans were totally blank when it came to anything about neighboring Zimbabwe, Botswana or Mozambique.

I read somewhere that 65% of the black South African population, is between 15-65 years old. Many in this age bracket have grown up in a world no bigger than their townships, physically and mentally. And some of the harshest acts of mass violence against black South Africans was meted out in these same townships, when this group were children or young adults, a time when thought processes and reasoning are heavily influenced by one’s environment. And their parents also grew up in a world of violence and all sorts of other social injustices – substandard education, inadequate health services, broken family life, lack of cultural evolution. This mass chronic dehumanisation would surely have a disastrous psychological impact. And there are lots of studies about the way in which apartheid affected the mental health of black South African children – some of these same children who are now in that 15-65 age bracket. And forty percent (40%) of this group are unemployed, compared to, and get this, 8% of whites, 18% of Indians and 28% of coloureds. And that 40% unemployment rate eerily matches the 42% rate for education to high school level only.

Surely the great Madiba’s release in 1994 was going to relieve some of this misery. But really, can 300 years of brutality against the souls of a people be reversed by one man, in less than another 300 years? Especially when followed on by a government run by individuals, who despite putting on the right appearances, are products of the same system? I’m going to be controversial here, but this is where you can kind of see where the Castros of this world were coming from, in principle; after your country is liberated from oppressive rule and you inherit a glaringly unfair system where the disadvantaged tip the scales upside down, your first priority is to fix that imbalance pronto. Because isn’t that injustice the reason why you took up arms and got your butts exiled in the first place? So how can you now squander the opportunity to fix that which you fought for? The new SA government should have tackled inequality aggressively from the start. This was an opportunity to show us a new kind of African leadership. But I guess that would have come with too much sacrifice…of self-gratification, wealth and power.

So now you have a sizeable sector of the society that is frustrated and angry because there is no sign of any rainbow as far as they can see. Frustration and anger mixed in with all the other social and behavioural pathologies that apartheid created is a ticking time-bomb. Because SA is still so segregated along colour lines, most black immigrants, the majority of whom are from Zimbabwe, live side-by-side with black South Africans. These immigrants have left their homes with the sole purpose of making a better life for themselves and their families. No one leaves their homeland because they have nothing better to do; when they land wherever they land, they will work hard to fulfil that purpose. Right-wing rhetoric may have us believe the opposite – of course some do not abide by the law of the land and spiral into a treacherous underground of devious behaviour, but this is not representative of the majority.

The perpetrators of this current wave of xenophobic violence see these immigrants creating the life that they should have without realising that the ‘foreigners’ are using skills and education and drive that they, these black South Africans just never had the opportunity to develop. These immigrants never had their psyche bound by the chains of apartheid so they are not subject to the same limitations. Yes, they have their own problems in their own countries, but they are not fresh out of something as sinister as that regime was and continues to be. Unfortunately, living side-by-side means that the immigrants are right in the line of fire of all this pent-up resentment – a mild term for this in fact. The privileged, of all races, are too far away to target, because the type of perpetrator dishing out this violence doesn’t really venture out of ‘his’ immediate vicinity. No, their immigrant neighbor is easier to get to, a soft spot; and besides harsh lessons have been taught in the past about lashing out at the real oppressor: when you revolt against that system, what do you get – the Sharpeville massacre and the Soweto uprisings…

Some have termed this brand of xenophobia, ‘afrophobia’ as a result. But you know, whatever we want to call it, it’s purely academic and just about semantics. What we are witnessing is just ugly and frightening and unbelievably tragic. Reactions have been largely based around calling out South Africans for being hypocritical, because many African countries took them in during their hour of need. That is true and we are free to point that out, but we cannot dwell on that because it will not stop the maddening crowd. The great majority of South Africans, black and white, do not support xenophobic crime – some may be racist, yes – but supporting these atrocious acts is another ball game altogether that they wouldn’t want to partake in.

Instead, it should be about calling out the current South African leadership to be aggressive in protecting the victims and anyone at risk, to bring the perpetrators to justice quickly so as to deter others from following suit; to speak responsibly and appropriately to their electorate so that there is no doubt as to where they stand on the issue of violence against ‘foreigners’; and to get pro-actively creative in addressing – no, fixing – the social and economic imbalance that is the root of this current evil. Apartheid and its creators are  where all this started – there is no denying that. But we cannot go back and undo history. Progress is about being focused on the now with a view to creating a new future that South Africa deserves…that Africa deserves.

 

Battlecry – stolen lives and lost dreams: our girls from Chibok 2015

Exactly one year ago today, 276 girls and their dreams were stolen from their Chibok community, in the dead of night, by cowards; this is exactly what cowards do: they perform their dastardly deeds under the cover of darkness, they prey on the seemingly powerless, and they count on the silence and fear of those left behind

One year later, whilst the abductors may continue on with their deadly modus operandi, those left behind on a local, national and international level have not cowered in fear nor have they been bound by silence, as they continue to be the voice for the stolen girls. The girls’ story may no longer be headline news, but the significance of this event hasn’t faded in the eyes of the countless many who continue to do what they know how to do best to ensure that the girls are not forgotten, and that their families remain supported.

The girls are not yet back home, but in their painful absence, they have shone a spotlight on war crimes on women, men and children all over the world, on the issue of rape in all sectors of society, on the convoluted relationships within and between ineffectual governments, and on the lasting legacy of misguided policies, greed and broken covenants. They have even been the driving force for a change of leadership!

Today, one year on, let’s continue to honor the girls and their families in any way we can. Any positive action is like a seed sown to bear fruit in future generations, so they are armed with knowledge and confidence to be their brother’s keeper in the true sense of the word.

We simply must not lose hope. Races like this are ‘not for the swift or strong but for those that endure to the end’. There will be tactical shifts, and changing of batons but rest assured victory will come and must come for these girls.

Finding clarity in the fuzziness that is Ferguson, 2014

On Monday 24th November, my Facebook feed reminded me that this was the day that a grand jury would decide on whether a policeman who shot a child dead will have to stand trial. Said plain like that, surely the outcome would be obvious; except, it’s not plain like that – the decision would be on whether a white policeman who shot a young black man in America will have to stand trial. Now, with those adjectives added, it gets all fuzzy.

Since the August 2014 shooting of Mike Brown and the subsequent riots in Ferguson, Missouri, I have read a plethora of articles and editorials on the saga, ranging from those written from a (both black and white) right wing, conservative perspective (read Fox News and Bill Cosby-like), a liberal perspective, a ‘new black’ (a la Pharrell Williams) perspective, a British perspective, an African-in-the-diaspora-perspective, an anti-US perspective, any angle that any argument came from, I  read it. I viewed the situation from what I conjured up to be that of Mike Brown. And after reading all those pages of Darren Wilson’s grand jury testimony, I viewed the situation from his angle. Of course my opinions and feelings about the events (note the plural) were not just formed and shaped by those of others. I viewed the situation from the angle of a mother of a little black boy who was picking up some of the snippets (we are news junkies in our house), and from the angle of a daughter of a man who when he moved to this country from the Caribbean in the early 1990-s, as a respected member of that community had to endure meaningless police stop and searches as a middle aged, working father and provider. I viewed the situation with memories of riots in London in 2012 after the shooting of a young black man by police. I viewed the situation from that of what I presume to be a well-adjusted member of 21st century society.

From all these angles, the whole sorry tale can only but stir up mixed emotions. I doubt that few of us, if we were to be honest, can firmly fix our feet in the camp of Mike Brown, or of Ferguson, or of Darren Wilson; except for the families involved of course. Because it really isn’t all black and white. Very few situations are. Despite all the fuzziness though these things are clear to me:

As black people, it seems that we are wholly judged by the thuggish elements in our society. And without a shadow of a doubt, these thugs aggravate each and every one of us ‘non-thugs’; and by the way, in case no one noticed, we ‘non-thugs’ are in the majority. Though all social groups have these elements amongst them, rarely are these the benchmark by which the rest of the group is judged – not the triads for the Chinese, not the mafia for Italians, and not the cartels for Colombians.

This judgment can then lead one to believe that a young black man in America cannot deviate from the straight and narrow as he traverses through teenage angst, because he is then automatically a thug who deserves to be killed. He has no right to mature into a man, expand his worldview, and see his potential. I wonder what would have become of many uber-productive black men in my inner and outer circles, and those of others, if they had happened across a Darren Wilson in their teenage years. None of us know what Mike Brown was like or what his potential was to be, but you know, perhaps he should have had the opportunity to grow into himself and achieve his potential, whatever that would have been. As stories abound of rape allegations on college campuses across the states, when have we heard of a young white man, even with his identity known, to be judged by or worse killed for his abhorrent behavior?

Darren Wilson’s descriptives of Mike Brown: ‘it looks like a demon’, and ‘he made like a grunting’ and ‘he was coming at me’ and ‘I felt like a 5-year-old holding on to Hulk Hogan’ demonstrate that ingrained judgment against black men in particular – that they are anything other than human and so must be put down. Not by a mace or a stun gun (that he didn’t like to carry), not by a shot to the leg, but to be put down by a shot to the head. ‘They all kill each other anyway, so what the heck’ (my adaption of ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani’s comments). Of course in any community, you are more likely to be killed by a member of your own community. As the stats reportedly show however, white policemen in America are more likely to kill a black man than a man of any other race.

Mike Brown was a child. Trayvon Martin was a child. No matter how ‘big and black’ he was, whether he was legally a child or not, Mike Brown was a child. Surely that means something. And whenever a child dies, especially in a violent way, and whether at the hands of the ‘law’ or not, that warrants some sort of justice, something more than a dismissal by a grand jury. Looters aside, this is what most people from all backgrounds are protesting about – the lack of justice. I want to think that most parents, of any color or creed, get that.

Civic apathy in the black community, in any community, will land you nowhere but straight into a mess, if not immediately, then eventually. Ferguson, with a majority black community, is run by a majority white police force, and a majority white local government. Of course there are lots of intertwined reasons for why this set-up has come about. Whilst I do not support the notion of assigning the cause of all ills in the African-American community to slavery (or of Africa to colonialism), there are some far reaching consequences of slavery that we fail to acknowledge and in so doing cannot rectify. Two of these are our real struggles with taking on responsibility, and a lack of self-confidence. Voting and pushing for change requires these 2 community traits – it’s about saying, listen we are the majority here, let’s shape our community, and let’s have faith that we can choose the right people to lead us to that change. Responsibility and confidence must be regained. To achieve that, we have to exercise these characteristics over and over again, so that generations down the line can fight the battle in a different way to what we are seeing now. Then at least, our children can move on and deal with more pressing issues. We owe that much to our fore-bearers.