Editor’s Note: Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu is a Nigerian consultant medical epidemiologist. He has undertaken several short term consultancies for the World Health Organisation, mostly in response to major infectious disease outbreaks. He blogs at Nigeriahealthwatch.com and lives in Johannesburg and Abuja. The views expressed are solely those of the author.
The cultural “separateness” of South African society has been the most deeply disturbing part of my otherwise pleasant four years of living in South Africa.
When I moved to South Africa in 2011, I looked forward to the promise of the Rainbow Nation; to sitting outside bars in Soweto listening to the vibes of Miriam Makeba; and to trying to develop affection for Bafana Bafana; I looked forward to making loads of Zulu and Xhosa friends and exploring the similarities between their folklore and Igbo tales; to being invited into people’s homes like we do at home.
I had heard that the word “Ubuntu” originally came from South Africa. Four years later, many of these expectations have not been realized. I have a few close and dear friends but fewer than I thought I would have made. I have tried – hard. It is hard to understand each other if we do not let each other into our lives. I do not know why this is – South Africa is complex and weighted with history, and yet it saddens me that this is so.
You may wonder what this has got to do with the current violence, predominantly directed against African migrants in South Africa. Twenty odd years after the fall of apartheid, the lack of knowledge – broadly speaking – about the rest of Africa among the majority of black South Africans, coupled with the continuing lack of progress in economic empowerment of a vast majority of the population has led to a flawed “cause and effect.” This seems to fuel ignorant assumptions about fellow Africans which has led people to take up arms against their brothers and sisters.
The logic goes along the lines of “part of the reason why our lives have not improved is because of all these foreigners.” One of the worst deprivations of South Africa’s past is denying its people the opportunity to learn, engage, and become brothers and sisters with the rest of the continent.
With no significant history of travel, and a world view dominated by decades of struggle, many of my South African brothers and sisters have failed to look east or west, or north to the rest of the continent. This, in my view, is largely because their history has been dominated by a look upwards, against the historical oppressor. The events of the last few weeks show that it has not been possible to change this in 20 years, but we cannot give up.
Lessons from history
I choose not to use simplistic terms like Afrophobia or xenophobia to explain the recent violence because these statements do not do justice to the complexity of the issue. Instead, they reduce them to a “single story.”
It is definitely not the first time that Africans have risen against each other either within or outside their country’s borders. In Nigeria, where I am from, we fought a long and hard civil war 45 years ago. The wounds of this tragic war have not yet fully healed.
But, with South Africa gaining its freedom so long after the rest of the continent, one would have hoped that it would have learned lessons from history and be brave in charting a new path. Yet, it appears insistent on repeating so many of the errors that have happened across the continent – and in this case, taking them to a whole new level.
A shared struggle
Probably unknown to many of my black South African brothers and sisters is how invested many of us were in their struggle, even though we were thousands of kilometers away. Long before I fully understood what the words meant, the following statement had a permanent place on our blackboard throughout my primary school days; “Apartheid is a Crime against Humanity.”
My parents forced me to read books and articles about the struggle in a distant land. I grew to hate Pieter Botha without fully understanding why. We sang along to the Nigerian musician Sonny Okosun’s epic song, “Fire in Soweto.”
So, when freedom came to South Africa in the early 1990s, we celebrated it as ours.
Changing the narrative
It is heartwarming to see many South Africans begin to raise their voices against the violence targeting other Africans. Silence indeed cannot be an option for many of my South African friends. You cannot allow the dominant “voice” of your country to be one of hatred and violence against your fellow Africans.
I have traveled your country and I know that from Mafikeng to Nelspruit and from Pietermaritzburg to Bloemfontein, the hopes and aspirations of millions of South Africans have not been fulfilled, as big business grows and small businesses disappear.
Perhaps, it is exactly in this space that fellow Africans are best placed to help you. Many grew up without grants, without a health service, often paying for their own education or learning a trade. Getting to South Africa, although sometimes a hard and arduous journey, has made many people more resilient. Their journey has not been easy, nor has yours.
Together, we must change the evolving narrative. South Africa is indeed one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
In the few friendships that I have made, I’ve found a depth of kindness and engagement that is hard to describe. On my frequent flights to Lagos, the planes are full of South Africans and Nigerians, exploring the opportunities that both countries present to each other.
In those planes are often families, especially over the holidays, of children with names like Okechukwu Thabiso, in recognition of their Nigerian and South African parents. It is for them, for their sakes that we cannot afford to keep quiet. This is not a problem of the city centers and the townships; it is for all of us to think about and to chart a new path.
We must reach out to everyone we know and talk to them – just as violence can go viral, so can love.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chikwe Ihekweazu.