CHIMEDZA: Xenophobia is the work that apartheid began in the lives of black South Africans

Saturday September 7 2019


There is a cancer gnawing at the heart of South Africa’s political system and its seed was sowed and watered by apartheid. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGA 

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The latest episode of widespread xenophobic violence in South Africa has attracted Pan-African condemnation.

The scenes of black people charging at other black people, mainly of African origin, reveal a very dangerous instability that is threatening to erode forms of Pan-African solidarity that existed during the liberation days. There have been reports of retaliatory attacks in Nigeria, Mozambique, Nigeria and some artistes have cancelled any performances in South Africa.

Some South Africans have been arguing that Israel has built a wall, that Britain is ‘exiting’ Europe and that Donald Trump has been building a wall to push back migration.

There is a cancer gnawing at the heart of South Africa’s political system and its seed was sowed and watered by apartheid. Some post-apartheid leaders in government have routinely stated that ‘we need strong borders’, ‘foreign nationals must go back’, ‘cities are now ‘80 per cent foreign nationals’ and that ‘illegal immigrants are putting pressure on social services’. These exclusionary remarks and the flaring of violence are located squarely in the structure of the apartheid political economy that remains largely unchanged.


If there is one thing the nationalist liberation movements did well was to preach and retort about Pan-Africanism as a condition of African progress.


Kwame Nkrumah argued that Africa can only progress once every country was liberated from colonialism, apartheid or white settlerism. The liberation project was mobilised, organised and executed, at a great sacrifice, as nationalist liberation project and once countries became independent the idealism of the Pan-Africanism was eroded and the liberation movements reverted back to being parochially national.

Liberation movements flirted with Marxism-Leninism, African Socialism and even Maoism but the core project was focused on the nation. The generation of Kwame Nkrumah, Mwalimu Nyerere, and Thomas Sankara organised national liberation as a launch pad Pan-African unity but the postcolonial leaders have retreated into a nationalism that entrenches rather than removes borders. But it’s a nationalist-populism that gets them elected.

In South Africa, when apartheid was resisting the liberation project the architects of the white establishment devised horrendous strategies. First, they relied on a vicious state security apparatus. Second, they deliberately under-policed black neighbourhoods leading to the rise of vigilante systems of instant justice. Third, apartheid as an ideology dehumanised any sense of black culture and solidarity. Fourth, the apartheid system underwrote the infamous Bantustans which they called ‘homelands’. The Bantustans were supposed to be some ‘nations’ built on the lines of ethnic majorities and excluding everyone else. Steve Biko was killed for resisting this dehumanisation.


Once apartheid was officially killed what remained is the structural web of social, cultural, economic and political institutions of racialised superiority. The logic of violence, ‘homelands’, trauma and deep suspicions seeded by white apartheid did not magically melt into a ‘rainbow’. But this was not a South African aberration, it was colonialism and settlerism of divide and rule that actively popularised regionalism and deliberately inflamed any forms of cultural, ethnic and or linguistic differences across the continent. Pan Africanism was supposed to be the antidote.

The geography of the violence is concentrated in areas characterised by shocking levels of inequality, unemployment, low incomes and collapsed social services. It is becoming clearer that this is some kind of rebellion of the marginalised. It is an eruption driven by economic immiseration. South Africa’s apartheid economic system marches on almost unchanged. Here and there it absorbs a few black elites but the underbelly of unfulfilled liberation dreams is setting fire under the feet of young people. Sweltering under unemployment rates that in some areas has reached over 50 per cent among the black population.

It is a powder keg that can be exploded by ‘identity’ or ‘belonging’ questions but at the heart of the matter is a sense of hopelessness. A sense of being locked in that ‘wretched place’ that Frantz Fanon said ‘people live on top pf each other’. When people live on top of each other revolting becomes logical but also very nasty. In all this, liberation movements are becoming moribund, inept and very corrupt. Recently, Oxfam International released a report stating that ‘Africa’s three richest billionaire men have more wealth than the bottom 50 per cent of the population of Africa, approximately 650 million people’ and that ‘Africa is rapidly becoming the epicentre of global extreme poverty’.

Africa’s young are desperate. The young are answering calls for domestic workers in the Middle East. Young women end up trafficked as sex slaves. Some are auctioned in dungeons. Others brave long lines to get hold of a passport. Whether it is in Harare or Nairobi they are just saying ‘anywhere but here’.


On the occasion of the passing of the democratic constitution of South Africa the former President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, made a speech which he ended by saying ‘Today it feels good to be an African’.

The speech was a sterling and bold imagination of pulling the painful threads of Africa’s history together and an attempt to project an alternative inclusive future. A Pax-Africana renaissance if you may. The speech was aptly titled “I am an African,” but as the episodes of violence in South Africa show and the retaliation on South African businesses in Nigeria reveal, our leaders have been sleeping on duty to build a truly Pan-African project based on people and not only governments.

There is a dangerous disconnect between the Pan-Africanism of the elite political class and the lines of conflict pitting Africans against each other while just trying to keep their heads above the water.

Julius Malema, leader of the EFF, has been more candid stating that he ‘doesn’t care to lose votes’ and that Africans must remove borders. And as Mwalimu Nyerere stated boldly, in his lecture in Ghana, ‘I reject the glorification of the nation-state we inherited from colonialism’.

The Pan-African project of liberation needs a very urgent rescue from the faltering elites who have become what Frantz Fanon called the ‘comprador class’ — happy to be just middleman in exploiting and carting off the continent’s wealth.

Tinashe l. Chimedza is associate director of the Institute of Public Affairs in Zimbabwe