Nigeria: Beyond the Street Attacks - the Deep Capacious Lineage of Afrophobia in South Africa

14 September 2019
opinion

Let no one tell you that the Afrophobic violence in South Africa is a recent or isolated phenomenon. It is not. Makwerekwere, a term of contempt as dehumanizing and racist in its deployment as the use of "cockroach" to mark people out for slaughter during the Rwandan genocide, is not a recent invention. It was a staple of the South African xenophobic lexicon as early as the late 1990s and early 2000s when it was operationalized to demonize, devalue, and mark non-South African Africans for attack. In 1996, when Mahmood Mamdani was pushed out of the University of Cape Town and accused of trying to Africanize the core African studies curriculum, it wasn't just white faculty members who kicked against Mamdani's curricular reform. Some black South African academics also were uneasy that Mamdani was trying to move the curriculum away from a pedagogy rooted in the Bantu Apartheid education policy, in which the "tribe" was the unit of inquiry and scholarly engagement, and towards an African epistemology defined in continental ontological terms.

In other words, some black South African intellectuals did not like the idea of redefining their country and its higher education African studies curriculum in pan-Africanist terms as part of a broader Africa encompassing both North and South of the Limpopo river. Several black South African faculties did not want their view of "African studies," which defined South Africa as an exceptional socio-political and cultural formation outside of Africa to be challenged. Nor did they want their students to be taught about, and in the context of, all of Africa. South African exceptionalism, originally posited by the ideologues of Apartheid as a divide-and-conquer strategy, was carried forward by some black South Africans.

Along the same lines, when I was in graduate school at the University of Michigan, South Africa-based Kenyan literary scholar, Professor Simon Ogude, came to spend an academic year there around 1999/2000 and I remember him saying how his South African graduate students, when they were traveling to other African countries, would say "I'm going to Africa," and he would angrily correct them with the question, "and where the hell are you now"? I never forgot that anecdote, for it revealed, even in that first decade of South Africa's post-Apartheid history, how black South Africans resented the rest of the continent and wanted to preserve and further the ideological, racist decoupling of South Africa from Africa. They had become the handmaidens of this segregationist ideology.

Earlier this year, when I attended the Africa conference at the University of Texas, I had the opportunity of having drinks with several scholars in the hotel suite of the convener, Professor Toyin Falola. One of the scholars was a South African university administrator. I cannot recall the beginning or trajectory of the conversation, but this administrator eloquently and passionately narrated the history of how Apartheid ideologues formulated a policy of ignoring South African academics and professionals to employ black academics from neighbouring African countries such as Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, and others. He was compelling. He couched his narrative in the colonial logic of divide-and-rule. It all made sense. I was left with the impression that this was a great explication of yet another instance of how apartheid played African groups against each other.

Then I went back to my hotel room and played back the colleague's polemic, reflecting on its subtexts and unspoken underpinnings. It then occurred to me that he had launched into that narrative to justify the politics of excluding and resenting academics from other African countries on South African campuses. In other words, this was just a sophisticated academic version of the Afrophobic hate script being violently implemented on the streets of some of South Africa's major cities and suburbs. This is a rather longwinded way to say that South Africa's xenophobia/Afrophobia has a long and deep genealogy. It is not just the province of the unlettered, uninformed underclass in poor townships and suburbs. It reaches all the way to the realm of high culture, high politics, and high academe.

The Democratic Alternative (DA) party, claims to be the liberal alternative to the ANC and controls the provincial government in Gauteng, where most of the Afrophobic attacks and killings have occurred. A few years ago, it released a hard-line immigration policy that legitimized and pandered to the Afrophobic sentiments of poor South Africans in and around Johannesburg, clearly opportunistically and callously exploiting African self-hate for political gains. As for the ANC, much of the attention has been on Bongani Mkongi, the hateful, inciting Deputy Minister of Police, and on several other ANC officials who have peddled barely disguised Afrophobic rhetoric in various political settings. But the current South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, last year gestured favourably to the Afrophobic street warriors by condemning African immigrants whom he said were invading townships and establishing spazas or small shops, a statement that accorded presidential authority and legitimacy to the hateful declarations percolating on the streets.

Moses Ochonu is Professor of Modern African History at Vanderbilt University, USA

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