Since April 16, I have been consumed by thoughts of the contradictions that plague our dear continent Africa. I watched in horror as Africans were being rescued off the Italian coast, only to learn of an estimated 400 others who remained missing. As I write, this Sunday, it is feared that another 700 have drowned on a fishing boat off the Libyan coast. I ask myself: what is it that causes human beings to choose to risk the very lives they seek so desperately to improve? And how is it that such extraordinary tragedy has become so ordinary in the eyes of many?
In an English newspaper, the notoriously controversial Katie Hopkins, in her column on Saturday, April 18, referred to the stranded migrants, fleeing the conflict in Libya, as “feral humans”, saying: “some of our towns are festering sores, plagued by swarms of migrants and asylum seekers, shelling out benefits like Monopoly money.” In similar spirit, she continued: “make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit ‘Bob Geldof’s Ethiopia circa 1984’, but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb. They are survivors.” And: “What we need are gunships sending these boats back to their own country.”
Sadly, this kind of sentiment is not unique to the West. I listened to excerpts of the speech of the Zulu King as he spoke about foreigners. Among other things, he said “As I speak you can find their unsightly goods hanging all over our shops, they dirty our streets, we cannot even recognize which shop is which… there are foreigners everywhere… we ask foreign nationals to pick up their belongings and go back to their countries.”
It is against this backdrop that I find myself contemplating the situation in some cities in South Africa, then Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. Africans who have witnessed what has happened over the past weeks are still wondering what went wrong as they ponder the deaths of the many. Emmanuel Sithole, a Mozambican with a name which is as South African as you can get, was murdered on Saturday morning in full view of many onlookers. It is said that there is a day clinic nearby where Mr. Sithole could have been treated, but the doctor on call did not show up. He was a foreigner and feared for his life and did not go to work, that day. It is also reported that the armband Sithole wore read, “United for Bafana”. On television I saw people burned, property destroyed and heard all manner of pronouncements that gave me goose bumps.
I write to you, desperate to understand, but eager to reflect on what we can do collectively to embrace the dreams of those who came before—feelings adeptly captured in a song by Bob Marley, “Africa Unite”, and rightly proclaimed in the Anthem of the African Union:
Let us all unite and celebrate together
the victories won for our liberation
let us dedicate ourselves to rise together
to defend our liberty and unity
Our history is what nourishes our soul, and disconnecting with the former will inevitably lead to the loss of the latter. As I watched the scenes of violence on television, my mind drifted back to the burial of Tata Nelson Mandela at Qunu. In my head rang the voices of Presidents Kikwete and Kaunda, as they recounted the path to freedom of South Africa and the rest of Africa. President Kikwete had brought with him the widow of Julius Nyerere, who had with her the military boots Nelson Mandela had left behind as he went from one African nation to the next to talk about the plight of his people. Support came from all over the continent. Many South Africans had free access to the passport of many nations- all they had to do, was ask.
Everyone at the burial in Qunu, and at the Stadium in Johannesburg before that, came to celebrate a great African. In my mind, I struggled to understand how a people whose fight for freedom had been appropriated by every single African, a people whose suffering was considered that of a whole continent could come to the point where they are pitched against the very same Africans who prayed, fought and bled with them. I remember my days as a student in the US and the UK; boycotting banks, demonstrating in the streets, walking out of classrooms in protest of a “tainted” speaker. The feeling of oneness and the deep sense of solidarity that reigned at the time was perfectly captured in timeless words of Haile Selassie to the United Nations in October 1963:
Until the ignoble and unhappy regimes that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique and in South Africa in subhuman bondage have been toppled and destroyed; Until bigotry and prejudice and malicious and inhuman self-interest have been replaced by understanding and tolerance and good-will;
Until all Africans stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men, as they are in the eyes of Heaven; Until that day, the African continent will not know peace. We Africans will fight, if necessary, and we know that we shall win, as we are confident in the victory of good over evil.
I know that it would be simplistic to think that the current predicament can be solved by mere objections or invocations of history. The pain and suffering endured by many in South Africa cannot be brushed away by “Black Rule”. We may have moved past Apartheid in South Africa and colonialism in Africa, but we are still face major hurdles to our evolution. We still have to understand Boko Haram in Central and West Africa, the rebels in the North of Mali, the slaughters in Kenya, violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia, in the genocide in Rwanda, selfish pirates, terrorists and bandits who seek to dignify their cause by attempting to conceal the malicious intent behind their barbaric actions with the veil of religion, and the list goes on. We still have to understand some of the leaders of our continent who cause their citizens to flee their homes.
So to you, my brother, I say we must ensure we are the vectors of dialogue and understanding, so that those of the younger generation you call the “born free” should be told about the journey so far. That is a necessary step to prepare for the journey ahead. That same journey which, over 50 years ago at the creation of the Organization of African Unity, declared must made on a train called Pan Africanism.. Our strength in the past has been when we worked together. It is an illusion to believe that anyone’s condition can be improved by the pain and suffering inflicted on others. The whole world was in awe and admiration when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission became the only tool of vengeance against your oppressors of yesterday. I strongly believe that dialogue, increased cultural exchanges and the institution of reasonable immigration laws that seek to promote our unity more than they emphasize our differences must be now be a priority. Those of our African brothers who are daring enough to leave their own towns and villages and go to settle elsewhere in Africa are the very primary channels through which our craving for a United Africa is bound to flow.
So in conclusion, my brother, we must resolve to become the individuals Haile Selassie’s 1963 speech to the UN conjured up when he said:
We must become something we have never been and for which our education and experience and environment have ill-prepared us. We must become bigger than we have been: more courageous, greater in spirit, larger in outlook. We must become members of a new race, overcoming petty prejudice, owing our ultimate allegiance not to nations but to our fellow men within the human community.”
With love and respect,
Akere T. Muna is the Chairperson of the International Anti-Corruption Conference; Member, High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows from Africa; Member, Governing Board, Africa Governance Institute; Former Chairperson, Eminent Persons Panel of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM); Former President, Pan-African Lawyers Union; Former Presiding Officer, Economic, Social and Cultural Council of the African Union, and Sanctions Commissioner of the African Development Bank
* Published in print edition on 8 May 2015