Beyond the Streets: The Deep Lineage of Afrophobia in South Africa, By Moses E. Ochonu
Let no one tell you that 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, Mahmood Mamdani, a holder of an endowed chair and the director of the Center for African Studies at the University of Cape Town, sought to reform the African Studies core curriculum of the university. His effort was frustrated by a brick wall of opposition and he was accused of trying to Africanize the curriculum, as though there was something wrong with Africanizing the curriculum of a course that purported to provide an epistemological foundation in African studies. Instructively, it wasn’t just white faculty members at the institution who protested Mamdani’s curricular reform. The university’s black Vice Chancellor, Professor Ramphele Mamphela, supported the white academics who fought Mamdani’s effort to a standstill.
Some black South African academics and intellectuals at other institutions and some without formal institutional affiliation waded into the controversy on the side of their white compatriots. Like their white South African colleagues, they 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, towards an African epistemology defined in continental ontological terms.
The irony of course is that today South Africa is the epicenter of decolonial African epistemology, the incubator and preeminent arena of the most consequential debates around decolonizing the African university and its colonial legacies. It makes one wonder if there is a dissonance between what is expressed and published and what is believed.
Beyond the realm of speculation, what is certain is that the Mamdani affair, as it has come to be known, happened because many white and black South African academics opposed the effort of Mamdani to decolonize the African studies curriculum and integrate it into a decolonial African epistemological tradition with which academics in other African countries were already familiar, and which for decades had informed curriculums in the humanities and social sciences in African institutions.
In other words, some black South African intellectuals did not like the idea of redefining their country and its university African studies curriculum in pan-African terms as part of a broader Africa encompassing both north and south of the Limpopo River. Several black South African faculty did not want their view of “African studies,” which defined South Africa as an exceptional sociopolitical and cultural formation outside of Africa, 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 being carried forward by some black South African intellectuals.
Along the same lines, when I was in graduate school at the University of Michigan, South Africa-based Kenyan literary scholar, Professor James 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 many black South Africans resented the rest of the continent and wanted to preserve and further the ideological, racist decoupling of South Africa from the rest of Africa. They had wittingly or unwittingly become the handmaidens of this segregationist ideology.
Earlier this year, when I attended the annual 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 to employ black academics from neighboring 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 subtext, context, and unspoken underpinning. It occurred to me that he had launched into that defensive narrative to justify the widespread politics of excluding and resenting academics from other African countries on South African campuses. In other words, this was just a sophisticated academic rendition 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 of stating 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 South African Minister of Police is in full mode denialism. It’s not xenophobia but criminality, he says. His deputy, Bongani Mkongi, who probably hasn’t gotten the talking points memo, does not even bother with the subterfuge and remains a full-time inciter, notorious for declaring that if South Africans do not do something they will wake up one day to realize that “foreign Africans” make up 80 percent of their country and that a foreigner is their president.
In the wake of the attacks, the South African foreign minister has reinforced the rhetoric of Nigerians corrupting virtuous South Africans with their crimes.The South African Ambassador to Nigeria, meanwhile, stuck to the denialist script in his explanation to his hosts.
There is a method and a history to this rhetorical dance between denial and reinforcement. Even former president, Jacob Zuma, pandered to the xenophobic instincts of the self-haters with his rhetoric only to make elaborate pretenses to pan-African commitments in pan-African forums.
Much of the attention in the wake of the recent attacks has been on the aforementioned 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, should not be spared the scrutiny. Earlier this year, he gestured favorably to the Afrophobic street warriors by promising that the government would “do something” about African immigrants whom he claimed were invading townships and establishing spazas or small shops, a statement that lent authority and legitimacy to the hateful declarations percolating and circulating on the streets and on social media.
The Democratic Alliance (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 hardline 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 capital.
It would seem that in the tragic reality of the ANC’s failures and the ensuing socioeconomic dysfunction, the mainstream parties and tendencies in the South African political arena are united by, and have converged on, the theme of Afrophobia even as they bicker over everything else. Afrophobia is both an alibi and an escape hatch.
In official and officious public forums and in enlightened company, the practiced tactic is to deny and condemn xenophobia in as broad a language as possible or to invoke Apartheid as a defensive bulwark against what many South Africans see as unfair criticism of their right to isolationist, exclusionary policies and politics. But in political settings, the rhetoric can be quite raw and uncannily similar to the one articulated by the violent enforcers on the street. Moreover, the message from the top, whether it is disguised in academic and historical explanation and jargon or drenched in wonky policy speak, filters to the soldiers on the streets, the operative codes being quite intelligible to everyone.
When a comedian (Trevor Noah), a fringy, radical political provocateur (Julius Malema), and an ethnic warrior who worked with the apartheid regime and almost derailed the transition from apartheid to freedom (Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi) are the voices of reason and agree on the folly of the self-injurious path of Afrophobia, then we are at a tipping point in this perennial madness.