Opinionista Simon Williamson 23 July 2010

Our first-world traits

As we sit at dinner parties bitching about crime over our hostess’ mashed potatoes (created via the medium of domestic worker elbow grease), we interject with stories about the things most close to us. Yet, outside Uncle Bob’s blunderings, none of these conversational pieces occur in Africa.

South Africans are oft accused of relating to First World countries closer than our brothers and sisters in the developing world. We arrogantly see ourselves a level above Africa, yet laugh at foreigners too thick to know where Durban is. Very few of us know a Malawian city other than Lilongwe. Somehow we fail to note the somewhat mutually exclusive roles these thoughts should take.

Some have accused South Africans of xenophobia, some (such as Sipho Hlongwane) of “Afro-amnesia”. I prefer simpler terms that portray correctly how we feel about our own continent: Like “South Africa just doesn’t care”.

Ah, I hear you say, but we care about Zimbabwe. Indeed we do, because things have reached such low proportions there on a humanitarian scale that it would be sinful not to look just beyond Musina and take note of Bob flicking shit at everything within his immortal range. It has taken something diabolical to get us to sit up, take note and feel strongly against something that is going wrong on our continent. Oh, and the fact that it affects us directly.

Similarly, it took something as appalling as apartheid to make more than the Africa news correspondents in the developed world sit up and take note of disgusting goings on here. Were the void not filled by Mad Bob, the last time we would have noticed news north of Limpopo (but south of Tunisia) would have been when Mobutu was kicked out by Kabila.

In general, we just don’t give two hoots. I have heard people decry the First World for not doing something about Zimbabwe, but none resent the United Nations with enough bitterness for turning its back on Eritrea (where the UN was legally in contravention of its own rules) or Rwanda (where it just packed up and left when the genocide there began) at their most desperate times of need. I have heard locals here laugh because foreigners don’t know where Pretoria is, but how many of us can name a city in the Congo that isn’t Kinshasa? Unless there are enough dead bodies clogging the drainage system of a city (extrapolated: enough CNN footage to cover it), we prefer to sympathise with the Britons when the Channel Tunnel closes and the poor sods have to travel by boat instead of train to Calais.

We continue to think that when we have a cocktail party, it’s the First World that will rock up. Well, remember the attendees at JZ’s inauguration last year? US trade representative ambassador Ron Kirk, minister of state for Africa, Asia and the United Nations Lord Malloch Brown from the UK and French secretary of state for human rights Rama Yade were the biggies that made it – quite a turnout, wouldn’t you say?

In fact, the truth of the matter is that we imitate the First World in our attitude to our own continent. While we have varying degrees of democratic successes (Ghana, Somaliland) and junta-cum-rebel-led failures (Somalia, Niger) begging for attention, our hearts resonate sympathetically with Myanmar (where Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest). They beat enthusiastically with the arrivals of Obama, Cameron and Gillard. And while our hearts beat sadly for the perennial civilian suicide “bombageddon” in Iraq, they produce only hollow pulses for the countries with which we share soil and desert sand.

We decry the immigration of eastern Europeans into the UK and put our hands over our mouths in disgust when new Arizona immigration laws are discussed, but we don’t know who the president of the Ivory Coast is.

And while we continue to believe our own myth that we’re a cut above the rest of our continent, we’ll haughtily isolate ourselves, alienating our neighbours, while sucking up to those who are but courtesy friends with us.

We can’t see that coming though, so we completely and utterly fail to care.

Unless the Ghanaian’s name is Gyan, of course. At my last dinner party we spoke excitedly about that, flecks of potato flying from our indignantly shaped mouths as we spat the name, “Suárez”.


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