Opinionista Kiflu Hussain 11 June 2011

An Ethiopian’s perspective on South Africa: My turn to visit my own genesis

Nelson Mandela visited Ethiopia to unearth the roots of what made him African. Now it's my turn to travel to his country and “shake hands with history”.

Anyone who read “Long Walk to Freedom” with a curious memory like mine will easily spot that I took a leaf from the autobiography of the great man of Africa for the heading of this piece. Nelson Mandela, or Madiba as he’s referred to by South Africans (like Tanzanians eternally call Julies Nyerere “Mwalimu”), expressed his excitement at the prospect of visiting Ethiopia some 48 years ago as follows:

“Ethiopia has always held a special place in my own imagination and the prospect of visiting Ethiopia attracted me more strongly than a trip to France, England and America combined. I felt I would be visiting my own genesis, unearthing the roots of what made me an African. Meeting the Emperor himself would be like shaking hands with history.”

I now have an opportunity to visit South Africa. That’s right. If everything goes according to schedule, shortly after writing this, I will be airborne to Johannesburg to attend a workshop with journalists, bloggers and activists. Of course, anyone who is familiar with the early history of Ethiopia knows about its resounding victory over colonialism – which probably was cause for Madiba’s excitement at the prospect of visiting – and may wonder about the source of my excitement about visiting South Africa to the point of equating it as a rediscovery of my genesis.

Before elaborating on that one, however, a word or two about my earliest memory related to South Africa. There was this music I used to enjoy very much during my childhood without understanding its meaning. It was played by the famous Ethiopian singer Alemayehu Eshete in support of the struggle against apartheid. In the lyrics he captured how human beings used to be hunted down on the basis of their skin colour. The refrain went like this, though, my rough translation might do injustice to the original Amharic song.

“Having smelt blood

That Black Panther

Poised with pistol and rifle.”

In case anyone tries to link this with Julius Malema’s favourite song, I would contend that the Ethiopian musician’s song is just a harmless rendition from history like Jacob Zuma’s favourite “Umshini Wami” (Bring me my machine gun). On a more sober note, I have other memories too of the struggle against apartheid which was far from a call for bloodletting and swashbuckling.

Among them were short stories and essays written by black South Africans. Through these writings, they augmented the struggle by appealing to the voice of reason; by pricking the consciences of those powerful nations who were cosy with the apartheid regime. In one of these books of essays compiled by Langston Hughes, called “An African Treasury”, Bloke Modisane indicted the world in his essay “Why I ran away”. He employed the following poignant words: “I know that the riddle of South Africa will have to be resolved in South Africa, perhaps without blood. But the possibility of bloodshed cannot be brushed aside, and I hope that through my writing I can yet make the world realise the danger gathering in the Union. That what will happen there will touch the rest of the world. For the world outside is responsible for the furtherance and continuance of the system. I indict the world. Every investment, every gold bar bought from South Africa helps to pay for the machinery of apartheid.”

In that same anthology, there was another short story by Richard Rive entitled “The Bench”. A simple black soul depicted as attending a rights movement meeting for the very first time heard exhortations such as: “We must challenge the right of any people who see fit to segregate human beings solely on grounds of pigmentation”. Having transformed immediately, he vowed to challenge it in his own way, albeit with no knowledge as to how, when or where. Fortunately he found the answer right away on his way back home. For the first time, he noticed the bench marked “For Europeans only” at the train station; he ignored the rule and sat on it. The rest is history.                            

It would be impossible for me to collate the South Africa I know through books, movies and media outlets during my brief upcoming visit with what is actually happening on the ground. Yet, I do hope that I will be able to catch the vibe, both positive and negative.

Meanwhile, post-apartheid South Africa is one of the few countries in the continent where leaders bow to public demand to the point of resignation. It’s the first African nation to host the Soccer World Cup, whatever the implications economically. Its growing economy has earned it acceptance to the emerging economies bloc known as Bric (Brazil, Russia, India and China) which will now be called Bricsa.

Yet, the country is still dogged by a high rate of unemployment among the black majority, characterised by abject poverty and abysmal ignorance. This, in turn, has led to rampant crime that occasionally drives some elements of society to vent their frustration via xenophobic attacks on fellow African immigrants. Despite its much-vaunted economic growth, South Africa doesn’t seem to have moved much from the grim portrayal by Amy Chua in her book “World on Fire”. She described how she felt aghast in 1997 when faced with an entire room filled with only white faces (and perhaps one person of South Asian descent) when giving a lecture at Unisa. She also demonstrated in her book from  the ugly and vast economic disparity between the white minority and the black majority.

While the leadership is groping for a solution to bridge the gap between the minority and the majority, the underdog’s patience seem to be wearing thin. This has been manifested in mutual recrimination and even racially motivated killings that took the life of a notorious racist named Eugene TerreBlanche. In a nutshell, I fear that if the country’s leadership is not fast enough in fixing these problems, disillusionment to the point of desperation will set in.

Kenyans, who had high hopes during the Mau-Mau uprisings, caricatured their disillusionment after independence by depicting an ordinary Kenyan before and after independence. They portrayed him as one who stood sulking under a white colonial rule in a neat suit and shined shoes. While leaping for joy as a free man under Kenyatta, his suit was beginning to look distinctly tatty. By the Moi era, the emaciated mwananchi was crawling, not walking. His suit was in tatters with no shoes and, eyes crazed, he was begging for alms. That’s the story of many African nations after independence. Even I, who used to pride myself, like many of my compatriots, on my country’s uniqueness in not being colonised attempted to show later the futility of celebrating the victory at the battle of Adwa through scribbling a few lines:

“I’ve always had liberty

Granted by my compatriot rulers

To genuflect, flatter, march and parrot freely

And always on an empty belly

Accompanied with abject poverty.

Hence, I am eternally confounded

Whether to be bloated or deflated

With the fact that

My oppressor has always been

From within

Whose pigmentation is the same

Colour as that of my skin,

Which is the one and only

Tribute to me

From that day of victory

Over the fascist Italy.”

If Ethiopian’s woe is the same as all Africans through our shared a legacy of injustice, one may ask then why I feel differently about the fourth country I will set foot in on our continent. Simple: Many of our folks, especially from the Horn of Africa, flock to South Africa. For this, and the reasons I cited above, I am very emotionally involved with the country. Although, I may not have the opportunity to shake hands with history itself by having contact with giants like Nelson Mandela, I feel that I will be visiting the new centre of African history. DM


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