Opinionista Rev Lawrence Mduduzi Ndlovu 1 April 2015

The conversation about ourselves that we’re refusing to have

The countrywide debate about taking down the statue of Cecil John Rhodes began a much-needed conversation in our country. This conversation about our colonial past and how it was or was not dealt with introduced a national dialogue, with some of the voices becoming militant and others being reflective. It has been a while since the refrain of “Rainbow Nation” was put aside and a real conversation happened. However, the discourse about the colonial other should also lead us to have a conversation about ourselves.

The abovementioned conversation about ourselves needs to take shape in a twofold manner. We need to examine ourselves as South Africans, and also as South Africans in the context of the African continent. This, of course, is also the conversation on the African experience following the colonial era.

A couple of days ago, Daily Maverick published an opinion piece by Abbiba Princewill about the complex relationship between Nigeria and South Africa. She spoke about the misconceptions that exist amongst many people about Nigeria and Nigerians in general. That feature made me think about the legacy of colonialism in the African continent. It was a great joy, at least for me, to learn that the Nigerian economy had surpassed the South African economy, becoming the biggest economy in Africa. This, of course, makes sense, because the Nigerian population, including its resources, outweighs that of South Africa by far.

What was interesting was how that occurrence was celebrated by the Nigerian government and many others. Indeed there is a need to celebrate when the economy of any country grows, but what was alarming was that the jubilation seemed rooted in the fact that the Nigerian economy had surpassed that of South Africa.

In European countries, many people are yet to hear of a celebration being held or noise being made about the fact that France’s economy has surpassed that of the United Kingdom or any other European country. If anything, that is celebrated in the Eurozone because it means the region is becoming stronger. The reaction by some Nigerian people and the indignation of some South Africans on the abovementioned issue displays, therefore, some bitter remnants of our colonial history. This is a very good example of the ‘success’ of colonialism; that the continent is so divided that we are competing with each other rather that working to pull all African countries out of the gallows of poverty to create a strong continent.

There is something in many South Africans that makes us believe that we are much better than or different from other Africans on the continent. Indeed there are also Africans from other African countries who, without reservation, will say that South Africans are not African. There is a hostility that exists in our language and our manner towards each other.

In South Africa, this is made clear by the fact that xenophobic attacks in our country have been directed towards Non-European immigrants. Of course, this is not to say that xenophobic activity should be directed towards all non-South Africans, or that it should exist at all, but the above is telling of how South Africans view other Africans. In addition to this, President Zuma, in 2013, when addressing the e-tolls issue in Gauteng, mentioned that highways in Gauteng were not like national roads in Malawi. That was an indication of how the mind of the first citizen thought of some other African countries as a kind of scale – and came up short. He is not the only one who holds such views. Many South Africans refer to the rest of the continent as detached from it, inferring that South Africa is not part of the African continent. These separations are the result of colonial demarcations; however, our perpetuation of such acrimonious behaviour cannot be blamed squarely on the colonial legacy – it is our own responsibility.

In addition, we have not created opportunities for the best of our artists and professionals. Many professionals find better and more exciting opportunities outside the country, often in the land of the former colonial masters. We have not been very successful in trying to change the narrative, so that staying and working in Africa becomes is synonymous with climbing the career ladder. Take Trevor Noah, for example: there is nothing offered in South Africa that might make him consider staying in Africa instead of taking up an offer in the United States of America. This is where we stand as Africans in the post-colonial era.

The success of colonialism is such that many people in Africa will probably never engage in any form of formal further education in their home language, as is the case in many European countries. This is not because the colonial master is still hovering over them, but because there is no will to make this happen. Academics and writers rarely, if at all, have their books translated into their home languages or any local language. To drive the dagger in even deeper, many children who are raised by African parents speak less or no local African language. Being erudite is still associated with becoming as overtly Western as possible. Even in our systems of governance, there has been very little done on our part to enculturate the none-African systems we have inherited. African political philosophers and politicians are happy to argue almost daily about nationalism versus socialism, and yet both these and many others are not African. We have done nothing to take the best of these systems and develop systems that will transform our continent and indeed the world.

The Ubuntu philosophy that we often refer to has not permeated the upper echelons of governance to the most local of our spaces. There is now talk of ‘Ubuntu Diplomacy’, and even that notion was made known by Elizabeth Frawley Bagley, who is an American. We have done nothing to even develop ideas from our own leaders; the Ujamaa of Julius Nyerere is all but gone. Even Thabo Mbeki’s drive for African Renaissance is no longer really part of the national conversation.

These are but examples of our own post-colonial manner of thinking and operating, and I believe that we, too, have dropped the ball. There is a subtle contradiction between our overt hatred for colonialism and all its minions and our love for everything Western. I am by no means suggesting that we should be a closed continent trading with each other only, and so on – but we could do more.

The greatest conversation, and part of the other issues I have mentioned, which we seem not to be interested in having, is about class. Major inroads have been made in transforming the lives of many South Africans, and indeed Africans. At the same time there is legitimate frustration about the pace of transformation. Transformation should not be at the expense of anyone or any group, but it is about pulling even more people out of poverty.

What has happened is that in the process of trying to redress our colonial disparities, there has been an exploitation of redress mechanisms by a few. This means that initiatives like Black Economic Empowerment – which is necessary – ends up (re)empowering the same people over and over. In the process, those who have been empowered become a class of their own and leave behind many others who seek opportunities. What we have now is a class system of those minorities who were ahead during colonial rule, then followed by those who got the head start in the democratic dispensation, then the middle class professionals, followed by those who were just left behind. To some degree we also have ourselves to thank and blame for the classes that have emerged over the last two decades. In this situation it is evident that to some degree we have conquered colonialism only to become the new colonial masters ourselves.

This discourse does not serve to deter people from the national discourse that has been taking place about the remnants of colonialism and how we should treat this problem. This is about allowing that conversation to happen, while we examine and assess ourselves. Otherwise there will always be the risk of glorying in pointing out the evils of the past because they are wholly other. I dare say that more than just the statues must go. DM