In May 2000, the British Broadcasting Corporation asked me to contribute an online opinion piece that would x-ray the prospects for socio-economic progress on the African continent. The BBC’s commission was triggered by a series of articles in major British, US and European publications that portrayed Africa as bereft of hope, mired in crises and disasters, and bound to failure.
My task was to puncture these (almost giddy) projections of a whole continent’s imminent—or inevitable—collapse. On some level, mine seemed a simple task. Africa, I felt, had been through bleaker crises and had survived. The horrendous enslavement of millions of its vibrant young men and women had shaken up the continent, but had not torpedoed it. The phase of profit-minded imperialist exploitation had fazed and dazed the continent, but had not erased its people or its promise.
I wrote for the BBC: “Confronted with a dismal tableau of war, corruption and natural disaster, many voices in Europe and North America have reached for morbid metaphors. Africa is pronounced dead or dying.
“But anybody remotely familiar with the complexity of Africa’s experience would recognize these facile judgments for what they are. Africa’s seemingly terminal symptoms have confounded the certitudes of casual observers and obituary writers before.”
Despite that upbeat tone, I freely confess that the BBC assignment was also daunting. The reason owed in large measure to the African continent’s seemingly inexhaustible menu of misery. To follow the news of African countries, whether in the foreign or African mass media, is to be overwhelmed with the sense of an unremitting, incessant and irreversible march towards perdition. How uphold and project hope about a continent that too often inspires fatigue?
Lately, I have been thinking about that 2000 opinion piece I wrote for the BBC. I have been reminiscing because, once again, the African continent has caught the world’s attention for the worst possible reasons.
The spree of callous, xenophobic killings of black African immigrants by black South African “natives” caught me utterly by surprise. In my desperation, I wished that this outbreak of black-native on black-immigrant violence would prove a short-lived, isolated skirmish. Instead, the horrific attacks have lasted several weeks, pointing to cruel orchestration, a widespread and deep-seated animus, and methodical execution.
During the long, violent struggle against apartheid, it seemed that all conscientious Africans became South Africans. The racist humiliation of our brethren in that enclave of apartheid was our humiliation. We died along with our South African brothers and sisters when they were massacred in Soweto. The apartheid regime’s slaughter of black resisters in Sharpeville was every African’s holocaust as well. Regardless of our location in the world, we felt the bruises inflicted on our “racial” kind in South Africa. We knew the laceration of the lashes, the vicious bites by apartheid police dogs, the maddening fever of hot bullets cooking, deadening the body.
When Nelson Mandela walked out of prison in 1990, after a 27-year incarceration in several apartheid prisons, he was not just a South African hero—no, he embodied the resilient, unbowed spirit of an entire continent.
Why then did our South African (black) brothers turn against the rest of us with such homicidal fury, such murderous gall? Why did the South African authorities fail to anticipate killings on such a scale, or to protect the African victims from their African predators? How, ever, are Africans immigrants going to look into the eyes of native South Africans and reconnect as comrades, as kin?
As if the tragedy of xenophobia wasn’t disturbing enough, the news came last week that some 800 African refugees packed like canned sardines had perished on the Mediterranean Sea when their boat sank. It was the single largest number of drowning deaths in that sea. What’s worse: since January of this year, more than 1500 Africans have perished in the Mediterranean.
Why are so many Africans so desperate to escape from their homeland that they would countenance any risk, even savage death in turbulent waters? What has made Africa such hell on earth that thousands of Africans are hungry to flee as one would run from some pestilence? Why are thousands of African lives feeding the fish of the Mediterranean deeps?
These drowning deaths are tragic enough. But they are compounded by the humiliating response to them. The European Union’s response has focused on ensuring that the African desperadoes never make it to the shores of Europe. There’s little attention paid to the fact that many of the fleeing refugees are direct victims of the anarchy unleashed by the US and EU-led operation to topple former Libyan strongman Muamar Gaddafi.
If the EU’s policy has been anal, the African Union has, simply, slumbered through the tragedy. It is a case of African abdication, African silence on an issue that is profoundly African. Again, it is a deeply disconcerting experience, this absence of Africa’s voice on an issue that is thoroughly African in location and implication.
All of this speaks to a profound dislocation. In terms of natural resources, Africa is one of the richest addresses on earth. Yet, Africa’s resources—whether it’s crude oil, diamond, gold, copper, bauxite, or uranium—have brought little more than curses to Africans. The great competition between Euro-American and Chinese corporations for Africa’s resources has often created tectonic tension on the continent, rendering parts of Africa too unsettled and violent for Africans. The concomitant is the rising exodus of Africans to Europe, Asia and elsewhere.
Add to this picture the reprehensible ravages of the Islamist groups ISIL, Boko Haram and Al Shabaab—and what emerges is a sobering portrait of a continent ripe for re-colonization, if not in the throes of it. Unfortunately, the African Union appears blissfully ignorant of the dire, far-reaching implications of developments on the continent. Else, why is the so-called AU silent on the African tragedy playing out in the perilous Mediterranean? Why is the organization silent on the food crisis in the Sudan and other parts of Africa?
Why is Africa perennially announced to the world as a problem, but African voices hardly feature in analyzing their continent, in charting the path out of crises? Why is the EU meeting, speaking and setting the agenda on Africa’s latest graveyard in the Mediterranean, but the AU remains staunchly taciturn? Why are Brussels, London, Rome and Paris pronouncing on the hordes of African desperadoes staking everything to reach Europe while the tongues of Abuja, Pretoria, and N’Djamena remain cold, stilled?
In 2000, I had concluded the BBC piece by touching on Africans’ gift for laughter. I wrote: “It is, also, the laughter of those who have a stubborn pact with hope. It is laughter that speaks about a long view of life, a faith that, however impenetrable the darkness, light comes. Whatever the strife, the true African spirit never ceases to strive.
“It is a shame that many in the West, ignorant about their complicity in this tragedy-in-progress, seem ready to declare Africa a hopeless case. The good news is that this kind of prognosis is hardly new.
“The prediction of Africa’s imminent collapse is a long-founded cottage industry. Africans will once again outlive the current frenzy of dour prophecies and gloomy forecasts.”
These days, watching events in South Africa, watching images of Africans flailing and drowning in the Mediterranean in their thousands, one isn’t so certain about the sense of confidence.