It is with a heavy heart that we hear about the departure of Robert Gabriel Mugabe, former president of Zimbabwe. He was caricaturised and demonised as part of the imaginative and creative ways of rationalising the pillaging and plunging of Africa. Sadly, just when he passed on to glory, Africans are at each other’s throat in South Africa. We are undoing the visions and labour of foremost pan-Africanists and trans-nationalists like Joseph Ephraim Casely-Hayford, Chief Alfred Sam, Nnamdi Azikiwe, J.B. Danquah, K.A. Busia, and Kwame Nkrumah. These individuals envisioned a united Africa to face a common challenge. Sadly, Africa is on the brink of self-imposed balkanization. Where did our brains go? Africa!
A few weeks ago, some Nigerians were the target of the bruised anger of some Ghanaians. Indeed, the tension between Ghanaians and Nigerians is one of sibling conflict. Ghanaians and Nigerians have interacted and cooperated before the advent of colonialism. Long before the Europeans stepped foot on the soil of what is now Ghana, the Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo had established trade alliances with the people of the Mole-Dagbani. Islam became prominent in Ghana about a century before Christianity as a result of the transgression of fluid boundaries by itinerant traders across the so-named sub-Saharan Region. The oral and legendary history of Ga even claims that the Ga people have an ancestral connection to the land of Nigeria. Unfortunately, the history of the two countries suffered some hiccups in the 1960s and 1980s when Ghanaians and Nigerians demonstrated antagonism against each other as a result of state-sponsored expulsions. Nigerians were expelled from Ghana in 1969 during the regime of Dr. K.A. Busia, Ghana's erstwhile prime Minister. Ghanaians were also expelled from Nigeria in 1983 during the regime of Shehu Shagari. These fracases in the relationship between Nigeria and Ghana are against the backdrop that citizens from both countries have played cross-national roles in each country’s development. Ghana and Nigeria collaborated in the formation of the National Congress of British West Africa in 1920 to challenge the edifice of colonialism.
But we should not be quick to classify the gavel of fury Ghanaians directed toward Nigerians as smacks of xenophobia. Indeed, like any other term that is socially constructed to capture existential reality, xenophobia is riddled with conceptual difficulties. For example, how do we separate spontaneous anger against foreigners from rehearsed and schemed attacks against foreigners? How do we separate state-induced xenophobic attack from the marauding anger citizens of a country? The blanket use of xenophobia to characterise the random attacks on some Nigerians by some Ghanaians is problematic and unconvincing. In the first instance, the recent attacks on some Nigerians were not as a result of an endemic hatred Ghanaians had for Nigerians. It is also not based on the Ghanaian assumption that Nigerians could take over the political regime of Ghana. It also did not have explicit or implicit state support.
The South African case is quite complex. During the apartheid regime, the regime targeted the use of foreign labour to build the economy of South Africa. This was precisely because foreign labour was cheap. Cheap also in the sense that employers did not have to worry about paying social benefits to workers. In the same way, engaging foreigners was part of the apartheid regime to keep South Africans unprepared for nationalism. Lastly, the use of foreign labour was part of the define and rule scheme of the apartheid regime.
That said the ideas of ‘citizens’ and ‘strangers’ or ‘foreigners’ are social constructs that are politically charged. Who is incorporated into the nation-state and who has access to state benefits are all determined on political lines. Indeed, the idea of citizenship is an imaginative creation that exists in the minds of nation builders and later extrapolated to citizens. While human beings are gregarious and may incline towards group-living, it is almost impossible for people who were once-upon-a-time autonomous to inhabit the same space peacefully. In most cases, some of the groups that came together to form the nation-state were antagonistic to each other. In some cases, some groups had assumed political supremacy over others and yet they were to live together in the same space as equal citizens with equal entitlements. Deconstructing the idea of subjects was a burden to nation-building.
The question that burdened nation-building was how to engineer peaceful co-existence among people who may not have any consanguineal or affinal relationship? How do you unite people who do not have any real or putative common ancestry? Given that human beings can hardly establish intimate relations with others beyond 150 people, the task of building a nation of multiples of people is always a difficult task. Who is included and excluded then becomes a political project. How do nations overcome the challenge of dual loyalty and dual sovereignty?
To resolve the puzzle of nation-building, symbols, emblems, colours, anthems, constitutions, conviviality, and aerial and territorial spaces are reconfigured to enforce citizenship. More importantly, myths and meta-histories are reconstructed to craft citizenship. In the midst of all these, people are made to think like citizens, not like ethnic members. In some cases, the founts of ethnic solidarity were dissolved. For example, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania dissolved chieftaincy. Nkrumah of Ghana rather had a pragmatic disposition attitude towards chieftaincy. He strategically promoted and demoted chiefs, based on their relationship with the grand agenda of building a nascent Ghanaian state. The appropriation of language was also an important index of constructing citizenship. Again, in this direction, Nyerere promoted Kiswahili over and above other non-Western languages. Here, Nkrumah did not promote any one particular Ghanaian language as a national language. So, Ghana still does not have a national language. Of course, given that language is cultural and the locus of ethnic identity, we can understand the tensions that have shaped the debate over choosing a national language for Ghana.
But in a world that is shrinking through globalisation, people have reincarnated old practice of crisscrossing national and regional boundaries. This development is informed by the oversized negative effects of globalisation, which empowers one part of the world and plunge the other into irredeemable impoverishment. It is against this background that we should understand the migration of some Africans to South Africa. As late as the 1960s, South Africa was already the most industrialised country in Africa. And it was the desired destination of many other African migrants. Some of the African migrants who moved and continue to move to South Africa are more skilled and educated than some South Africans. And yet, because of the debilitating effect of poverty and deprivation in the country from which migrants are fleeing, these migrants are prepared to do jobs that are disproportionate to their academic credentials.
These migrants are ready to do any job, so long as they can earn money. A few of them who become disenchanted with migration resort to nefarious ways of surviving, such as online scam and fraudulent businesses. In the end, migrants become the target of xenophobic attacks for basically three reasons. First, they are seen as taking away the jobs of the citizens of the host country. Second, they are said to disempower trade unions in the host country, as these migrants may not have the right to embark on industrial action or even bargain for favourable remuneration and working conditions. Third, they are seen as a threat to the moral order of the host country.
The xenophobic attacks on African migrants in South Africa combine these and many more reasons. But more to the point is the spillover effect of apartheid. Apartheid's logic of define and rule sowed the seed of discord between ‘native’ South Africans and other African migrants. These labourers who moved without their families were good to go with any amount that would help them put soul and body together. On the other hand, ‘native’ South Africans had families and demanded that they were given enough remuneration to support themselves and their families. To beat down the cost of production, employers preferred foreign African labourers to ‘native’ South Africans. Thus, the struggle against apartheid was also a struggle against ‘foreign’ Africans.
Unfortunately, the euphoria that marked the end of apartheid did not materialise in the redistribution of wealth to reach the disempowered youth. A bourgeois class seized upon the booty of the liberation of South Africa and enlarged their frontiers of wealth. They became the elite who determined the contours of South African politics. The devised ways of keeping the majority of poor South Africans in submission and passive. For example, they keep harping the ills of the apartheid regime to justify their looting and fleecing of their own people and the loyalty that should be accorded them. In some cases, they inspire South Africans against foreigners. They also tighten immigration laws to criminalise foreign migrants. They also scapegoat foreigners for the plight of the majority impoverished South Africans.
In the end, South African xenophobia is state-sponsored. It is also backed by state machinery of oppression and manipulations. As I have said, scapegoating foreigners is one of the ways of giving false sigh to the impoverished South African! South Africa, as it stands, betrays the ideals of the African Union, which was formed to foist transnational citizenship. At a time when Africa should unite to fight the challenges of famine, poverty, climate change, destructive science and technology, and neo-colonial inklings of the bruised West, South Africa is sowing a seed of discord among Africans. Indeed, the pushing of Africa to the false precipice of polarisation is part of the challenges of the global world. Since nationalism led to two bloody wars in Europe in 1914 and 1939, the United Nations was established to promote transnationalism. Unfortunately, Donald Trump’s rhetoric of ‘Making America great again,’ and the Brexit are threatening cosmopolitanism, transnational citizenship, and afropolitanism.
Sadly, the splitting of Africa and the world into pieces is happening at a time when the world needs more unity than ever. At a time when climate change, destructive science, and nuclear violence are threatening global peace, the world is balkanizing. South Africans need to understand that the idea of ‘South Africa for South Africans’ is one of the consolidated myths to give a sigh to the impoverished. It is a myth to engender enmity and belligerence in a world that is on the tipping point of Armageddon! It is also a lie to assume that South Africa can be built by South Africans alone.
While it is not far-fetched to state that South Africans may be suffering from cognitive dissonances in terms of how they construct their identity – as Africans or better Africans than other Africans – other Africans should not succumb to the trap to use force against fellow South Africans. K.A. Busia was right when he stated that two stupidities do not lead to a wise decision. Also, while the violence that was used to fight apartheid remains one of the tools of dealing with challenges, South Africans should love diplomacy in relating to others in the ‘modern' world. But more importantly, the xenophobic attacks in South Africa should open a new debate on notions such as citizenship, cosmopolitanism, globalisation, ‘Africanness', Africa, and violence. Must we go the way of Franz Fanon in using violence at the least provocation or we should go the way of Gandhi's Satyagraha? This is a question that must guide the discussion on the recent spate of xenophobic attacks in South Africa.
But we should also reconsider the role of the African Union in engendering transregional unity in Africa. We should also see how this development undermines the effort on the part of Africans to trade and relate with each other. Trade connotes and rides on trust. And if South Africans and other Africans cannot trust themselves, how can we trade among ourselves? Already, we lack what to trade in as a less industrialised continent. So, at a time when we should be concentrating our efforts in industrialisation, in-fighting in Africa is a drawback on our quest for a place in the world of fame.
Charles Prempeh ([email protected]), African University College of Communications, Accra