Saturday, April 18, 2015

Of xenophobia, our ignorance and the United States of Africa pipe-dream

Time Magazine from 1985 talks about Black Rage in the context of Apartheid South Africa
Source: Time Magazine
Recent reports of xenophobic attacks in South Africa have left me with a heavy heart. These are not new. After all, violent xenophobic attacks happened back in 2008. The South African government comes across as largely mute except to assure the world that these are not xenophobic attacks but afrophobic in nature. What a relief. In fact, this is the first time I have heard the term 'afrophobic'. Is that actually a thing? 

In the greater scheme of things, xenophobia in South Africa, as it is in other parts of the world and history, is a reflection of harsh economic times, unemployment and growing feelings of marginalization of a given populace. With such resentment comes anger directed against vulnerable groups.

It is curious though that the xenophobic attacks are afro-centered in nature. Where does this deep-seated hatred for fellow Africans stem from? 

I find myself thinking that had I not made the decision to leave the University of Cape Town decades ago for the US, would I still be living in South Africa? Would my "West African" sepia make me vulnerable to these attacks? 

There are abundant comments on Twitter from other Africans outraged that black South Africans have forgotten the sacrifices that other African countries made for their freedom. Such sacrifices seem to have gone sadly undocumented but then a tricky question can be asked; do these past sacrifices warrant an unchecked influx of African immigrants into South Africa? Regardless, the violence and murder are unwarranted.

Despite the accounts of civil servants across Africa having their pay cut for contributions to a South Africa liberation fund (though it is hard to say where exactly this money went), no countries 
suffered more during apartheid than those living in the shadow of apartheid South Africa. These [so-called] Frontline states were Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and also from 1980, Zimbabwe. Many are too young to remember the cross-border raids from South Africa into these countries or the bombs that rocked places like Lusaka. There was also the nefarious involvement of the South African Defense Force in the Mozambican and Angolan civil wars. Let us not get started on the countless South African refugees in Swaziland and other countries. Is such recent history being forgotten or not imparted to new generations?


South African Defense Force of the 1980s on border patrol
Source: http://www.sahistory.org.za/ 

In the dying days of apartheid, one thing I (oddly) remember are the reader comments sent to the popular South African magazine You magazine. At the time, there was real panic among some White South Africans that if apartheid ended, they would be forced out of South Africa. For some reason, a lot of readers sent letters saying things like "you (the Blacks of South Africa) are better off than other Africans. At least you have shoes to wear". Although largely inaccurate, these sentiments underlie, perhaps, the great divide that existed between South Africa and the rest of Africa. The apartheid system had ensured minimal education and that Black South Africans knew as little as possible about the rest of Africa. The system perpetuated a myth that the rest of Africa was an utter shambolic, chaotic wasteland and that somehow black South Africans were much better off as second class citizens in their own country. Did this myth perhaps also ingrain feelings of superiority?

Apartheid may have planted the seeds of afrophobia but 20 years have passed since the system collapsed so there must be other factors driving this deep-seated hatred. Does ignorance play a role?
Hang on, as other Africans like myself are perched up on our high horses, how much do we know about other parts of Africa ourselves? For example, how much do West  Africans know about East Africans beyond stereotypes and vice-versa? 

I often tell the story about living between Ghana and Southern African in the 90s: 

People in Ghana would say : "In Southern Africa, do they speak Swahili?"
I would say: "No..."
People in Southern Africa would say: "In Ghana, do they speak Swahili?"
I would say: "No..."

We chide others about being ignorant about the African continent but how knowledgeable are we about it anyway? These thoughts plus the xenophobic attacks and lack of appreciation for history have led me to a larger more troubling question: is the United Africa goal of pan-Africanism no more than a pipe-dream?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Ghana 2015

Just like that it is 2015. I was in Ghana to see the end of the glorious year that was 2014 and the ushering in of 2015. I meant to blog earlier about my experiences since it had been two years since I had been to my beloved homeland.  However, I just could not blog. Anything I had to say would sound like a diatribe of what my ex-brother-in-law used to call "complaining music". Let us not even get started on the reliable internet connection issues I had. Also, I am still reeling from the shock at how much things had changed and often not in a good way. On the one hand, Ghana does the appearance of a vibrant, rich, capitalist country that is full of opportunities so well. At the same time, it is also doing an impersonation of a failed state recovering from a long civil war pretty accurately.

Here is my list of some of the goods and the bads.

The Goods:

1. The Police: They are young, sleek and visible. Over a two year period, our police force on the streets of Accra turned young, goodlooking, athletic and professional. Not only were they visible but seemed to have access to equally sleek looking vehicles. At first I thought this visible improvement was just by chance but apparently it is a new policy. Police are directing traffic, doing roundblocks at night and for the first time in my experience of Ghana, actually doing their jobs.

2. Road developments in Accra: Ignoring the abysmal mess that is Kwame Nkrumah circle, there are a number of impressive road developments. Suddenly, the Spintex Road bottle-neck has been eased. The parts of the Madina-Legon road that I saw were also looking good.

3. Malls, malls, malls: A number of new malls and shopping centres have opened since I've been away. There is the Marina Mall, Osu shoprite mall, Palace shopping centre, Nungua shoprite shopping centre....just to name a few. 

4. Complex housing complexes: Not sure this is a good but there are dozens of new housing complexes that are being completed. Sign of rapid development or perhaps indications of an economic powerhouse bubble?

Villagio at Airport Residential Area, Accra


The Bads:

1. The energy crisis: Probably the most frustrating aspect of my return was the energy situation. The lack of power in Ghana is at dire levels. We have had stringent loadshedding in the middle of the 00s but the present situation is like a cruel punishment the populace is being subjected to. The energy crisis just goes to show what happens when incompetence and mis-management go unchecked. The least said the better.

2. The water crisis: For the past 20 years, we have had a house in a neighborhood with constant, reliable water that was available daily. That has changed. It seems the way in which the Ghana Water Company optimized water supply to other areas was NOT to come up with ingenious ways of getting additional water supplies but by simply robbing Peter to pay Paul. So my neighborhood has suddenly turned into a dry area with an unknown water schedule. It does however seem to come on around 3am on inconsistent days.

3. Falling cedi and killer prices: Although I am away from Ghana now, I am still reeling from the effect of the falling cedi on prices across the board. Taxi rides that cost GHC 5.00 two years are now going for GHC 10 minimum. Someone has gone through all the restaurant menus at my favorite places and multiplied all prices by 2.5. To make things worse, salaries did not go up in the same way.

There are so many bads to list but really do not want to turn this into a huge bitter rant. In all, Ghana is still Ghana. The public's expectations of leaders are still low. Every public school building is still being used as a church venue. Kotoka International Airport's arrival terminal still has not changed (in my eyes) since 1985. There are still 100s of youth selling mobile phones without boxes at Circle. Some banks are still a hotbed of inefficiency and privileged people are still worshiped.  

In essence, home is still home. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Return

Picture taken at the Tetteh Quarshie Roundabout in Accra, circa 2009
It has been a while since I blogged. Since August, I have managed to learn a lot about myself, what constitutes family and friendship as well as managed to become a PhD holder. The past few months were harrowing at times, exhilarating, frustrating, joyous and sad. In a few days, I will be in Accra, the place I re-fell in love with in the early '00s. Living in Accra I was able to witness many transformations and changes. Back in '08, I started blogging about these. So much has changed in my life and in Ghana since then. I have not been back to Ghana since January 2013. I am therefore very curious to see the changes. Social media, family and friends talk about a Ghana that is frustrating, burdened with rising costs and a government that seems out of its depth.