The world has been engulfed in a wave of movements and protests, fighting for equality and empowerment for black lives. Finally, after generations, it seems everyone has truly had enough of a system that favours whiteness. While in most countries, that system is more covert, seemingly innocuous to those it doesn’t directly affect, nowhere was it so obviously and unashamedly implemented as in South Africa. Despite the official apartheid system coming to an end in 1994, the majority of the institutional biases remain and the weight of white privilege tipping the scales is still blatantly obvious. One would think, then, that in a country like ours – in which the majority of the population was so gravely disenfranchised –that people would be embracing Black Lives Matter movements completely – and including all black lives in those movements. The reality seems to be otherwise. Here, black lives only matter if they’re South African (or American, clearly) but not if they’re from elsewhere in Africa.
Black Lives Matter protests in the USA have already managed to bring about change. The police officers responsible for the death of George Floyd – the catalyst for all the recent events – have been arrested and charged with second-degree murder, or aiding and abetting second-degree murder. Cities across the US are agreeing to ban the use of chokeholds by police. Police budgets are being cut in order to channel funds into youth organisations and social services. While these changes alone are not enough, they’re evidence that uniting for a common cause –even, or especially one that frustrates the government – can bring about significant and necessary change. It’s perplexing and infuriating, then, that this weekend in South Africa – a country which still has so many changes to make – the tag #NigeriansMustFall started trending on Twitter.
‘Afrophobia’ in South Africa
The tag, which echoes that of the #RhodesMustFall movement (which started at the University of Cape Town in 2015, and continues in South Africa and the UK) apparently came about in response to a video of a South African woman dancing and undressing in front of a group of Nigerian men. The xenophobic sentiment behind the tag, however, is nothing new.
In an article published in the Journal Of Humanities And Social Science in 2017, Chibuzor et al explain that since South Africa’s independence in 1994, xenophobic attitudes have grown along with the rising number of foreigners entering the country, but that being an attitude and not a in system itself, it existed long before apartheid.
“Most South Africans’ hatred for non-nationals is based on an assumed link between the presence of foreigners and the threats to their property and physical security, they write, citing a 2003 statistic that 48% of South Africans felt that foreigners were a threat. It may seem like 2003 was an age ago, but the fact that a hashtag like #NigeriansMustFall could be triggered by something as mundane as a video of a dancing woman speaks to the fact that feelings haven’t really changed.
Should we wait for our children to be drug addicts?
Should we wait for our mothers and sisters to be raped?
Should we wait for the country to have a Nigerian President?
Should we wait for majority of the nation to suffer from brain cancer?#NigeriansMustFall pic.twitter.com/frUHIVHd4z
— ༺Chaotic༻ (@Chaotic__SA) June 13, 2020
— Tlangelani #PutSouthAfricansFirst (@MicLarry9) June 13, 2020
What’s more, Guy Oliver, writing for the New Humanitarian, states that “in a 2017 social attitudes survey, South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council found that ‘three out of four South African adults agree that immigrants increase crime rates, steal jobs and spread disease'” despite the fact that there is no supporting evidence for these beliefs. On top of all that, only last year Nigeria pulled out of the World Economic Forum gathering in Cape Town, after a series of fatal xenophobic attacks in South African cities.
It can be argued that relations between South Africa and Nigeria have been rocky for a long time, but Nigerians are far from the only victims of xenophobia in South Africa – a country that hosts over 260 000 refugees and asylum seekers. These are mainly from Somalia, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Furthermore, a 2020 report by IOM, the UN’s migration agency, stated that there are around 4 million “international migrants” in the country, which has a population of almost 60 million.
Oliver writes that what usually occurs in South Africa could be more accurately termed “Afrophobia”, because the large majority of its targets are other black Africans. “It is manifest in the daily insecurity of living as a foreigner in the country, and the menace implied by the whisper of amakwerekwere – a pejorative label reserved specifically for African foreign nationals,” he writes.
He adds, “refugees and asylum seekers have proved a useful scapegoat for politicians seeking to avoid blame for performance failures, and some of the smears can be extremely crude.”
There is certainly a prevalent xenophobic attitude towards people from outside of the continent too. In light of the recent coronavirus pandemic, anti-Asian sentiment has been on the rise. “South Africans of Asian descent have been blatantly denied service at retail stores or given a wide berth in restaurants or queues”, writes Kieth Tamkei for the Sunday Times.
Of course, the mistreatment of foreigners of any race or nationality in South Africa is unacceptable, not to mention lacking in logical and statistical bases. What’s even more appalling is the fact that these sentiments continue to grow here, while the rest of the world fights to embrace equality.
Africa is full of black lives – and they matter too
By the end of the 20th century all of Africa, except for Ethiopia and Liberia had been colonised –through military invasion, diplomatic pressures, and general imperialist aggression – by European (read: white) powers. Countries like Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, and Spain were competing for power within European power politics, and they did so at the expense of millions of black people. Now, finally, the rigged systems they put in place across the African continent and the globe are being questioned loudly and fervently.
Now is the time for all people , regardless of colour to be uniting to bring about long-overdue change. It’s even more important that the people who have, for generations, been negatively affected by the echoes of colonialism and the slave trade it birthed stand together and make their long-suppressed voices heard.
In the US, despite some dissident characters like pro-Trump activist Candace Owens and her ilk, this strategy seems to be working. Imagine the changes that could be implemented in Africa – a continent of 54 countries and a population of 1,2 billion people – if Africans could set aside their fear and hatred of each other.
We finally have so many people engaging in dialogue about systemic racism and the effects of white privilege, and black South Africans – who have been neglected, disenfranchised and taken advantage of by whiteness and its iron fist – would still rather fight against other black Africans.
Admittedly, South Africa has a lot of issues to deal with. Last year, the government declared femicide a national crisis. Like everywhere else, we’re dealing with the effects of a rapidly growing global pandemic – perhaps more so than many other countries on account of our poor medical infrastructure, large informal settlements, and high prevalence of HIV and TB infections.
Perhaps there are also immigration factors that need to be considered. Regardless, though, we finally have the potential to make something out of the chaos that is 2020. There’s a window of opportunity to rectify the wrongs of the past. Now is the time for Africans to take back the power that Europeans stole from them generations ago, fix the broken systems that insure that the power continues to be withheld, and for white people to understand the price of their privilege and learn how to overcome the biases they’ve been instilled with.
Surely, black lives should matter regardless of where they’re from. Their value does not lie within the colours of a flag chosen by a nation state that was originally carved out by white, European powers. It’s time for Africa to stand together. We can make all the noise we want on social media with the #BlackLivesMatter tag, but as long as South Africans are still tweeting #NigeriansMustFall, they won’t matter nearly enough.