Mukoma Wa Ngugi and Firoze Manji, Pambazuka news.
The mythologies we have constructed around us are imploding. There is no point in running away from this. The edifices we have of Truth and Reconciliation, post-apartheid healing, rainbow nations and multi-party post-dictatorship democracies are coming down all around us.
What is more, the edifices are crushing down into a sea of ruin. Kenya, Zimbabwe, Somalia, and now South Africa are burning alongside bigger fires in Darfur and the Congo. And where a fragile peace now reigns in countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone, the poverty is so extreme that unless tackled decisively, the slide back into civil war will continue to loom threateningly in the background.
But South Africa especially represents a collective tragedy because, and perhaps naively, it has represented our collective hope for Africa. This land where, as of today, at least 42 Africans from other countries have been killed and thousands are fleeing, businesses destroyed and homes burnt, where the army is being deployed in the poor townships just like the days of apartheid, this is the land that produced Steve Biko, Chris Hani, Ruth First and others.
This is the land that produced a militant and revolutionary Mandela, a Mandela so sure of the righteousness of his struggle that at his treason trial, he described the ideal of a South Africa where "all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities", and as one that he was prepared to die for. That was in 1964 In 1990, when he was released from prison, and with apartheid broken, the promise of his struggle became a possibility. And the new South Africa became our collective hope.
We clung to that hope all the more because in the same year as South Africa held its first democratic election – 1994 - was also the year in which we witnessed the genocidal slaughter of nearly a million people in the space of a few months in Rwanda. Hope and tragedy – these are elements that hover concurrently in our collective consciousness across the continent. In the rest of Africa, we have lived with those contending emotions, but somehow South Africans believed themselves immune.
But history is not without irony for in that same statement that he submitted at the beginning of his prison trial, Mandela said: "The whites enjoy what may well be the highest standard of living in the world, whilst Africans live in poverty and misery. Forty per cent of the Africans live in hopelessly overcrowded and, in some cases, drought-stricken Reserves, where soil erosion and the overworking of the soil makes it impossible for them to live properly off the land.
"Thirty per cent," he continued, "are laborers, labor tenants, and squatters on white farms and work and live under conditions similar to those of the serfs of the Middle Ages. The other 30 per cent live in towns where they have developed economic and social habits which bring them closer in many respects to white standards. Yet most Africans, even in this group, are impoverished by low incomes and high cost of living."
That the ANC struggle would not have succeeded without sacrifices from fellow Africans is well known. As is the fact that the South African economy from the days of apartheid has been kept afloat by migrant labor. So how did we reach this point where xenophobia has turned violent? As in any situation – keep an eye on who benefits.