Yes, April was the cruelest month in South Africa in recent history. In the mid weeks of the month, too many pictures stirred up bad memories. A black man in his late twenties kissing a sparkly machete. A young man crouching by the side of a wall, holding a sharp knife, ready to use. A group of angry black men brandishing hatchets. Three white policemen pointing their guns at a bloodthirsty mob. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the last one is a dictionary. Three white policemen ready to shoot black men, who were after other black men in South Africa. There can be no greater irony. You can hear Queen Victoria saying: I told you so. These people needed to be protected from themselves.
But it would be wrong for Queen Victoria to celebrate, wherever she might be. Nothing can ever justify violence and looting. And so, I imagine what I, a Nigerian man, would have done if I were found between angry, hatchet-wielding youths and policemen with guns. Would I have run to the descendants of those who massacred innocent demonstrators at Sharpeville, or those whom I was taught in my Pan-African and Black Consciousness classes to love and be in solidarity with because we all are blacks? And having run to the white policemen for refuge, how can I not redefine who my neighbor is? This question applies in Johannesburg as it does in Lagos, Nairobi or Chicago. Who is my neighbor? Who deserves my empathy? Do I have empathy at all? Is blackness still a moral imperative?
The truth of our global age is that autochthony, nativism, or heritage no longer define us exclusively. Whereas they may have helped us Africans to challenge European imperialism in the past, they are now injurious to our humanity. It is time to rethink the moral conditions of not just our solidarity, but, indeed, our existence. If we are incapable of responding to the pain of the other, regardless of who that other is, then the fault might be in our humanity, not in our economic deprivation. But that’s precisely the issue. We have instinctively promoted victimhood to sainthood, and we are morally the poorer for that.
Solidarity based on phenotype or heritage is dangerous. He who loves you because of your skin color can hate you for the same reason. The love is literally only skin deep. It is a given in our history that in our pan-African love fest we failed to advance our moral horizon just as the Afrikaners who constructed their solidarity on race did not. The Pan-Africanism and Black Consciousness on which my generation of Africans was suckled, ended up being at best the means through which we Africans put off the fire burning on the continent. And now we seem to have become mere fire fighters, not ready to go beyond emergency response to reality.
Could it then be that our self-perception and our moral world got stuck in the perceived dignity of difference to white people and in the supposed inviolability of our culture? How else could Jacob Zuma have taken recourse to his Zulu culture as a justification for sleeping with a woman against her will? Perhaps it is not a stretch to suggest that all over Africa the proverbial chickens are coming home to roost. As the Nigerian cultural critic, Denis Ekpo suggests, it is time we liberated ourselves from our liberators and their jaded ideas of Africa. It is time we imagined a more profound, universal, moral world, in tune with the global age which Africa is undoubtedly part of. Where do we look for answers? Achille Mbembe analyzes the mind of those blacks who went after other blacks: “To kill ‘these foreigners’, we need to be as close as possible to their body which we then set in flames or dissect, each blow opening a huge wound that can never be healed. Or if it is healed at all, it must leave on ‘these foreigners’ the kinds of scars that can never be erased.”
The issue then is not that the other black body stands in the way of your progress; rather, it is a case of an infernal hatred of this other body, performed in a macabre ritualistic glee. This is more than ordinary xenophobia can explain. Explanation has to be sought in the realm of psychology: how has the black man developed such an aversion for his fellow black man, for what looks like him? Perhaps we could look for explanation in the realm of ethics: did black people learn to hate the historical enemy (the colonialists) more than they knew how to love themselves? Their bodies?
What is the black body to me? What is the body in pain to me? Until we sufficiently answer these questions, or at least think deeply about them, violence will keep spreading all over Africa. Today the Zulus go after Zimbabweans. Tomorrow, they will go after Xhosas. This is not a prophecy. It is the unavoidable arc of nativism and bigotry. Those who start out attacking others, on the basis of difference, end up attacking their own people on the basis of … well, difference. Fanon said it a while ago; Mbembe reframed it today: “It does not stop with ‘these foreigners’. It is in its DNA to end up turning onto itself in a dramatic gesture of inversion.” There can be no greater challenge for us all.