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If you were to allegorize all of the largely self-inflicted scandals in which the South African state has been embroiled in since 1994, into one being, you’d be forgiven for arriving bang on bullseye at a spoiled child
brat; one who despite plenty of warmth & affection bestowed upon them, doesn’t fully appreciate the sacrifices others made (and continue to make) on their behalf.
And here I’m not referring to the antics of Msholozi (Nkandla, Guptagate, to name just two), nor the other character failings like that time Jacob Zuma absurdly claimed that having a shower protected him from H.I.V; or that dizzyingly ridiculous episode when Thabo Mbeki, an intellectual among Presidents (not just African Presidents), falsely believed that HIV treatments could be poisonous, so withheld proven, life-saving anti-retrovirals (ARVs) from those in need; a lot of H.I.V stories I know, but stories nevertheless that caused real embarrassment to Africans the world over.
No, I’m not talking about all that. I’m also not referring to the embarrassing disasters, like that time during Mandela’s memorial, when the A.N.C clumsily solicited the services of a fake sign language interpreter who was, “signing rubbish” (according to many deaf people who watched the live broadcast) next to international dignitaries – the likes of Barack Obama.
What I’m referring to instead is the vexatious and totally unreasonable behaviour of some people within South Africa who do or say things that no one sensible can ever put a finger on, but which have far reaching consequences, not least tarnishing everything that’s good about brand Africa.
Like that time when the Zulu King Zwelithini sparked xenophobic violence (some say the correct term is “afrophobic”) against immigrants living and working in South Africa, leading to the death of at least seven people ; Or last year’s attacks that killed at least 12 people, and forced the South African government to issue an apology to Nigeria & Ghana. Cyril Ramaphosa even apologised for the violence at Mugabe’s funeral, a pacifying act that turned boos to cheers…as if the special envoys sent to the countries whose citizens were mostly affected by the xenophobic violence – Nigeria, Niger, Ghana, Senegal, Tanzania, the DRC, to mend relations weren’t a sufficient enough diplomatic gesture. I’m talking about the brawls that keep breaking out in South Africa’s parliament (there was at least one in 2017, and another in 2018) . Then there was that almighty near-miss in 2015, when the whole world watched in horror as Oscar Pistorius nearly … nearly escaped justice.
That’s even before we get to the uncomfortable topics – like the drink-driving and associated high motor vehicle accident rates in the country, the gender violence, in particular the killing of women; violent crackdowns like the Marikana Massacre, the huge societal inequalities… the list is rather long.
And so, when just over a week ago it was revealed that some military officials at Waterkloof Air Force Base had crafted a situation that forced President Lazarus Chakwera of Malawi to delay his departure from South Africa for 7 hours, over an outrageous suspicion (involving one ‘Prophet’ Shepherd Bushiri and his wife skipping bail), that shouldn’t have been levelled in the first place, Malawians across the world got really angry.
Here, I must declare an interest. Being a Malawian national, this fiasco was particularly insulting for quite a number of reasons. I must also state that for reasons that will become clearer below, I fully support the statement released by Malawi’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, a few days after the fiasco.
Firstly, whatever the transgressions of Shepherd Bushiri and his wife – and yes they must face justice in a fair trial if compelling evidence of wrongdoing exists, it was extremely stupid of whoever decided to delay the plane’s departure, to drag President Lazarus Chakwera into that hoo-hah. That action alone speaks volumes of South African authorities; the foolishness of those who became suspicious and thought that the Malawian President would stoop so low as to help a wanted person / fugitive escape justice knows no bounds. They’re a liability to South Africa, and the proper functioning of South Africa’s institutions.
Secondly, when it is the case that a leader like former Sudanese president Omar Al Bashir, who had an ICC arrest warrant hanging over his head for genocide in Darfur, visited South Africa in 2018, and pranced around the country unchallenged without so much as a cotton thread tweezered off his garment, how dare South Africa’s police go as far as search president Chakwera’s plane…!? How disparaging is such rabid behaviour!?? Incredible… simply astonishing. What happened to diplomacy?
Now, I understand that South Africa’s police is not a perfect institution. I mean, the country recently fired its Deputy Police Commissioner, because of corruption. Yup, the second chap in command of the police was involved in a corruption saga, and was showed the exit door. So I understand that there is a bit of a quality/ standards problem there. But just because you have nincompoops in your crime fighting forces doesn’t mean that you should transpose the apparent lack of integrity that afflicts some of your institutions onto other countries. Let’s be absolutely clear, we’re not all crooks, and assuming so is extremely ignorant.
Thirdly, I very much doubt that the Hawks would have done exactly the same thing had another leader, say Vladimir Putin, or Angela Merkel been the visiting dignitary instead of Chakwera. And that’s a big problem in South Africa’s national psyche. Imagine that the Bushiri-type saga involved a German or Russian fugitive. It’s almost unimaginable that South Africa’s police would have marched the German or Russian entourage out of the plane, back to the airport concourse, passport in hand, for these so called “security checks”. They definitely wouldn’t have searched their plane, gone through their luggage, and dehumanised the officials of another sovereign state. No chance. You know why, because of all the reasons that anyone with half a brain can think of, it is extremely unprofessional to do so. But doing it to Malawi’s president reveals the kind of attitudes those officials hold towards fellow Africans.
Which begs the question: why do some South African officials seem totally incapable of freeing themselves from from a propensity of generating dishonour? From a tendency of ‘crafting’ high drama?
As an outsider, this erratic and at times self-sabotaging behaviour coming out from the rainbow nation is not only perplexing but extremely annoying. More so because South Africa happens to have the word “Africa” in the country’s name, but at times they behave as though they aren’t even African. And if some foreigners look at all the unhinged behaviour, no wonder some of them disrespect the rest of us (“Shithole country” etc). That sort of behaviour gives Africa a bad name.
Mind you, this is the second largest economy in Africa, this is the land that produced greats not only of the stature of Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, but also the likes of Steve Biko, Desmond Tutu, Albert Lithuli, Miriam Makeba, Brenda Fassie, Trevor Noah…and Elon Musk, internationally recognized personalities the world over who command a lot of respect, for some to the point of a cult following. You really really want to stand back and ask: Where has the excellence gone, what the hell is wrong with these people?
If this all sounds somewhat remote to you, let me try a different angle: If you are an African, do you get pangs of embarrassment or slight discomfort, when someone who is not African, anyone who is not African, during conversation veers into that troublesome topic of … the stereotypical but nevertheless real phenomenon of the Nigerian scammer? That cringey feeling! Like, oh here we go again.
Some apologists say South Africa is a young democracy still in its infancy. That despite the relative economic development, the country is still but a babe learning from it’s mistakes. That with time, things will be ok. As optimistic and soothing to the ear as that may sound, I’m not sure I buy the argument entirely. Unlike countries like South Sudan – which have also had a tumultous and violent history as South Africa has had, but whose national polity arose from a tiny city-state province, South Africans gained their freedom at a point when institutions within their country had already been established and were already arguably strong; with some of the leading Universities in Africa, sprawling cities, a sound legal system and a mature financial system. Thus, the mere addtion of democracy (i.e. majority rule) to that equation ought not to, ordinarily, lead to too much dysfunction. So something else is going on.
Other sympathisers say South Africa is still trying to catch up; that the country is still in transition. The proponents of this argument say that while other African countries have had decades-long headstarts to properly educate their peoples (without discrimination), and many more years to cement their various versions of Pan-Africanism, Black South Africans couldn’t get the kind of quality education necessary for the rebuilding of a stable, functional and fair society for a very long time. And so, the dysfunction and blunders associated with the post-Apartheid South African state are just a natural if not inevitable consequence of that deficiency; what in Chichewa we would call “Chimizi” for lack of a better term. Similarly, the Afrophobia is but a dredge of the hatred that was once thrown at black south Africans by Apartheid. But even this explanation is not entirely convincing.
I think some South Africans just don’t want to learn. I also think too many South Africans don’t know as much of their country’s history and the role other African countries played in securing South Africa’s freedom, as they should; that there is this lazy, ignorant, drunken almost schizophrenic tendency in some people in South Africa to always blame others for their own failures or misfortune.
“You see it the way some South Africans hate Zimbabweans” a friend told me recently. “Instead of getting up and actually working as hard as the Zimbabweans who they like to blame, they find it much easier to just hate and blame them”
Another friend said South Africa’s problem is its misplaced sense of superiority:
“Too many people in South Africa have this high-mindedness that they are better than other Africans. And that creates a problem especially when the people you’re looking down on happen to be the very same people who helped you gain your freedom“