By Chris Anyokwu,
Azania is burning. That much is clear. Looters are having a field day looting property both government’s and private. As always CNN and other international satellite news agencies are beaming the sordid and horrid footage of the massive and unprecedented looting going on in South Africa to the rest of the world. We see both old and mostly young South Africans carting away foodstuffs, electronic items, and furniture stolen from department stores. Some even steal caskets and you’d wonder what the hell for? For their own burial? The one I find extremely risible is the footage showing two or three youths carrying on their collective shoulders the remains of a pig!
Taken together, what this freewheeling orgy of looting by some South-Africans demonstrates is that, beyond the triggering originating event of the incarceration of former South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma, a groundswell of mass revolt was already boiling beneath the placid surface of routinised respectability in South Africa.
The country, having sloughed off its Apartheid past (or has it?) has steadily built itself from the crisis-ridden maelstrom that it formerly was to a near-First-World status, boasting many state-of-the-art infrastructure such as road and rail networks, world-class airports, stadia, beach resorts, among others. As a matter of fact, South Africa is Africa’s number one tourism destination on account of its exquisite tourist attractions including the world-famous Kruger Park.
The country is also fringed by the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. Its biodiversity is, indeed, a thing of envy to many countries in Africa and the world at large. Unlike our own country Nigeria, South Africa is a manufacturing hub. It’s home to CNN Africa, DSTV and MTN South Africa is, unarguably, Africa’s biggest economy, a truly Giant of Africa, unlike some pretenders to the throne, Nigeria inclusive. Perhaps, the source of South Africa’s greatness is, sadly, also the root of its weakness, its Achilles heel.
Given its location and its accompanying benefits and/or advantages, the country, down the ages, had attracted people from far and wide, both those from the African continent and, more crucially, others from outside of the Black continent. People from western nations such as Britain, France, Netherlands, the United States and from Asia, e.g., India, China and Lebanon, all migrated to Azania in search of greener pastures. Several wars were fought by these immigrants as they looked to stake a claim to the sable land. For instance, we all remember the infamous Boer War (1899 – 1902) which claimed an estimated 28,000 Afrikaners, between 14,000 and 20,000 black combatants and more than 20,000 British soldiers.
After a hard-fought struggle for a national identity, South Africa is now home to many ethnic/racial groups including the Coloureds, Afrikaners, White South Africans, Xhosa people and Zulu people, the largest ethnic group in South Africa. A rainbow country of 58.56 million people, by 2019 estimates, South Africa has always subsisted on dream. Like the United States which Christopher Columbus set out in 1492 to discover in search of spices and gold, South Africa has always exercised an elusive and tantalising pull for both blacks and whites who imagine the land to be a temporal outpost of the Biblical Promised Land, a place flowing with milk and honey. The rather unbridgeable gulf separating dream from reality is the cause of the unending orgies of violence that the country has witnessed over the years.
Consider South African literature, for a moment. Whether you are talking about its prose fiction like the works of Alex La Guma (The Stone Country and A Walk in the Night), Peter Abrahams (Tell Freedom and Mine Boy) Nadine Gardiner (July People); or its drama like the plays of Athol Fugard (Sizwe Bansi is Dead, Boesman and Lena, The Island, Captain’s Tiger), and Percy Mtwa, Mbogeni Ngema and Barney Simon’s Woza Albert! or its poetry such as the works of Dennis Bratus (A Simple Lust) and the epic poetry of Mazisi Kunene (e.g. Emperor Shaka The Great), you would discover that the one recurring theme of the country’s creative works is DREAM. Or, HOPE. This same Dream motif runs through the works of the following writers: Njabulo S. Ndebele, Lewis Nkosi, Pamela Jooste, Imraam Coovadia, Sindiwe Magona Zakes Mda, Andre Brink, Coetzee, Fred Kumalo, Zukiswa Wanner, Nthikeng Mohlele, etc. As a result of this perpetual pursuit of nirvana, their people tend to escape from and also escape into something, be it drugs, violence, inner-city crimes, racial tensions and sheer destructiveness. As earlier hinted, whilst their socio-cultural and racial plurality remains their source of strength, it also comes across as their eternal source of sorrow. Egoli, the place of gold, is paradoxically the necropolis of rainbow dreams. As Sipho Nzobe tells us in his award-winning novel, Young Blood, black blood is mostly spilt all over the vaals and steppes and kraals of South Africa as income inequality, joblessness, unemployment, class division and racism usually tear the body politic limb from bloody limb.
And this was what the world witnessed recently as two provinces – KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng went up in flames following the jailing of Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma on charges of contempt of court. A colourful and charismatic character, Zuma, 79, was alleged to have run foul of the law by illegally cornering millions of Rands, the South Africa’s currency, to build and furnish his private quarters, among others.
In 2005, Jacob Zuma was relieved of his post as Deputy President of South Africa after he was charged with corruption by the National Prosecuting Authority. In 2006, the corruption trial of Zuma was struck off the roll at the Pietermaritzburg. In 2007, Jacob Zuma was elected Chairman of African National Congress (ANC). In 2009, he was elected President of the Republic of South Africa. In 2013, controversy arose over the use of public money to build President Jacob Zuma’s home at Nkandla. That was the year Nelson Mandela died. From 2013 to the present, Zuma, a hedonist at heart, has never stayed out of the headlines, principally because of corruption charges. Writing recently on the self-surrender of Zuma to the authorities in order to commence his imprisonment, a frontline female South African politician took a rather conciliatory and indulgent view of the Zuma tragedy. She revealed that Zuma, like most African politicians, does not understand the western concept of democracy. She informed her readers that Zuma is an out-and-out African chief who wields the power of life and death; who sees the common patrimony as his personal fiefdom; who does not see anything untoward or wrong in indulging in gross abuse of office; who lives that others may die.
In fairness to the non-feminist tradition-upholding premier, these words are not her actual words but they capture in broad strokes her general drift. The Zuma saga has thrown up a number of divergent but inter-related issues. Followers of global affairs and social trends have tried to disentangle the troubles of Jacob Zuma from the epidemic of looting, wanton destruction of property and, most tragically, loss of life purportedly instigated by the Zuma case. Whilst, on the one hand, it is believed that folks in solidarity with their fallen and disgraced leader, went on rampage in protest against Zuma’s fate, on the other hand, a school of thought is of the opinion that the looting, the destruction of property and the killings are a logical reaction against decades of racial oppression, income inequality and marginalisation of the black majority.
In 1996, South Africa set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at which former South Africa’s President F.W. de Klerk made an official apology for crimes committed under apartheid. Nelson Mandela himself, after spending 26 years on Robben Island as a prisoner of conscience, came out to become the country’s first black president.
But, more poignantly, he had extended an olive branch to all his enemies and adversaries, helping in cementing the foundations of the multi-racial nation by that singular act of personal heroism. As the smoke and dust clear from the various flash-points in the roiling nation of Mariam Makeba, Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Lucky Dube, we hope Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s President and his team can rise to the occasion and demonstrate leadership, vision, courage and compassion. Let the culprits be brought to book expeditiously and those who have lost property compensated. May the souls of the unfortunate dead rest in peace. In closing, it is hoped, however, that here in Nigeria, our power-holders would learn a thing or two from the Zuma hero-to-zero trajectory. And as Niyi Osundare poetizes in Village Voices, let them remember that: “The people will always outlive the palace”.
Chris Anyokwu, PhD, writes from University of Lagos