Weird things happen across the world and Africa has seen more than its fair share of the absurd. From elections that are rigged, to presidents that refuse to leave office, to coups that are not coups ... Africa is rarely known for its quantum of solace on socio-political matters.
The cradle of humankind is a contradictory melting pot of hope and despair, good news and bad, peace and war, abundance and lack, joy and tears. A place where extreme wealth exists side by side with mind-numbing poverty.
Consider this, for one. Somewhere in South Africa, which shed precious blood and tears to slay the ferocious three-headed beast of racial inequality, colonialism and oppression, there exists an ode to whiteness, a whites-only town — where black people are not permitted to take up residence. Orania sticks out like a sore thumb in a country struggling to heal from generations of racial segregation. The criteria for choosing prospective residents is strict and simple, and the most important is ‘whiteness’. In this town, the message is “we are not against black people, we are for ourselves”. Confused? Go figure it out!
That’s not all. Incidents of white people using disparaging terms and racial epithets on black people are shockingly high.
South Africa is a nation still healing. It is doing its best. I’ve befriended many white people from the country, people to whom the colour of one’s skin means nothing. For these, South Africa is home, and the black majority are brothers and sisters. But the ghost of apartheid refuses just to go quietly. I will never forget walking into a shop in one of Johannesburg’s many malls 11 years ago, a full 13 years after the end of apartheid, and being called a ‘filthy [expletive]’ by the store manager, a young lady who was my age.
Yes, this is Africa, where hate and love are next-door neighbours, where tolerance and intolerance coexist. Perhaps this is what United States President Donald Trump had in mind when he made his ‘sh**hole’ remark earlier this year. Whatever his intentions, the remarks were roundly condemned worldwide then. And last Wednesday, Trump landed himself in trouble once more when he waded into the row over South Africa’s move to expropriate land without compensation in a post on twitter.
The tweet drew widespread outrage in South Africa across the country’s rich racial spectrum. Some white farmers criticised Trump, with one being quoted by the United Kingdom’s Daily Express as saying: “I think Donald Trump must really take his long hair ... and leave our people the hell alone ... He’s an outsider and he knows nothing about farming.”
Race, across the world, is a tricky topic to tackle. What one may construe as race-linked, another does not. There is a super-sensitivity that is often counterbalanced by mind-blowing indifference, often leading to conflict, one alleging to be a victim of racial hate at the hands of another who asks: “What’s race got to do with it?”
But in this instance, the far-right fringe that contributed to Trump’s misinformed tweet have been claiming for years that farm murders are at an all-time high. These white nationalists allege that white farmers are being targeted and killed for their land while the government casts a blind eye to events.
Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Farm attacks have not spared black people or other races in South Africa. The narrative that it is white genocide, as some far-right extremists in the country claim, is patently false. Statistics show that in 2001, the year with the highest number of recorded attacks, white people made up 61.6 per cent of those attacked on farms, while blacks made up 33.3 per cent of victims.
In short, farm attacks are part of a broader crime problem bedevilling South Africa, and not a genocide unfolding. The way white supremacists and right-wing elements have cried ‘genocide’ has some white farmers worried and protesting the fact that the media does not cover attacks on black or Asian farmers. An example was in June, when two farms attacked in South Africa’s province of Free State. One of the attacks was on a white farmer and his wife and was reported in the media. The other attack, where the victims were two black farmers, got no coverage at all.
South Africa is not the first to grapple with land expropriations. Zimbabwe tried it, ostensibly to empower the black majority who had been dispossessed of their arable land by white settlers. Yet, the exercise was hijacked and turned into a vote-buying tool by Zimbabwe’s long-time strongman and former president Robert Mugabe.
Most Zimbabweans agree that land expropriations were necessary to right the wrongs brought about by colonialism and further entrenched by the Southern Rhodesian Land Apportionment Act, passed in 1930. What they disagree on is on how Mugabe implemented the exercise.
In similar fashion, South Africa is also trying to fix the wrongs of its horrific past espoused in laws such as the Native Land Act, passed in 1913, which was the first major piece of segregation legislation passed in the country. Such laws laid the foundation for apartheid.
When expropriations started in Zimbabwe, western media were at pains to show how Mugabe’s regime was “racist” in dispossessing white farmers of “their land”. No one spoke of the poor grandmother who still remembered when her family was dispossessed of the land by white settlers, with no compensation, and had lived through several decades seeing the descendants of the same white settlers enjoy the fruits of that land stolen from her family.
South Africa is at pains to avoid going down Zimbabwe’s route. Whether they will succeed depends on how far the world will lend itself to walking a mile in Africa’s shoes.
For all his failures, Mugabe was spot-on in September 2002 at the Earth Summit, telling his arch-nemesis, the then British prime minister Tony Blair: “Blair keep your England and let me keep my Zimbabwe.”
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa took inspiration from this over the weekend when he said: “I don’t know what Donald Trump has to do with South African land because he has never been here and he must keep his America; we will keep our South Africa; that is what he must do. South Africa is our land. South Africa belongs to all the people who live here in South Africa, it does not belong to Donald Trump; he can keep his America, when I meet him I will tell him.”
One thing is clear, though. Trump should avoid interfering with a matter he knows very little about and focus on getting America to heal. That way, America will become great again, and so too will Africa.