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Friday, June 21, 2024
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In South Africa, Europe on African Soil

By Farooq A. Kperogi

I was in South Africa from May 16 to May 23 to deliver two talks on theory and social communication at the Nelson Mandela University in the city of Port Elizabeth (which has been renamed Gqeberha). It was my first time in this country of remarkable contrasts, which birthed apartheid and inspired righteous rage in the consciences of all who love freedom, justice, and equality.

More than 20 years before this visit, I had made the acquaintance of a South African journalist of Indian descent by the name of Venilla Yoganathan. We met in June 2003 here in the United States. While I gushed about the architectural and infrastructural sophistication of Washington, DC, where I am incidentally writing this column from, she wasn’t enthused in the least. She bragged that there was nothing in America that would make a South African envious.

That encounter endured in my mind for more than two decades. Visiting South Africa two weeks ago confirmed what she said. South Africa is an incredibly beautiful country with solid infrastructure that can compete with any in the world. It is basically Europe on African soil. I guess we might call that one of the few benign legacies of apartheid. But there are other lingering malign legacies I’ll come to shortly.

In the one week that I stayed in the country, I’ve had several moments when I forgot that I wasn’t in the United States, not only because of the similarities in the landscape, weather, and infrastructure of the two countries but also because of the contagious friendliness of the people in the city where I stayed. Like in the American south, where I’ve lived for two decades, almost everyone I met in Port Elizabeth wore a smile, which they beamed at strangers liberally. A few people even mistook me for a native and spoke Xhosa to me!

I also encountered in the country the kind of deep, overpowering, and infectious patriotism that I first saw in my South African acquaintance more than 20 years ago. She radiated immense pride in being South African. She even said she was thankful that her ancestors were uprooted from India to South Africa. I saw that same sense of profound emotional investment in the country among Black, Colored, and White South Africans I had a chance to interact with.

Being born and raised in Nigeria where subnational loyalties trump national identity, where democracy manifests as ethnocracy, where fissiparity and interminable ethno-religious feuding perpetually push us to the brink and back, this was refreshingly different for me. Although racial and ethnic divisions persist two decades after the dislodgement of apartheid, there is unmistakable commitment to the nation from most strata of South African society.

Using my own Nigerian frame of reference, which I’d imagined was true of most African countries, I asked a South African professor of history about how ethnocracy (i.e., supposed democracies where ethnic groups whose member is the president dominate the apparatus of the state to enhance their interests) manifests in South Africa. She couldn’t relate to the concept.

The Zulu enjoy numerical dominion in South Africa, but out of South Africa’s five post-apartheid presidents, they’ve had only one president, and that is Jacob Zuma. Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki are Xhosa. Kgalema Motlanthe, South Africa’s third president, is Sotho-Tswana. Cyril Ramaphosa, the current South African president, is Venda, which is an ethnic minority.

From my conversation with my South African colleague, it dawned on me that ethnic identities don’t have the same primacy in South Africa as they do in West Africa. Because of their experience with a viciously racist white settler colonialism, identities are constructed mostly in racial terms. I get the sense that people see themselves first as Black, Colored (i.e., mixed race), and White people before they see themselves as members of ethnic groups, at least in national discourse.

That is why the ethnic identity of presidents is immaterial, and why ethnocracies of the sort that dot the political landscape in the rest of Black Africa can’t thrive in South Africa.

Nonetheless, in spite of the country’s superior infrastructure and the impressive patriotic fervor of its citizens, the legacies of apartheid still linger. Although White people constitute less than 10 percent of the population of South Africa, they still control more than 70 percent of the country’s land. And although a robust Black middle class has emerged and is growing, the condition of Black people in urban ghettos called “townships” is still dire.

My host, Professor Uchenna Okeja, a globally garlanded professor of philosophy who is Nigerian, drove me through a “township” that adjoins the city of Port Elizabeth, South Africa’s fifth biggest city where the Nelson Mandela University is located. It’s a grubby, poverty-stricken, soul-depressing, crime-ridden colony of shacks that isn’t worthy of human habitation. But that is where the urban Black underclass live amid the spotless prosperity in the urban areas of the country, which is mostly controlled by the white minority.

The Colored dwelling on the immediate edge of the Black ghetto is cleaner, more affluent, but still light-years behind White residential areas. Although there is no longer legal segregation of the races, economic factors still sustain racial segregation. Maybe I am being impatient, but this disturbed me deeply.

By the way, even immigrant groups, including Nigerians, tend to be self-segregated. And I found that Nigerians don’t have a flattering image here because of the participation of some of our compatriots in drug pushing and other crimes, even though our people do really well in the professoriate in South African universities.

Well, although middle-class Black people own homes in predominantly White neighborhoods, most of the Black people you see there are non-resident (or live-in) domestic servants performing basic, menial tasks that people in Euro-America do by themselves. A South African told me Europeans who want to experience the sensation of being treated like kings and queens go to South Africa. The weather feels like Europe and the infrastructure is European-quality, but they also get worshipful tending from grinning and grateful Black servants for peanuts.

I first noticed the association of whiteness and wealth among lower-class Black South Africans in Johannesburg. At the airport, I noticed that the only people who airport hucksters solicited to buy anything were white people. I hate unwelcome solicitations, so I was delighted to be spared the torture of continually saying I wasn’t interested in buying anything.

I initially thought the Black hucksters at the airport ignored me because I was dressed informally, but I later noticed that they made no attempt to sell anything to even formally attired Black people but chased down every White person irrespective of how they were dressed. This may be a mistaken, surface impression that misses certain subtleties, but after becoming familiar with the de facto economic apartheid that endures in South African society, I think my snap judgment isn’t entirely misplaced.

In spite of everything, though, South Africa still leads Black Africa in most indices of human development. Its universities have emerged as the leading centers of knowledge production on the continent. They attract the best teachers, have excellent, world-class facilities, are at the cutting edge of research in all areas of human inquiry, and have some of the most dedicated and engaging students you will find anywhere in the world.

The quality of infrastructure and scholarship I saw at the Nelson Mandela University competes favorably with any you would find in Europe, America, or Asia. Someone told me South Africa now occupies the position that Nigeria occupied in the 1960s, 1970s, and parts of the 1980s as the Mecca of Africa’s knowledge production.

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