There hasn’t been a day of reckoning in South Africa, but if things don’t change tangibly and soon, there will be. And when it comes, it will be horrific, but it will not be without cause.
Ishtiyaq Shukri considers the implications of Brexit, the American presidential race, hysteria around migration, and the recent unrest in Tshwane
Like so many people in the world today, I don’t live in a country, but between countries. Over time, I have developed an affinity with all of them. When I am physically present in one, the others are always on my mind.
South Africa and Britain are two of my countries, and while I no longer feel at liberty to travel to Britain physically, life is not only experienced through the movements of the body, but also in the workings of the mind. Despite my physical exclusion from the UK, I spend a lot of mental time there, particularly in London. I have lived for so long between my countries that they have begun to merge, no longer separate places on the map, but one place in my head. That is where they co-exist and where I hold them together.
Watching our capital burn, on the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising
This has been a particular difficult week for South Africa and Britain. In Pretoria, riots erupted on 21 June over the nomination of Thoko Didiza as the ANC’s mayoral candidate in local elections scheduled for August. To see our capital city in flames isn’t easy, but in the case of Pretoria, it has been especially cutting to witness such fiery images coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising of 16 June, 1976. Those pictures of Pretoria in flames paint a thousand words, among them the following eight: All is not well. Something needs to change.
News from Britain has also been vexing. On 16 June, I was driving on a busy motorway and had turned down the radio to negotiate a convoy of trucks when five words filtered through the din of the highway to punch me in the ears – British Member of Parliament shot. In the immediacy of the moment, the announcement competing for my attention with the lorry ahead, the thought crossed my mind that perhaps the shooting had occurred in Afghanistan or Iraq. Isn’t that where such things happen? I slowed down and turned up the volume to hear the details: not Afghanistan or Iraq, but West Yorkshire, England. I remember looking at the radio and asking out loud, “What?”
This week, those words from the protest song by the British rock band Queen have going round in my head, the way songs sometimes do:
Is this the world we created? We made it on our own.
Is this the world we devastated, right to the bone?
If there’s a God up in the sky looking down
What must he think of what we’ve done
To the world that He created?
That they grow ever more poignant with the passing of time belies our assumptions of our age as the pinnacle of human progress and evolution. When I look around the world, particularly at the countries in which I have lived my life, I draw different conclusions about the state of the world and the language we use to describe it. We use terms like the “developed world”, the “first world”, the “industrialised world” to categorise, to elevate and to denigrate, whereas I have a growing sense of foreboding that only one descriptor is increasingly relevant to ever-expanding swathes of our planet – the devastated world – because that is how most people on Earth experience life. What meaning is there to any of our categories when the economic and foreign policies of rich countries in the “developed world” are directly responsible for the poverty and insecurity of poor countries in the “developing world”, their policies actively working against development to foster destruction and annihilation instead. Let me give just one example – Yemen – pulverised by Saudi Arabia with British and American weapons.
The dynamics of the contrived categories we impose on the world are equally at work in the horrendous language we use to talk about people we perceive as different. There are two current affairs items, which – along with Tony Blair – I have taken to muting. The first is news involving the American billionaire currently a front-runner for the Republican Party in the campaign for the US Presidency. I refuse to write his name. He has already had more media coverage than a bigoted idiot should. The other is the debate around Britain’s proposed exit from the European Union to be decided in a referendum on 23 June. No longer able to endure the vitriol of the “Brexit” campaign, I tuned out.
The myth of change in South Africa
Similarly, if anything belies the myth of change in South Africa, it is the language South Africans continue to use and the ways of thinking we continue to employ. Young privileged South Africans can frequently be heard arguing that they are not responsible for apartheid as they were born after it (supposedly) ended. This kind of thinking is born out of that of their parents, who similarly absolved themselves of responsibility through claims that they either did not know what was going on, or that they were merely abiding by the laws of the land, or that they were simply following orders. These deceptions continue to be peddled as truths in South Africa, where they are used by enormously privileged people trying to reconcile and legitimise the continued states of unequal favour they enjoy, and to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the enduring trauma tormenting the country. And even as they employ such duplicity, it is without any awareness of the converse being true – that if wealthy South Africans born after 1994 are not responsible for the state of the nation and therefore at liberty to enjoy their wealth, then poor South Africans born at the same time are not responsible for their poverty and therefore at liberty to protest.
In reality, the truth is more like this: around the world, but especially in South Africa, privilege and poverty are inherited, and like most inheritances, you get it from your parents. 22 years after 1994, who in South Africa still lives in townships? And how many township inhabitants are white? By what perverted thinking have privileged South Africans become innocent victims? Of Africa’s 10 richest people, three are South African – more than in any other country on the continent. All three are white (men). The notion that they are victims is the same kind of perversity that allows Israel to paint itself the victim of Palestinian aggression even while it has nuclear bombs and the most powerful army in the Middle East at its disposal, while Palestinians have stones and knives and crude Qassam rockets.
Britain is the most corrupt country in the world: Brexit deflects the real issues
Such flawed reasoning becomes the rationale through which we justify and perpetuate racist stereotypes and attitudes. Take corruption, for instance. Depictions of Africa as endemically corrupt are commonplace. And while corruption certainly blights our continent, according to Transparency International, Britain is in fact the most corrupt country in the world, and London the world’s “number-one home for the fruits of corruption”. But who cares about facts when they conflict with our ingrained notions of the developed world, of the west, of the first world and of Europe, which brings us another set of truths. Europe is in meltdown because of its supposed migration crisis, but it is in Africa where most of the world’s refugees live – more than 2.5 million. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, 26 percent of the world’s refugee population lives in Sub-Saharan Africa. And the countries that host the largest refugee populations are not in Europe, but in Asia and the Middle East – Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon.
The same language used by privileged South Africans has been on abundant display in Europe. European countries have colonised the world, yet they descend into crisis when a fraction the world’s most desperate and vulnerable people arrive at their borders, not as violent colonisers but as desperate refugees. On 4 April, 2016 the EU started sending migrants back to Turkey, some fleeing conflict-ridden countries like Afghanistan, which EU member states like Britain actively helped plunge into war. In 2004 I was awarded the inaugural EU Literary Award. On 4 April, 2016, I felt nothing but shame. Today it is an award that leaves me with a deep feeling of embarrassment and betrayal.
In Britain, hysteria around migration has led to the prospect of a British withdrawal from the EU. In the wake of the assassination of the British MP Jo Cox by Thomas Mair, there is now a petition sweeping across the UK to cancel the referendum on Thursday. I hope it will be called off, but that is unlikely. This referendum should never have been called for in the first place. If Britain wants to have a referendum, let it have one on ending the sales of arms to Saudi Arabia. Let it have one on ending its involvement in illegal foreign military interventions. If Britain wants to have a serious national debate, let it have one on ending the scourge of homelessness, poverty and exclusion, particularly white poverty and exclusion, because in Britain, white poverty is invisible. And when white poverty in Britain does appear on the national stage, it is usually as the butt of the joke in sitcoms like Little Britain. Vicky Pollard is a target precisely because she is poor white.
This referendum deflects such issues, and taking Britain out of the EU won’t improve things for Vicky, however much she has been promised that it will. It is a deceptive, indulgent and shortsighted campaign, set upon tearing up Europe and dismantling the world. It has revealed deep divides in British society. Should Britain leave the EU, how will its factions continue to cohabit an isolated island? And when the EU is no longer to blame, what will be the substitute piñata, and who will people like Thomas Mair feel at liberty to stab and shoot next? This parochial campaign has serious international consequences because a British exit from the EU will leave Europe weaker. The tragic killing of Jo Cox should also remind us of the global dangers posed by a weakened Europe should it all unravel.
On 28 June, 1914, a Slavic nationalist Gavrilo Princip fired a shot that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg. The shot was fired in Sarajevo, but it travelled through Europe and around the world, igniting World War I. Should Thursday’s referendum go ahead, I hope British voters will consider their choice carefully. I hope they will look beyond their immediate horizons and consider the world as it is, a tinderbox, fragile, volatile and highly militarised. I hope British people will consider the sinister movements that will feel emboldened should the Leave camp win. The neo-Nazi nationalist movement National Action has already voiced support for the killing of Jo Cox. I hope that British voters will remember their history, and recall just how far the bullets of European nationalists like Princip and now Mair can travel.
There hasn’t been a reckoning in South Africa yet
And as Pretoria burns, let wealthy and powerful South Africans continue to dismiss and isolate themselves from the grievances of the township. The riots in Pretoria may have been sparked by the announcement of a mayoral candidate, but the level and spread of the violence suggests that it is fuelled by deeper unresolved issues. Many of those go back decades, some even centuries. There hasn’t been a reckoning in South Africa yet, and if you think 27 April, 1994 was a substitute, perhaps it’s time to think again. It may have been a kiss-and-make-up moment, but that’s clearly all it was – a moment. The good will of that day on which people felt they had achieved real change has gone. A new generation has grown up. They care little for the amnesties, or negotiated settlements or the rainbows their parents settled for. They are not impressed by some of the heroes of the struggle so admired by their parents’ generation. They weren’t there for the love-in, remember? 27 April, 1994 may have been your day of freedom, but it clearly isn’t theirs. And why should it be when they don’t live in a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, but in a township at the back of a hill? There hasn’t been a day of reckoning in South Africa, but if things don’t change tangibly and soon, there will be. And when it comes, it will be horrific, but it will not be without cause. No doubt, the pictures from that day will also paint a thousand words, among them the following three: Lord help us.
Ishtiyaq Shukri is the author of the EU Literary Award-winning The Silent Minaret and I See You