In 1997, I was a researcher and translator at the French Institute for Research in Africa (IFRA), a French government-owned research funder in the humanities and social sciences based at the University of Ibadan. One of our research streams was entitled, “Youth, Street Culture, and Urban Violence in Africa”. For three years, more than fifty commissioned African and Western scholars worked on the theme, using case studies from Africa’s capital cities. We decided to end that research cycle with a conference on the theme in Abidjan, Cote-d’Ivoire.
One of our featured speakers, a South African, arrived Abidjan a few hours to the opening of the conference, having flown in overnight from Johannesburg. This speaker, a South African who had just flown in from Johannesburg, started her own plenary session by expressing joy and excitement at finally being able to visit Africa for the first time. You could cut the silence in the room with a Nigerian butcher’s knife. The speaker didn’t even realize the slip and continued with a brilliant speech. That was my rude introduction to South African exceptionalism, the subject of a book I’ve been working on for some time now with my co-writer and brother, Babs Fagbayibo.
That South African, visiting Africa for the first time in 1997, was white.
I was a Visiting Fellow at IFAS, the French Institute of South Africa, based in Johannesburg. Colleagues at Wits University and the University of Johannesburg (then RAU) periodically cashed in on my presence for lectures and seminars. During a seminar at Wits, I decided to wear a brand new “ole n tele afaa” that my tailor had made back in Ibadan. Lively international audience, lively questions. One graduate student, a South African, asked a question that was not directly related to the subject of my seminar presentation. He admired what I was wearing. He loved African fashion, he told me. Then: “is this how people dress ordinarily in Africa or are you wearing this because you consider a seminar a special occasion?”
The South African who wanted to know how people dressed in Africa was black.
I was still in South Africa when President Bill Clinton embarked on a swing across Africa, visiting five or six countries, including South Africa. Excitement was palpable. The media was abuzz: Clinton was coming to Cape Town! On radio, on TV, every pundit, without the slightest trace of irony, discussed “President Clinton’s visit to Africa and South Africa”
South Africans who were excited about Clinton’s visit “to Africa and South Africa” were of every race.
These three scenarios speak to a South African national imaginary of exceptionalism which explains in part, only in part, the demonology of the African other or the othered African now playing out in the streets of Durban and Johannesburg.
Of course, the delusion that you are not part of Africa, that you are not of Africa, and are therefore somehow superior, is no justification for xenophobia and murder. It only partly contextualizes and nuances it for the unwary who do not know where all this is coming from. You shouldn’t have to not demonize and kill those black foreigners just because you now know that you are African just like them and they are Africans just like you.
You shouldn’t have to demonize and kill at all just because we are all humans. Our common humanity is more important than our common Africanhood.
But, all the same, the leaders of South Africa must understand that this is crunch time. They are either going to have to physically relocate that country to a spot midway between Europe and the United States in order to properly belong to the imaginary they desire or attend to the urgent task of mass re-education to help citizens understand that:
You are in Africa.
This is Africa.
White, Black, Indian, if you are South African, you are an African.