It has been a hectic few weeks for South African and Africans living in South Africa. While some debated from the comfort and security of suburban pubs and restaurants, others cowered in fear or fled their homes in terror as a few misguided groups terrorised black foreign nationals. The damage to brand South Africa on the African continent has been massive. Ironically, May is the month we observe Africa Day to celebrate the 1963 founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) now called the African Union (AU) and, irony of ironies, headed up by a South African woman!
The South African government has taken some visible steps to try and recover some of the damage done. For instance, Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba pitched up at the, zouk sensation, Kassav Concert at the Bassline on 26 April to apologise to the mostly foreign crowd and declare, “South Africa is your home!” It was a small but important gesture which was well received.
South Africans can also have small but important gestures. This year, at my house, we are hosting our second Africa Day celebration. We invite friends from the African continent, and France because we have a strong francophone component, to dress up, bring a meal and share it with other friends. Last year was a huge success. In South Africa’s own internal journey, one often hears Afrikaaners being “pleasantly surprised” at “how nice it was after all” when they eventually interact with black people at a social level. You see discovery slowly making its way across their faces. Perhaps, it is something that South Africans can consider doing. Way beyond the Zimbabweans, Mozambicans and Malawians who they know well, they can consider having a “bring and share” within their neighbourhoods. When you talk to your neighbour, you discover things about them: a sick child needing an operation, cultural discoveries, similarities in language, business opportunities and even trade secrets! I am lucky enough to speak a couple of Zambian languages and a couple more of Zimbabwean languages together with a smattering of two Malawian languages. My South African friends are often pleasantly surprised when on hearing them speak I tell them, “oh that is the same word used in such and such a language or place.” Get to know your neighbours, their fears, aspirations, joys and sorrows.
You see, we really are one people. No, not the wishy washy we love each other stuff. We do not have to but we can live in societies of tolerance and broadmindedness. We really are one people. I mean, how could the Ndebele people of Zimbabwe be considered foreign to South Africa when they left the Zulu nation only less than two hundred years ago? You will find offshoots of the same people as far as Eastern Zambia, Malawi and Northern Tanzania! One people, abantu! We were enslaved as one, colonised as one and we fought all our battles as one. We have a bigger battle that we are fighting and it is an economic battle to help uplift the continent. It is not by turning on each other for scraps that we are going to succeed. We can only be stronger through our diversity. Believe me there are shopping malls in Accra, Lagos, Lusaka and Lilongwe that look like they were lifted out of South Africa by helicopter and placed in those countries. Africa is our home and we can do well by our people by harnessing our efforts to lift the continent. Let’s start by getting to know each other.
So we are hosting our friends and by doing that, we are introducing some friends to other friends. Like last year, the dialogue, food, music and celebration will be rich and everyone will go away that little bit more enriched. It is not a chore, it is a lifestyle choice. We choose to celebrate diversity whether it is at Sunday lunch or the places we frequent.
South Africans like to tell the world of their exceptionalism, of the “miracle” that is the rainbow nation and how they come together with erstwhile enemies or oppressors during sports events. It is time to get together with your African brothers and sisters. I would like to know you. Would you like to know me? While you are at it, you could also perhaps stop referring to Africa as if it was a faraway place. South Africa is on the continent too! It is not only in the name. “Light a candle, instead of cursing the darkness!”
By Albert Gumbo