South Africa and moral tragedy of our times

Saturday September 14 2019

Moses Khisa

Moses Khisa  

By Moses Khisa

The despicable apartheid regime in South Africa attracted arguably the widest and most concerted global outrage. It wasn’t just immoral, it was vicious and inhumane. You only have to review apartheid laws and see images of signposts and instructions about the different races in the country.
Racial segregation and discrimination was so egregious and brazen. I suspect that the architects of a similarly reprehensible system in America may have felt theirs didn’t go far enough.
Not since the era of the abolition movement and the struggle to end racialised enslavement had there been such a global-wide mobilisation and resistance as was mounted against the racist regime in South Africa.
From Harlem to Havana, Paris to Port au Prince and whether on the African continent or among the African diaspora in the United States and the Caribbean, the struggle against apartheid unified Africa and its peoples across the globe.
Africans and Africa-descended peoples around the world rallied to denounce and deride a regime that had systematically stripped a whole majority Black race of their basic rights and freedom, more over on the land of their ancestors.
Africans had for long been subjected to dehumanisation and indignity, especially on plantations in the Caribbean and the Americas, but not quite on home soil, not to the extent that the white minority rulers engineered and instituted in South Africa. Leopold and the Belgians brutalised the people of Congo to devastating long-term effect and forced labour was the hallmark of colonial economic extraction. But these pale in comparison to the apartheid apparatus.
But the scale and magnitude of institutionalised racism, legal segregation and official discrimination in South was unmatched on the continent, continuing to happen, in fact intensify, even after much of the continent had gained political independence.
Many independent African governments and peoples, specifically the Frontline states of southern Africa and Tanzania, paid heavily for stepping forward to overtly denounce and covertly fight the apartheid regime.
The Organisation of African Unity, the continental body that subsequently became the African Union, was for much of the 1970s and 80s singularly focussed on the fight to defeat apartheid. In the United States, African-Americans were relentless in protesting against apartheid and pushing their government to severe ties with the regime in South Africa. With the leading role of the Congressional Black Caucus, in 1986, the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act was passed in the US Congress in spite of President Ronald Reagan’s veto. Those efforts, local, regional and global were not in vain. The more than half-century of overt and official racism was brought down, or at least cut to size, when in 1990 negotiations for a democratic republic took shape following Nelson Mandela’s release from 27 years in jail.
Apartheid as a legal system and official policy may have come to an end, but as practice and a social institution deeply ingrained in people’s imaginations, it did not go away. What is more, South Africa has remained Africa’s leading centre of global capitalism. This has serious implications.
But the sum of it is that the country is one of the most economically unequal societies in the world, in fact believed to be the most unequal going by the World Bank’s Gini Coefficient index that measures inequality around the world, despite its flaws both methodological and substantive.
Today, South African faces a deep social crisis of reconciling its painful past with a difficult present and coming to terms with thriving disguised apartheid. The recent xenophobic violence shocked the world and attracted perhaps the kind of moral disapproval that the apartheid regime drew from African peoples.
It’s unwise though to pass judgement without having a full grasp of the dynamics on the ground. Those of us commenting from afar have to be measured, simply because we don’t know enough. We shouldn’t rush to apportion blame for the violence even though the situation as a whole is appalling and simply not acceptable.
There are countless different nationalities in Uganda today, many in Ethiopia. Ghana hosts many Ivorians, Togolese, Burkinabes and Nigerians. Kenya is home to Rwandans, Somalis, Ugandans, etc. It’s unlikely that the kind of xenophobic violence witnessed in South, which is by no means new, can happen in Ghana or Uganda. The question remains, why South Africa. It’s an invitation to a sober reflection, especially by the political leadership in that country.