THIS week we start what we hope will be weekly opinion articles that are on the edge, and make for very uncomfortable reading, about Africa – while raising important questions about the past, present, or future of the continent. In nearly all the cases, Mail & Guardian Africa doesn’t share or endorse the views of the authors.
There is one item in the coverage of the recent outbreak of xenophobic attacks against, mostly, African immigrants in South Africa, that at first seemed odd.
In international, including African, media there were reports about “Zulu mobs” and “Zulu gangs” attacking immigrants.
One reason is that the epicentre of the attacks was Durban, the largest state in KwaZulu-Natal province, the land of the great Zulu people.
The attacks themselves are blamed on Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini who is seen as having triggered them when, in a xenophobic rant, he said immigrants should “pack and leave”. The king has simply only said he was misunderstood, not that he is sorry.
The reference to Zulus, actually highlighted an uncomfortable fault line in South Africa politics, like in most of the rest of Africa – ethnicity.
The man who led South Africa to freedom, “Saint” Nelson Mandela, was Xhosa. So was his deputy Thabo Mbeki.
In some circles, the Mandela-Mbeki power elite became known as the Xhosanostra (a play on the Sicilian Mafia, also known as Cosa Nostra).
Conspiracies and more conspiracies
Thus the subtext in the ouster of Mbeki by president Jacob Zuma in 2008, was that the Zulu, South Africa’s most populous community, felt cheated and it was their turn to govern.
With Zuma’s scandal-tainted rule coming to an end in 2019, there are conspiratorial whispers of now the ZuluNostra plotting to keep the presidency, to shield themselves and Zuma from prosecution. And it is one reason, critics say, the name of African Union chief, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma – Zuma’s ex-wife – keeps popping up one of the potential successors.
All this raises the question of what will happen in South Africa if KwaZulu-Natal, with its proverbial militancy, has to deal with a post-Zuma political arrangement in which they feel hounded or marginalised.
An immigrant is stoned in a xenophobic attack in South Africa.
It a concern that only serves to highlight the several unknowns about South Africa. First, nearly all African countries that were ruled by a minority white regime had a meltdown. Either pre-independence or an immediate independence meltdown (Mozambique and Angola), or post-independence (Zimbabwe). Only Namibia and South Africa survive.
The difference between Namibia and South Africa is that their liberation movement ruling parties have enjoyed very different fortunes.
The South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO), in Namibia has maintained its credibility better than the African National Congress (ANC). It is not as corrupt, and has been more united.
The ANC, on the other hand, perhaps because it was really a big tent party, had extremes – especially the radical and sometimes loony fringe represented by the ANC Youth Wing.
Invariably, it leader Julus Malema, led a break away in 2014 to form the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) which won seats in Parliament.
The ANC with that became the first major long-standing liberation party to have such a break within 10 years in Africa. The case of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which fractured in a murderous split in December 2013 doesn’t compare, because it has nowhere near the ANC’s pedigree.
Secondly, the white communities lived longer in South Africa than anywhere else in Africa. By the end of apartheid, after over 400 years, they could claim to have lived there longer than some black peoples. And their numbers are far larger than anywhere else on the continent.
The modern South African state was cobbled together, including with what were already white republics – like the Orange Free State, now the Free State.
Anyhow, if the present South Africa falls apart, a real possibility that could come from KwaZulu Natal post-Zuma and with a splintered ANC, it could easily result in secession by some of its provinces without a centre to hold it together.
There is a real possibility that there could be two primarily “white” states; in the Western Cape, and possibly the Free State, where white capital and influence is still strong.
That is not what African patriots should be afraid of most, though. After all, we have had the Ethiopia-Eritrea break, Sudan-South Sudan, and will eventually see Western Sahara becoming fully free from Morocco; possibly Casamance breaking from Senegal; and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) fracturing.
It is what will follow next that will be the ultimate nightmare. If 20 years of ANC rule is anything to go by, most of the provinces will fail.
Then you could have the embarrassing spectacle of black people at the border fences of the white-ruled Western Cape and Free State, going there to be exactly in the same situation like the African immigrants they are killing and robbing today.
It would seem then that among the things the xenophobic attacks have done, is made it much more critical for the ANC and “black society” to succeed.
But also, it means the most important “post-racial” experiment in Africa is no longer South Africa, but Namibia.
Welcome to a classic 21st Century Africa curved ball.