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What Xenophobia in South Africa Means for The Ideal of Pan-Africanism

Historically the ideal of Pan-Africanism was at the heart of independence movements across Africa. This article examines how the recent deadly bout of xenophobia in South Africa has damaged not only that nation but the ideal itself.

At the funeral of former Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe, the South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was loudly heckled and jeered when he appeared on stage. (see video below)

The South African President managed to turn things around by apologising profusely for the weeks of violence in which Africans from elsewhere in the continent were targeted.

Many commentators suggested that the successive waves of xenophobic violence that have engulfed South Africa over the years highlights how the idea of Pan Africanism has become meaningless.

Such xenophobic violence is not unique to South Africa. Many of the ethnic conflicts that continue to scar the continent show that the fear of the other, which is at the root of xenophobia is widespread and perhaps universal. However, these ethnic conflicts, many of which go way back in history, are different from the type of violence that we see in South Africa.

Nationalism – The Colonial Legacy

At the time of the colonial scramble for Africa – the European powers were defined by nationalism. When they went to Africa they went looking for political systems that were familiar to them and when they didn’t find them they created them.

This historical legacy from colonial times has had two lasting consequences. One was to emphasise the importance of tribe. To Europeans, tribes had many of the features of nations but lacked the geographical reach of European nations. The latter problem was solved by the imposition of arbitrary borders that forced Africans into adopting the nationalist model.

The adoption of these boundaries after independence has seen the growth in importance of the national identity. According to author Michael Billig

the triumph of a particular nationalism is seldom achieved without the defeat of alternative nationalisms and other ways of imagining peoplehood.

The Triumph Of Nationalism Over Pan Africanism.

The aggressive patriotism that regularly tears through post-apartheid South Africa shows how powerful an idea nationalism is.

Read More: The Town Where Apartheid Refuses to Die: Orania, a Whites Only Utopia in the Midst of a Rainbow Nation

When Nelson Mandela became president in 1994, it not only gave hope to South Africans it also gave impetus to belief in the idea of an African renaissance. Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki championed the Pan African ideal that sought to emphasise an African identity.

However, the truth is that xenophobia and nationalism are the functions of an individual’s attitude. They both require the intervention of social and cultural institutions to maintain them and to allow them to flourish.

In this regard, the decades before and since independence have seen nationalism be given that cultural resources necessary to make it pre-eminent as an identity. Unless the idea of Pan-Africanism is given the same resources it can never hope to compete.

Sources: allafrica.com, sahistory.org.za, theafricareport

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