Following the events in the U.S. cities of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, the Internet has caught fire with up-to-the-minute dispatches of the protests and engagements between U.S. citizens—more specifically African-Americans and allies against the particular stigmas that they face daily. Pictures and videos ranging from toppling and destruction of police vehicles and looting to lovers holding hands in the midst of the protests, mothers holding their children, a policeman asking a protester for an embrace. Ever since the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the officer charged with the use of excessive force on unarmed teenager Michael Brown, we have seen some 200 protests across the United States light up on our screens in South Africa.
Before long, solidarity messages, vigils, and protests ensued across the globe. Economic boycotts were planned and executed, to some effect, as young African-Americans sought ways of engaging in protest through non-violent means. It has been a heart-wrenching situation to follow for many. Comparisons between what we see in the United States and what is happening already in South Africa are plentiful and well-made.
I have wondered these past few weeks, if these moments will be the landscape of the era of our generation. I wonder if 30 or 40 years from now, we will be looking back at these times as crucial turning points, if we will be looking at incidents like the tragedy of Marikana within our own borders as battles that shape the very course of our history.
Comparisons between what we see in the United States and what is happening already in South Africa are plentiful and well-made.
There are so many history-defining moments happening each and every day at a phenomenal pace: Arab Spring, the ongoing conflicts between Israel and Palestine, the concerning levels of violence in Mexico, and the difficulties faced by our South American family battling record levels of inequality that mirror our own. These events are increasingly becoming something that the youth is grabbing hold of. We are beginning to take our rightful place in deciding the course of our future, and the future of generations that will inherit the Earth from us. We have new rules of engagement. And in the Age of the Internet, information is our currency.
Now at this moment, at this juncture, there are a million things I would like to discuss with you. Many things I have not and unfortunately will not be able to do justice but I write to you today to submit an argument I would have liked to have read, echoing the spirit of famed African-American writer Toni Morrison. I couldn’t find what I wanted to read, so I have written it.
Much has been written about U.S. involvement in Africa. Accusations of neo-colonial behavior, businesses sweeping in to pillage our natural resources in a bid to exploit our people and our land all for the pursuit of the Almighty Dollar. There is even no shortage of criticism for the young Americans who come to the continent to work for well-meaning NGOs, or who come for safaris and life-changing selfies with African children.
I couldn’t find what I wanted to read, so I have written it.
And yet, they are still here. Working in our conflict zones. Studying at our universities. Many engaged, to be honest, with very important work. For all the critiques we cannot wholly dismiss the investment the American people have made and are making to what is happening here. I am not an apologist for American activities on African soil. But I don’t see this relationship ending anytime soon. Not at all. Many of our students aspire, myself (at times) included, to study in Western institutions. There are increasingly large pools of funding that are being made available to support this ambition. And the Right Kind of African with the Right Kind of grades who can say the Right Kinds of things can certainly make it. And can find themselves on the streets of Times Square before too long if they are prudent, have means and opportunity.
Now, I live in a district of Cape Town called Observatory. The vibe is a carefully-constructed kind of gritty. It has character. And it is full to the brim with Western visitors here for a multitude of reasons. I am convinced that the majority of these visitors are from the U.S. In the evenings, as you walk through the central business areas of Observatory, you will not be able to go five minutes without hearing an American accent, or passing a Macbook with a glowing white apple glaring at you from the sidewalk. I am even convinced that our little micro-economy in Observatory would crumble without our U.S. patrons, who are, it must be said, overwhelmingly white. In this area, you will also find tens if not hundreds of offices for NGOs working for this, that, and the other in and around Cape Town. I wonder if they, too, would crumble without the—let’s call it generosity—of our U.S. visitors.
…as you walk through the central business areas of Observatory, you will not be able to go five minutes without hearing an American accent, or passing a Macbook…
Over years that I have lived in the city, I have met many people from the U.S. and have had conversations and built friendships that I have treasured. Engaging with young people from different contexts and learning from one another is the greatest benefit of the “exchange.” And yet I can’t seem to shake the feeling that the power imbalances we know exist in some sort of existential sense seem to remain unchallenged.
I firmly believe that solidarity is a two-way street.
Our visitors are given free access and license to engage with Apartheid history, the South African political climate, issues of gender-based violence, and are made aware of our growing youth entrepreneurial space that is simply salivating at the mouth at the thought of U.S. consumption.
I firmly believe that solidarity is a two-way street.
But, when we see incidents in the U.S. unfolding like they have, the relative silence and apparent lack of engagement with us to me speaks of the state of our relationship with one another. In a space like Cape Town, given that conversations live and are ready to burn at any moment, we have much to learn from another in analyzing and organizing symbolically, tactically, and quite tangibly against systemic injustices that are no different from those that we have allowed many of them to our country to help combat.
But where is it happening?
I am distressed to see U.S.-Africa networking and partnership organizations silent in times like this, organizations that proudly boast hosting young African leaders that are so ready to engage in conversations about what’s wrong on the continent. What can be done in Africa?
#Ebola #Entrepreneurship #Leadership
I had a vision this morning on my way to work. You see, I spend a lot of time thinking and trying to reach out to the African Diaspora to engage with them and connect our experiences. I know many people trying to do this, and I think it won’t be long before we gain traction.
Can you imagine? An Observatory, the neighborhood as it is, filled to the brim with African-Americans, West Indians, Latin Americans learning about the situation in Cape Town, in South Africa, on the continent.
What difference could that make? It would be an entirely different aesthetic. Who knows what kind of ideas, connections, and collaborations could happen from such a change in demographics?
I am very weary, in general, of organizations pushing the U.S.-Africa collaboration agenda, co-opting young Africans to seek affirmation from the West. And even as I say it, I’m no different.
In times like this, to see newly formed organizations—or should I say platforms like Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI)—not issuing statements, curating spaces, or organizing peaceful solidarity marches in the face of current events throughout the Diaspora makes me sad. It certainly isn’t something to be surprised about, but it is most certainly something that can be changed. I really hope that future participants of these sorts of initiatives are confronted to push to make those spaces conscious so that we can begin engaging in collaboration, learning from one another and, above all, connecting struggles to seek strength in one another.
I am very weary, in general, of organizations…co-opting young Africans to seek affirmation from the West.
The protests in Ferguson and Baltimore, and the reactions that have ensued publicly, are a good litmus test for so very many things.
And one of them is surely an indicator, in my opinion, that the involvement between young Americans and young Africans, at least in Cape Town, is nowhere near reaching it’s potential.
I believe we should be concerned with connecting and forming relationships with the movements in the Diaspora that mirror the objectives of our own.
Our struggles are inextricably linked: police brutality, systemic racism.
We are connected by them. We must not be bound by them.
The next generation of African leaders will not be the ones obsessed with globalization, foreign direct investment, or studying overseas. They won’t be reading under the shade of trees thousands of miles away at Harvard and Oxford while organizing is happening at that very moment, here in Africa, to dismantle the multiple structural oppression that many privileged hands write very delicately about. Hands just like mine.
The next generation of African leaders probably won’t even be from universities like University of Cape Town. Even myself, I am complicit. Many of the Right Kind of Africans have been promoted prematurely and anointed with the title “Leader” long before time. The young African leaders that will disrupt the flow of the global economic structure that locks us in place will come.
And I will follow them passionately.