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Africa’s urban problem is rooted in colonialism and breeds xenophobia

We need to fashion an alternative path of development and unity

Pedro Mzileni Columnist
FILE IMAGE: One Africa march against xenophobia in Johannesburg.
FILE IMAGE: One Africa march against xenophobia in Johannesburg.

SA finds itself undergoing yet another episode of violent threats targeted mainly towards dark-skinned foreign nationals from the rest of the continent. At the core of the problem are increasing rates of unemployment and the unending state of underdevelopment that continues to overwhelm the black majority in urban townships

Historically, the geographic intention of establishing townships was to keep cheap black labour closer to the white city for the purpose of growing the urban apartheid economy. 

That urban ideology hasn’t died now that we are living in a democracy. It has multiplied.

Black people are still disfranchised on the rural margins of SA so their only hope to have a decent living is to run to the city.

What many South Africans don’t realise is that this pattern of black urbanisation is actually a continental phenomenon.

The entire rural landscape of Africa has been destroyed by a combination of European colonial modernity and neocolonial governments that have plundered people’s resources for decades.

Frantz Fanon’s thesis of black skins wearing white masks in postcolonial governments has always been accurate.

From Kenya to Nigeria to Algeria to SA, we have a leadership that ended apartheid colonialism only to turn around to steal public resources and pull their own people further down into misery

The only difference for SA in this scenario is that we did not end up having wars and complete economic collapse in the face of a failed post-apartheid project.

We remained relatively stable under the circumstances, with a functioning economy that has good infrastructure in all major cities – and there is a democratically elected government every five years that still follows a constitutional order. 

When the world looked towards Africa for a place to host the 2010 World Cup, it found SA as the best option.

For other parts of Africa, this is not the case. Wars are the order of the day, economies and currencies have collapsed and governments have no legitimacy. The rates of poverty and unemployment are enormous. In essence, there’s no system of life in place at all.

The citizens of all these collapsed African countries have left to search for a livelihood in the only remaining place on the continent where they can make something out of nothing – and that’s SA.

Our major cities are alive with entrepreneurial opportunities, especially for small businesses – from restaurants to hair salons, car washes, street vending, clothing retailers, butcheries, shoe making and so on.

These businesses are quick and easy to start but require energy and constant financial injections to sustain. This is what these young Africans have mastered – the art of running these businesses in our cities for their survival.  

We have created democratic, liberal laws that allow the legal flow of different nationalities to our shores for this purpose  – a feature of a vibrant and mature democracy which we are known for across the globe. That’s our political heritage as SA. 

But the local reality of black poverty and urban unemployment meets the continental reality. In this regard, all Africans are now in this same basket called urban SA searching for the same opportunities to survive.

This is a fundamental urban problem so unique to Africa. Fortunately or unfortunately, SA is the space where this contestation is taking place. 

Instead of our leadership taking this melting pot of astute intercultural and multi-economic realities as an opportunity to present a unique feature of an African strength, it has taken a shortcut that is devoid of any form of ideological consciousness – by dividing Africans and blaming each of them for the capitalist crisis actually affecting all of them as a race and as a class on the entire continent.

As local communities in SA we need to wake up to this crisis. We need to educate each other about how monopoly capital has behaved in Africa for the past 30 years. It has kept Africans in poverty and unemployment, and it has eroded our governments. It has forced Africans to migrate to former white cities that are largely located in SA. It has made all of us enemies and presented the leakages of capitalism as our own problems.

Africans are not problems to each other. The problem is the urban design of African cities inherited from colonial apartheid that has continued to reproduce itself today at our expense. We must comprehend and confront this urban problem critically to fashion an alternative path of development and unity to overcome expected threats such as xenophobic attacks.

This is what true political education rooted in ideological clarity can achieve to realise a pan-African citizenship.  

*Dr Mzileni is a research associate in the faculty of humanities at Nelson Mandela University


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