“We don’t talk about it very much,the rest of Africa that is, but institutional apartheid
racism and its after-effects are very real in our South Africa brothers and sisters like the case of “house negro” feeling superior to “field negro” during the dark slavery era.”
The best thing about watching politicians is that
given enough podium time, they will reveal
themselves. Because they spend so much time
talking, the truth will out, seeping through the cracks
of human imperfection.
This is why there is no point at all in being mad at
Jacob Zuma for his recent, amazing pronouncements
on “thinking like an African.”
I have to admit to some admiration. President Zuma
is capable of uttering things that can cause a stroke
in most reasonable human beings but this time he
outdid himself, which is no mean feat.
Speaking at a meeting organised by the African
National Congress on Monday, Zuma, talking about
efforts to get South Africans to accept the idea of
paying tolls on highways around Johannesburg,
reportedly said: “We can’t think like Africans in Africa,
generally. This is Johannesburg. It’s not some national
road in Malawi.”
With all due apologies to Malawi and its roads, Zuma
probably reached for the first country north of the
Limpopo that came to his mind. Although the
statements don’t inspire confidence in his
geographical knowledge, it could easily have been
Mali that he dropped into his speech, anything with
the letter M but perhaps not Morocco.
No amount of public relations wriggling can clear the
air of the taint that his statement made. I believe that
Zuma genuinely meant exactly what he said.
Admittedly, it is a bit rich coming from a proudly
“traditional” man who will don his Zulu outfit at the
slightest provocation. Again, let me express
admiration: East African heads of state could stand to
do a bit less suiting up and perhaps a bit more
“traditional” wear — and by that I don’t mean a fly
whisk accessory or a cowboy hat. But, you know,
when a man who has a penchant for leopard skin
loincloths makes disparaging remarks about
“Africans” it can lead to a bit of cognitive dissonance.
As it is, South Africa has a rather unfortunate
xenophobia problem to contend with, and I think that
Zuma’s statement was simply indicative of the
attitude that underlies this issue. Still, as head of
state, President Zuma really had no business
throwing any petrol on that particular fire. Yet there is
a part of me that’s glad he did it, the part that
delights in the opportunity to tackle a dirty subject.
Like, say, racism.
We don’t talk about it very much, but institutional
racism and its after-effects are very real. And what
could be sadder than someone who holds their own
people in contempt?
If we’re honest, many people harbour similar to those
expressed by Zuma and it isn’t exactly a surprise to
hear “African” used as a derogatory term. Even by us
Africans, against ourselves.
Ah, the sweet irony of it all. Aren’t we presently
engaged in flinging that particular word at the ICC
with great vigour and conviction? Some big
production about imperialism and blah-blah-blah, all
because someone dared to fondle our heads of state’s
Since we are engaged in this exercise in solidarity via
our preferred institution for championing the rights of
African citizens against all foes — that would be the
African Union — President Zuma picked a bad time to
take his dubious sense of humour out for an airing.
And it isn’t acceptable in this day and age to talk or
think that way in the public sphere anymore; that era
has gone by. Either the move to re-brand Africa in a
positive light has had some tangible effect, or we
have to thank political correctness for something
other than making speech a lot more convoluted.
And, of course, generational change. In these new and
improved times, we’re all on equal footing as
consumers — or the consumed.
Of course, we’re not in the promised land of post-
racial thinking, and even as Africans we’re struggling
as Zuma’s remarks have shown. But at least the
dismay at his improper use of the term African is a
signifier of how far the world has come from the bad
old days when the word Negro was a normal part of