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Africans must reconcile and undermine European-made divisions among them

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Picture: African News Agency (ANA) – An illegal miner, known as Zama Zamas, works at a make shift mine.When a black South African sees another black immigrant, they are seeing an image of themselves or what they could possibly become; at that moment, when self-hate erupts into violence, it is often interpreted as xenophobia, the writer says.

By Vuyani Pambo

The single most interesting fact about borders in Africa is that no one consulted Africans when they created them. This might seem like common knowledge, but a close scrutiny of this fact reveals the ridiculousness of the idea. The idea that Europeans wantonly drew lines over a continent and claimed dominion over it.

There were no consultations; some Europeans involved in this process had never even set foot on the continent. The consensus among them was that Africa is the heart of darkness, devoid of reason and humanity. Africa for them was terra nullius – land available to be seized. The consequence of this splitting was bloodshed, muddling up of cultures, erasure of languages but most of all it destroyed the kinship that people of African descent had. The ties that bind were ruptured and the recent treatment of the Zama Zama miners is a manifestation of this. A wound left untreated for a long time festers.

The anxiety around the Zama Zama miners is not so much that black South Africans are concerned that the illegal immigrants are threatening their jobs or their participation in the economy. Though they may use that as a way to legitimise their rejection of the immigrants nothing can be further from the truth. It is true that levels of unemployment are unprecedented in what is supposed to be a better country for all but the reality is that black South Africans have never been part of the economy. This is to say they have always existed on the margins, accepting what they are given and often being denied what they are entitled to. They have always been outsiders; put frankly, foreigners in their own country. The situation is ironic, how do outsiders insist on castigating others and branding them as outsiders, strip them bare and shame them. For what; for Zama Zama?

This is not an attempt to exonerate immigrants from the criminal acts that they commit – indeed they have done atrocious things in this country. From rape, drug dealing and even human trafficking. Those who commit these crimes should account but my interests lie elsewhere.

I am much more interested in the conditions that make it possible for all these things to happen. Where crime is the means to survive, violence a mechanism to get by, corruption a livelihood and hatred the motif. How long have we been in this abyss? Long enough to know that the wound continues to fester. As Langston Hughes would perhaps ask; does the wound dry up, does it stink, sag or does it eventually explode?

Back to Zama Zama. The history of mining in South Africa reveals that the industry was not only built on the backs of black South Africans. Immigrants, as Bernard Magubane gives us, were part of the exploited black labour that sustained it. People from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Lesotho became the backbone of the industry. This is how the language Fanakalo was forged; a group of people thrust in conditions where they had to co-exist had to find a way to communicate. Through that language a culture was assumed and it was through this culture that all these people found a way to survive the unbearable conditions that were created by colonialism. I mention this to illuminate how, within the mining context, there were no real antagonisms between black South Africans and those from other countries. Perhaps there were contradictions, but all of them were reconcilable.

The emphasis here is that the conditions of the Zama Zama mine workers are akin to those of an ordinary black South African mine worker. In the eyes of the world that matters, both these workers are exploited and are fungible. They are nothing but commodities that speak; commodities that can be replaced without the rhythm of production being disturbed.

Let us think about how the Marikana massacre was testament to the fact that the lives of black South African miners are cheap. Then think about Zama Zama miners, whose lives are always fraught with danger and an imminent possibility of death. The thread here is that there is so much commonality between these miners regardless of where they come from. The white-owned mining companies see labour that is available to be used and violated, for them they see black people not nationality.

If one thinks about the way in which the mining industry is structured one sees that neither the Zama Zama miners nor black South African miners benefit from the industry. As it is often the case both groups are scraping for crumbs, for residues left by gluttonous white mining companies. While black people quarrel over a meatless bone the mining companies continue to generate super profits.

In fact this fragmented black labour force works in their favour because it minimises the risk of protest, it allows the companies to extract without being questioned. The enemy is still comfortable after having shot and killed miners and after decades of exploitation. At stake here is whether we are going to accept this and pretend that the person who created the problem still benefits from it at our expense.

What could also be useful is a psychoanalytical reading of the Zama Zama situation. What David Marriot might refer to as the psychic bond between black people and white people. For Marriot one thing that black people and whites have in common is the hatred for the black imago. This bond was created during colonialisation because in the main, the basic project of colonialism is to make the black person hate himself. To make him see himself as inferior, as dirty, as evil and eventually as nothing. The black person began to believe these things and product was self-hate.

So, what other people might refer to as xenophobia or afrophobia could also be just classic self-hate. When a black South African sees another black immigrant what they are seeing is an image of themselves or what they could possibly become. There at that moment the self-hate erupts and the result is the violence on the other, on the image of the self, on the immigrant, on the kwerekwere.

Pambo is the EFF head of presidency and an MP.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.