(First published in May 2008)
There are certain times when the English language refuses to accommodate one’s feelings.
How, for instance, does one say ‘Mese afem’in English? ‘My teeth have gnashed together against each other?’
No! For although that does give an idea of discomfort, the bitterness one feels at the irony contained in the situation is not quite expressed there. Nor the tremendous sarcasm: for the Twi expression implies this: ‘I had expected to bite into soft, delicious food, instead of which I find that, my upper teeth have rather bitten into the lower ones: ouch!’
Even after I’ve expatiated on the expression in so many words, there is still something missing – the element of sliminess! You see, when your teeth fem, they don’t just gnash together: it’s as if they were trying to pass each other but were made to slide across each other. Unexpectedly. Painfully. And by accident.
It is what has been happening in South Africa in the past fortnight (April-May 2008) that has so eviscerated my command of English that I cannot quite give vent to the visceral emotions that are making me retch figuratively. In case someone from Mars is among us, the picture is this: South African mobs have been hunting other Africans in the more impoverished areas of the country, killing and injuring them and setting fire to their homes and shacks. One person was ‘necklaced’ and the horrible picture of him being burnt alive by a tyre set alight around his neck, was flashed across the world on the front pages of many newspapers. 50 people have been killed. 20,000 Mozambicans have fled back home. Malawi is organising an evacuation of its citizens. So is Ghana, 70 of whose citizens have sought the assistance of our embassy.
Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and President Thabo Mbeki, have made appeals to the mobs to stop the killings, which they have all described as a ‘disgrace’ to South Africa. But the attacks had not stopped as I wrote this, though they had diminished in intensity.
As someone who intimately knows the depth of the love which Africans all over the continent exhibited towards South Africans during the nightmarish years when apartheid sat on their necks like the murderous monster who twisted his incredibly strong legs around the neck of Sinbad the Sailor, I simply cannot fathom why the South Africans should repay their fellow Africans in this evil way.
I can bear personal witness to what Africans did to help their brothers and sisters in South Africa. First, let’s talk about Dr Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana. On the day Ghana became independent from British rule (6 March 1957) he told the world that ‘the independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the whole African continent.’
Nkrumah appointed as his Advisor on African Affairs, a Trinidadian writer called George Padmore, who was the co-organiser of the 5th Pan-African Conference in Manchester, England, in 1945. (Among the South Africans who attended this conference were the writer, Peter Abrahams and a political activist called Marko Hlubi).
Nkrumah and Padmore set up a ‘Bureau of African Affairs’ in Accra, whose sole objective was to help Africans under colonial and racist oppression to gain their freedom. The Bureau brought to Accra at two conferences organised in 1958, delegates from every freedom movement operating in Africa.
At these conferences, the African liberation movements made contact with fellow freedom fighters, some of whom were to provide the movements with financial assistance as well as military training. The Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), for instance, was extremely helpful: its representative in Accra was the famous Frantz Fanon, author of The Wretched Of The Earth, and he lent a very receptive ear to every request from fellow African freedom fighters.
When the Sharpeville massacre occurred in South Africa on 21 March 1960 and was followed by the intensification of oppressive measures against opponents of the apartheid regime, President Kwame Nkrumah sent an aircraft to wait in Francistown (in what was then Bechuanaland) to ferry to Ghana, any South African — black or white or Coloured — who managed to reach the safety of Francistown!
Among South Africans who came to Ghana and whom I personally met, were Ronald Segal, editor of a magazine called Africa South, and an unforgettable guy called Lottie Behrens. As the numbers grew, Nkrumah turned a group of chalets near Accra airport into hostels for them. There were also some young ladies among them: one was called Pusiletu and she eventually married a fiery Ghanaian MP called S I Idrissu.
Meanwhile,the Ghana Bureau of African Affairs provided financial and military assistance to all those who expressed a need for them.
Fast forward to Lagos, 1974. I am visiting Nigeria and attend the launching of the Nigerian Anti-Apartheid Movement. The main speaker, S G Ikoku (a Nigerian politician whom I knew well because he had lived in exile in Ghana for some years) announces that one Nigerian businessman alone, Chief M K O Abiola, had donated over one million dollars to the anti-apartheid cause.
Fast forward to September 1990. I mention to Abiola, who has become a friend of mine,, that I am going to South Africa. He becomes excited at once.
‘Can you get the ANC Treasurer to call me? I met him in Namibia and he asked for a contribution, but I’ve done nothing about it.’
I successfully get the ANC office in London to help me in tracing the late Tom Nkobi to Sweden, and later, although Abiola had hidden this from me, I learn in Johannesburg that Abiola had made two contributions, worth $200,000. The late Percy Msimang, formerly of the ANC London office, also tells me that in eventually helping the ANC to trace the account into which Abiola’s contributions had been paid, I had led the organisation to find other sums which a disaffected ANC finance official in London had fraudulently concealed.
This is only but a tiny part of what other Africans have done for South Africa. If I were to talk in detail about what independent Mozambique, under the heroic Samora Machel, had to suffer at the hands of RENAMO, a terrorist organization which was created and financed by the apartheid regime; what Angola suffered at the hands of UNITA, which, again, was financed principally by the CIA and apartheid South Africa and was on the verge of conquering Angola with the assistance of South African troops – until Cuba came to the help of the Angolans; the bombing and assassinations endured by Zambia and Botswana; the assistance given to Ian Smith’s illegal regime to fight Zimbabwe nationalists because South Africa feared an independent Zimbabwe would harbor South African freedom fighters – I would need a book, not a column.
I therefore urge those South Africans now attacking other Africans to ask themselves: ‘What would Africans like those whose contributions have been revealed here, feel if they heard that South Africans were killing fellow Africans?’
I also urge them to picture, if they can, the sheer mirth with which the unrepentant members of the apartheid regime will view these attacks, which, of course, represent their finest hour, in terms of reaping revenge on Black Africa for helping Black South Africans to rid themselves of apartheid. God, must the apartheid monsters have ‘the last laugh’?
f the ANC does not wake up and do its duty by making sure that South Africa’s wealth is shared equitably by all South Africans, frustrations will continue to build up within the black community. And the backs will turn their anger and frustration on the nearest weak people – fellow Africans who happen to have sought refuge and work in South Africa. The ANC must rise to the challenge. Otherwise it will fail in the duty that history has placed on it to reciprocate the sacrifices that Africa once made for South Africa.