By Remi Raji
Other things being equal, I am due to give a keynote lecture on the Fourth Industrial Revolution at an international conference organised in one of South Africa’s prestigious universities. It is an uncertain time. I have been disturbed out of inspiration to write the keynote, as I am not sure whether the South African embassy would return my passport in time to make the trip. More than ever, I crave to be in this space, to engage with other intellectuals on how the Fourth Industrial Revolution could cease to be a dream for Africa, and why it is expedient for Africa and Africans to unite and innovate, or disunite and perish.If I am unable to reach Pretoria this time, I will conclude that I am a victim of a bilateral crossfire, its smoke still smolderingand many still gasping in the ashes of the xenophobic fire. An inveterate optimist, I stand in denial of what can be, and I re-imagine what could be. Imprisoned by the uncertainty before us, I submit to a reflection of My South African Experience.
Having visited Johannesburg, living briefly in Pretoria and more in Cape Town, I visited Durban, Pietermaritzburg, drove through Khayelitsha, and was once stranded in Georgetown. These trips and sojourns made me realise that each country has its own beauties and sores. Angry citizens have strange justification to turn their anger on unwary strangers and visitors alike. They can name and re-name, even stigmatize a whole community by the errors or sins of a few; they can latch the rope of their own lack and affliction on the neck of foreigners. It is not just a South African condition: it is a potential talent of all nationalists of the world. That is why Trump is trumping; that is why Brexit is breathing; why Idi Amin made mincemeat of Asians in the 1970s, and why some Nigerians are returning on a one-way flight to Lagos from the land of Sisulu, Luthuli, Mandela, Thambo, Tutu amongst others in the frontline of the struggle and the unity.
When I saw the images of returnees, heard their stories and their rendition of the national anthem sung boisterously, I felt a part of me flow with them as if in mass hysteria in a football stadium. But I also felt strangely comfortable from a distance: these were not the real representations of the Nigerians I had met and known in South Africa. They were not children and brothers and sisters of diplomats; not scholars or researchers in some of the best institutions in the land; neither nurses nor doctors; not engineers and political scientists who contribute to the development of the country; not artistes and entertainers who command respect and give so much joy to the creme and the crank of the country. These were ordinary people who dirtied their hands in menial and not-so-menial jobs. They were the workers in the street, in the workshop, in the garage and the station, doing for a pittance what their South African number would not do for the minimum wage. They are almost all artisans, skilled or semi-skilled, caught in the crossfire of the cartel, in the thriving disrepute of the drug trade.
The crime and drug networks are multinational, so we are told. But the albatross is the label “Nigerian”, almost a sobriquet for hard drug carrier, hardened criminal, untrustworthy men and prostituting women. The aliases did not catch on rapidly; the notoriety of the “Nigerian” was too early that it almost stood for the black African in the West. Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners was a fictional text but it called attention to the presence of a colourful and wily Nigerian character – Captain. The image of the sly, clever and extravagant Third World man who would rather spend money on women than on studies, had been introduced inadvertently and that had great repercussion for the ways in which the typical real-life Nigerian person is regarded. Yet, South Africa has its significant share of the undesirable, the muggers and car-jackers, the murderers and the rapists, the exception being that the country holds enough facility to keep its population at home, almost…
As a writer and researcher, I have benefited from some scholarship that South Africa offered. I have been featured twice with other international poets at Durban’s Poetry Afrika Festival. I have collaborated with many South African writers from diverse backgrounds and across generations, from Njabulo Ndebele and Mbulelo Mzamane and Antje Krog to Lesego Rampolokeng, Sandile Dikeni, Mark Espin, Malika Ndlovu, Lisa Combrinck, Deela Khan and Kgafela oa Magogodi. In the circuit, there was real friendship which led to the idea of producing an anthology of Nigerian and South African poets of a particular generation.
Some may call that elitist engagement, but it was a beneficial dialogue in the direction of a true Union of Africa. About the same time, I was guest to Pretoria’s Union Building as a resource person, at the peak of the multilateral agreement on NEPAD’s African Renaissance championed by Presidents Thambo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo among others. Those were green moments. In my adventures out of UNISA and UCT libraries, I had once driven a car with the late South African poet, Keorapetse Kgositsile (popularly called Brother Willie) from Cape Town to Pretoria, in a 23–hour journey that normally would have taken just about 11 hours to complete. In those days, stories of foreigners who wanted to ruin the economy were not that popular. But I saw on eTV a particular programme chaperoned by an ombudswoman where complaints were rife about foreigners snatching the local women from their husbands or of young girls falling in love with Nigerian men. It was laughable then; now it is blade on the tongue. I digress…
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