Going to Africa, Coming to Africa

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the African Union this week, I am struck at the conflicted relationship that South Africa has with ‘Africa’ and ‘African’.

It is still very common to hear South Africans talking about ‘going to Africa’ as though crossing the Limpopo or getting on a plane to Lagos was going over to another continent.  This is even stranger when it comes from black South Africans who, after all, have historically been proud to call themselves ‘Africans’ (as opposed to ‘Europeans’ or ‘Indians’).  A colleague of mine who was brought up in Soweto was horrified when she came back from Kinshasa and had seen ‘the real Africa’!

So Africa gets treated as a place which is there and not here.

But then at the same time South Africa seems to want to claim ownership of a large part or even of the whole continent.  We take for granted that the country has a name which actually describes a whole section of the continent – imagine how we would feel if Nigeria became ‘West Africa’.  And South Africa’s claimed identity sometimes goes even further.  Have you ever noticed how many logos of South African organisations (e.g. SABC) have a map not of South Africa but of the whole of Africa?  May be that is why other Africans sometimes criticise South Africa as arrogant and imperialistic.  Something that is true of South Africa often gets trumpeted (by South Africans) as applying to the whole Continent – thus, the country’s presence on the UN Security Council is ‘Africa’s voice’, FIFA 2010 was the ‘African World Cup’ and Jo’burg is Africa’s capital.

This last one does have a strong ring of truth.  Not just because (by a combination of luck and history) 32% of the GDP of the whole of Africa is controlled from Gauteng.  But because the streets of this city, though not paved with gold, are certainly peopled with seekers of gold, Africans of all colours and nationalities.

This poses a challenge in both directions.  If I am a South African – whatever the colour of my skin – how willing am I to open myself up to the rich traditions, customs and foods of my fellow-Africans?  Cheering for Ba-ghana Ba-ghana when Ba-fana Ba-fana drop out of a football competition is a first step but there are many more to go.  And if I am a Ugandan or a Zambian or a Nigerian or a Zimbabwean or a Togolese or… or… or …, and I find myself living in South Africa, how much do I seek to genuinely respect and appreciate my new neighbours – again, whatever their skin colour.

In other words: do I feel that my future is part of the future of the Continent?  Or am I detached from it, watching with interest but ready to dissociate myself when the going gets tough?  It is a very difficult test and one that, for example, the people of Europe are facing at the moment in hard financial terms.  Africa Day – and the Mass for Africa we are celebrating in the parish on Tuesday – are important gestures and signs of our commitment to unity.  But the real test of unity must go much deeper than that if Africa is to prosper.  What can we do to reach out as Africans to our fellow-Africans?  And maybe we can all sing together:

Nkosi sikelel iAfrica – God Bless Africa!

Mr Raymond Perrier

Raymond Perrier was a previous director of South Africa's Jesuit Institute. He was hired away from the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, England's CARITAS agency and the country's largest Catholic organization, in 2009. A former Jesuit himself (Perrier left after the regency or full-time ministry period of Jesuit formation), he had lived and worked for two years in the United States at St. Francis Xavier Parish in lower Manhattan, N.Y., and he had a corporate background, having worked as a consultant for businesses in the United Kingdom and South Africa before entering the Jesuits. Perrier was born and raised in the United Kingdom, a son of Indian parents. Under his leadership the Institute established partnerships with the University of Johannesburg (on public morality), with the Origins Centre of Wits University (on creation and evolution), and with the Catholic Institute of Education (a national leadership program for rural school principals).

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