In 1996, former South African president Thabo Mbeki stood in front of parliament and delivered one of the most inspiring speeches of his career: I Am an African. South Africa was an infant democracy then. People were a combination of hopeful, proud and excited… this country was just an electrifying place to be! Our liberation movements had set us free, some of our parents moved into the suburbs and EVERY home had a picture of Madiba on their walls (with Brenda Fassie’s My Black President playing in the background). WE (the black Africans) were finally going to be the owners and rightful profiteers of our land.
For many years following that momentous inauguration of South Africa’s first democratically-elected president, South Africa was Africa’s golden child. We could do no wrong and we knew it. South Africans began to forget about the Nigerians who, as an entire nation, donated 10% of their salaries to the South African liberation movement. We could care less about the Zambians who let us into their homes, or the people of Mozambique and Zimbabwe and Tanzania. All we knew was that we would not end up like “those African countries” who suffered from endless coups and at the hands of ruthless dictators. We had President Nelson Mandela; who is still so revered that even though he hasn’t been involved in politics for over a decade now, people still ask: “What would Madiba do?” (In the same way people wear WWJD bracelets to remind themselves to always ask What would Jesus Do? It might actually not be such a bad idea to start manufacturing WWMD bracelets before he passes on.) Sorry, I digress. The point is, we had Madiba and we were invincible.
Then, as the great Nigerian-born author, Chinua Achebe would have said: things fell apart. The arms deal scandal broke and in 2005, President Mbeki asked Deputy President Jacob Zuma to step down, following the infamous Shaik trial that revealed a “corrupt relationship” between Shaik and Zuma. The 2007 Polokwane ANC National General Council saw Zuma being elected in as the 12th ANC president, Mbeki being recalled by the ANC and replaced by ANC Deputy president Kgalema Montlante (not without serious Constitutional manoeuvring mind you), then Zuma subsequently being the first democratically-elected president to stand on trial for rape. (He was cleared of all charges by the way, but not before he Zapiro-fied himself with the unforgettable shower statement.) Never mind that in the background of all this political scandal, we had the Mbeki “AIDS denial” era, a deteriorating health and education sector, COPE and increased strike action, because people were no longer interested in great war stories, they wanted service delivery. The more broken promises we got, the more frustrated people became, and the more extravagant politicians became, the more insulted and betrayed people felt. Much to our dismay, we had become like most African countries! Then in May 2008, like a cruel ungrateful child, South Africans turned against Africans.
The xenophobic attacks were, in my view, the cruellest, most horrific and embarrassing series of events that have ever been undertaken by my people in my lifetime. I couldn’t understand it. I still can’t. Dr Don Mattera said that this is what happens when “foreigners who come with hope encounter people with no hope” and even though I could understand the frustrations people must have been feeling, I could not wrap my head around the idea of people doing that to other people. Where was the brotherhood of Nigeria and Lusaka?
Then something remarkable happened. South Africans from all walks of life stood up and said NOT IN OUR NAME! From school children to mothers to artists to politicians to churches… Thabo Mbeki’s I Am An African speech was echoed in night vigils, temporary shelters and marches. Donations poured in and people opened up their homes to help those who had come to this country with the hope of a better life for them and their families. And my heart swelled with pride because THIS was the people I know and love. This is the people I come from. In a documentary called Where Do I Stand, a young teenager from Cape Town admitted to having looted a Somalian store during the attacks. He expressed great remorse for his actions and spoke of how he had spent the next few months making sure that he bought from that store so that he could repay them for the goods he had stolen. Here was a young boy who was still vociferous about the struggles and challenges they were facing but could see that perhaps that was not the best way to handle this frustration. Because we are all people at the end of the day, and no human being deserves to be treated like that.
My mind and my knowledge of myself is formed by the victories that are the jewels in our African crown, the victories we earned from Isandhlawana to Khartoum, as Ethiopians and as the Ashanti of Ghana, as the Berbers of the desert.
I am the grandchild who lays fresh flowers on the Boer graves at St Helena and the Bahamas, who sees in the mind’s eye and suffers the suffering of the simple peasant folk, death, concentration camps, destroyed homesteads, a dream in ruins.
I am the child of Nongqawuse. I am he who made it possible to trade in the world markets in diamonds, in gold, in the same food for which my stomach yearns.
I come from those who were transported from India and China, whose being resided in the fact, solely, that they were able to provide physical labour, who taught me that we could both be at home and be foreign, who taught me that human existence itself demanded that freedom was a necessary condition for that human existence.
Being part of all these people and in the knowledge that none dare contest that assertion, I shall claim that – I am an African.
– Thabo Mbeki: Parliament 1996
This is one of my favourite speeches of all time because it speaks of the essence of me. In poetry and history, former president Mbeki dared to tell Africans that we may not be perfect, but we are beautiful. We come from a land that is textured with love and struggle and movement, and it is ours and has produced generations of admirable citizens of this global village. We are a people who raise Nkosi Johnsons to fight until their dying days; and inspire little Spinaches to board a Loliwe and come to Jo’burg to become record-breaking Zaharas. Our people are the Prof Kgositsiles and the Andile Mngxitamas and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zumas. THIS is the stuff we are made of! Our family is large and beautiful and diverse. It is strong and capable of amazing things. We have just as much to give to this world as everyone else…
And that’s where it all begins really… in acknowledging (and believing) that we DESERVE the best life this beautiful continent can afford us, and claiming it.