Will There Ever Be Unity in Africa?

On the African Union's 50th anniversary, ethnic strife and economic competition remain barriers to peace.

African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

And the disunity has not only come from within, argues Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o. “In a strange way both African and western governments fear a strong, united, democratic Africa,” he wrote this week in an editorial. “For the west such unity would mean it could no longer do whatever it wants with Africa’s resources. It would no longer be the sole determinant of the prices for exports to, and imports from, the continent. Its oil and mining companies would no longer continue to be the sole, invisible masters of Africa’s vast oil and mineral resources.”

It’s a compelling theory, certainly, but African leaders have taken positive steps to free themselves from the yoke of providing only raw materials to the world. South Africa has led that charge by joining BRICS, a group of emerging economies comprising Brazil, Russia, India and China. South African officials have said that they hope their participation in the multibillion-dollar trade bloc will open Africa to new investors from these developing nations.

In a way, that development is allowing Africa to slowly converge at the grassroots level, through technology and media that are enhancing Africans’ knowledge of one another.

“Africa is more united than ever before,” said Dersso, the analyst. “More and more Africans are moving from one part to another part. You see more interest and awareness across the continent.”

That may be true, but familiarity also seems to be breeding contempt.

A few weeks ago, I found myself speaking to a lovely older gentleman at one of Johannesburg’s numerous monuments to the ills of apartheid. He told me that, nearly 60 years after the fact, he was still hurt and angry that the apartheid government had evicted his entire neighborhood from this historic, once vibrant black area.

I asked him if he’d consider moving back, now that he was free to do so.

“No,” he said, gesturing at a crowd of shabbily dressed men on the street corner, who had asked me for money on my way in.

“Those guys,” he said with a scowl, “are foreigners. They bring crime when they come here. They steal our jobs. They are bad news.”

“But I’m a foreigner,” I said. “You don’t seem to have a problem with me, and I definitely took a job away from a South African.”

“It’s not the same,” he said, shooting me a you-should-know-better look. I did. In South Africa, “foreigner” is a common term for immigrants from southern Africa — Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, Congolese nationals.

What immediately sprang to mind were the images of the xenophobic riots that shocked South Africa in 2008. Or, more recently, how South African police dragged a young Mozambican man behind a van, an act that likely led to his death.