Students in Cape Town, South Africa, cheer after the statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes is removed from the University of Cape Town April 9, 2015. The statue was removed as a result of a monthlong protest by students saying the statue glorified someone “who exploited black labor and stole land from indigenous people.”  
Charlie Shoemaker/Getty Images

South Africa is struggling with the diplomatic and economic fallout from a recent episode of xenophobic violence that saw seven foreigners killed, scores wounded and thousands of people displaced.

Several African governments have sharply criticized South Africa’s tardy response and sent buses and planes to repatriate their citizens. Some threatened to retaliate against South African businesses operating in their countries. Nigeria recalled its ambassador, and a human rights group in Lagos filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court in the Hague against Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, whom many blame for sparking the recent violence in a recent speech telling foreigners to pack up and go home.

Advertisement

The African National Congress ruling party responded first by deploying troops and police in the black townships to arrest perpetrators of the violence; and more recently it has been using the soldiers in a crackdown to deport undocumented immigrants.

The government has resisted the term “xenophobia” and blames the violence on poverty and economic competition with foreign-owned businesses. This was also its reaction in 2008 to violence against foreigners that left 67 people dead and displaced tens of thousands of migrants, amid mass looting and destruction of foreign-owned homes, property and businesses across the country.

However, critics of the government response point to deeper historical reasons as the cause of what they believe is “Afrophobic” sentiments among black South Africans, rather than “xenophobic.”

Advertisement

“You don’t see Australians and Brits being hunted in the streets,” one local commentator noted.

Newly arrived African Americans to South Africa are often amused to find many black South Africans ask, “Have you to been to Africa?” Centuries of colonialism and apartheid have persuaded many black South Africans that Africa is someplace else, and Africans are somebody else.

It’s what they were taught.

Under apartheid, history teachers had two choices: the version of the Afrikaners—the descendants of German, Dutch and French Huguenots—or history as written by the descendants of British settlers. In both accounts, Africans, when mentioned at all, were treated as if they didn’t exist at all before being conquered and subjugated by whites.

This history as taught in South African schools and universities is little changed because of the continuing tremendous resistance of the white academic establishment—in South Africa and internationally.

When Mongane Wally Serote was helping to establish the Freedom Park, a national monument that is the government’s leading attempt at cultural and historical redress, he said in an interview that he was surprised to find “strong opposition” from some of the leading white American and European international academics.

“They feel threatened by it. For many of them, the very phrase ‘African history,’ or ‘African historian,’ is a contradiction in terms,” he suggested. “Their view of the African role in history is as cargo. But we can’t go on being told that architecture was founded in the West and that we were living in trees and didn’t design any shelter. We can’t be told that we made no substantial contributions to science, medicine and the arts. We have to liberate ourselves from this thinking. The same kind of leading intellectuals and philosophers who distorted our history in the past are the very ones who are objecting to an African voice today.”

Advertisement

The South African government has failed to transform an education system that remains firmly Eurocentric, which might explain why South Africa may be in urgent need of a Black History Month.

The creation of Black History Month was not universally applauded among African Americans. Even today there are many who oppose it, regarding it as a trivialization of black contributions to American history. My own ambivalence began to change only after the realization that every February would see, at least, an annual exposure of the full extent of the marginalization and demonization of black people in American history books.

Ironically, the young elite in South Africa have embraced their African identity and launched campaigns at universities and in the cities against the statues and symbols of colonialism and apartheid, as well as the European domination of university faculty and curriculum. It is being compared to the American black student movement on U.S. campuses in the 1960s.

Advertisement

The movement was launched earlier this year when one black student at the University of Cape Town threw human feces on the statue of Cecil John Rhodes that dominated the university campus square. Rhodes was the person most responsible for British colonization, murder, enslavement and exploitation of African people throughout Southern Africa.

The protest quickly spread to other parts of the country, including at Rhodes University, which has begun a debate about whether to keep its name. UCT eventually removed the Rhodes statue while it considers a final resting place for it. But the statue fight has inevitably led to black students’ demands for more black faculty and African curriculum. The university has so far responded by announcing the formation of a “black studies” department, echoing the initial responses of American universities to its black student movements.

A number of defenders of statues of Rhodes and other colonial and apartheid heroes argue that they should remain as true reflections of South Africa’s history. But UCT Assistant Professor Xolela Mangcu is having none of that argument. He raised the obvious question in a recent column: “Would the same assertions be made regarding a statue of Hitler on a German or Israeli university?”

Advertisement

South Africa’s struggle with its African identity has not escaped international attention. “South Africa holds a special place in the African imagination,” wrote internationally acclaimed Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o some years ago. As he traveled through South Africa, Ngugi said, he was saddened by the absence of recognition of African heroes.

“No street or town is named for Steve Biko, one of the founders of the black consciousness movement,” he said. “The town where Biko was born is called Ginsberg, just outside a place called King Williamstown. The memories of South African intellectuals like Biko and Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan Africanist Congress, are buried under European memory in South Africa. And this runs the risk that they will not be remembered.

“Other cities the Europeans renamed,” Ngugi continued, “include East London and Queenstown. And then there is the town of Berlin, named after the very place where whites met in the 19th century to carve up African lands among themselves. Why is a free South Africa allowing the African identity and consciousness that existed before colonialism to be submerged under the legacy of the colonial masters of old?”

Advertisement

Ngugi added: “South Africans should have no apologies about changing colonial names.”

Kenneth Walker is an independent journalist who has been a permanent resident of South Africa for 16 years.