Thursday, 29 December 2011

An opportunity to abolish Africa’s false divide

by Naefa Khan-Crookes, Business Day

NORTH Africa has been portrayed as distinct from the rest of Africa, a clever divide-and-rule technique. Frantz Fanon, writing half a century ago, succinctly encapsulated this phenomenon when he wrote : "Africa is divided into Black and White and the names that are substituted — Africa south of the Sahara, Africa north of the Sahara — do not manage to hide this latent racism. It is affirmed that White Africa has a thousand-year-old tradition of culture; that she is Mediterranean, that she is a continuation of Europe and that she shares in Graeco- Latin civilisation. Black Africa is looked on as a region that is inert, brutal, uncivilised — in a word, savage."

Unfortunately this divide has been sustained and reinforced through geopolitical groupings of north Africa with the Middle East rather than with Africa. This despite that its racism is clear, as Fanon pointed out, and despite the region not being endowed with the oil wealth that has been the curse of most of the Middle East. The region has also experienced economic and sociopolitical problems similar to most African countries. Severe wealth disparity, endemic corruption, entrenched leaders and farcical elections have become continental problems. However, current events could provide an opportunity to begin dismantling this colonial, constructed divide.

Dictatorships that have survived for decades in n orth Africa have crumbled. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were organic and initiated by those who had had enough of despotic, corrupt and violent rule.

In Tunisia the death of a young fruit seller exposed the repressive nature of a country heralded by the west as a bastion of progressive Islamic rule. It was portrayed as a reformist, westernised, Muslim country while human rights abuses, especially against Islamists, were ignored.

Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak never held a free and fair election, but Egypt’s strategic role in the Israel-Palestine conundrum meant the west kept pouring in money and weapons to entrench a corrupt dictatorship . Egypt similarly tried to portray itself as a progressive modern state while detaining both liberals and Islamists. Now the people have spoken . Even as an interim military regime in Egypt tries to control its citizens, people continue to protest against the military presence as they push for a speedy return to civilian rule.

While western powers cogitate and overtly and covertly seek to control the momentum and results of these revolutions, support for the achievements in these countries is imperative. Current writings stress the effect these revolutions may have on western countries, especially in the context of Islamic fundamentalism. Often clothed in the mantle of fostering democracy, support is habitually driven by state interest. Islamists have been successful in the first elections since the toppling of these dictators; one of the reasons is the social support networks provided by religious groups since the regimes failed to take care of the majority of their people.

If Tunisians and Egyptians are denied the opportunity to determine their own future, then those who have died did so in vain. Whether it is through putting pen to paper, providing legal or policy support, or flying Egyptian and Tunisian flags, support must be demonstrated, especially by Africans.

SA is perfectly poised to assist. Having undergone our own regime change we can note our achievements and our failures and assist others so that they do not repeat the same failures.

Similarly, Tanzania, Kenya and Senegal can be used as case studies for the role which Islamic law plays or should play in a democratic state. In Egypt article two of the constitution stipulates that Islam is the religion of the state. This article is the subject of heated debate. Similarly, article one of the Tunisian constitution declares Islam the state religion. However, legislation was enacted to prevent polygamy, to stipulate marriageable age, to prevent abuse of the talaq, which allowed men to easily divorce their wives, and to curb other practic es being abused. To manage the role Islamic law should play is going to be difficult and African states that have dealt with similar issues could provide assistance.

Finally, African solidarity will send a clear message to African despots that although revolutions have occurred in n orth African and in Middle Eastern countries, they are not immune to the impetus that created them. The "colonial Africa north of the Sahara and Africa south of the Sahara" construct will no longer be countenanced. As independence was gained in Egypt and Ghana and gained momentum in the rest of the continent, so too should these revolutions be viewed as signifiers of an end to oppressive rule. The name of the fruit seller was Mohamed Bouazizi and his name should be on the lips of every African from Cape to Cairo.