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South Africa’s unrest is something Black people across the globe should care about

OPINION: The urgency for a new Black internationalism and the collective wisdom that only Pan Africanism can inspire has never been more necessary or possible.

What South Africa was supposed to be …

In 1987, I vividly remember dancing to Free Nelson Mandela in college, always knowing that my white classmates wanted him to be free, but I needed him to be free. South Africa was to be the triumph of African resilience, the courage of the Black experience, and the beauty of forgiveness from the victimized. It was to be our story. It was to be my story. 

Tragically, days ago, demonstrators rioted and looted across South Africa. Local police bungled the attempt to quell the uprising, and in a shocking move, the army was brought in. At least 250 people died in the unrest and businesses were burned and destroyed. So many South Africans, Africans, and those who love Africa turned our heads in horror as we became further disillusioned about Mandela’s dream of a free and equal South Africa.

So what is really going on?

Some suggest ethnic tensions over the sentencing of former President Jacob Zuma was the catalyst. Others claim that the Constitutional Court made a judicial power grab by usurping the authority of a commission inquiry that actually had jurisdiction over the former leader’s sentencing. 

Former president Jacob Zuma addresses the press at his home in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa days before he gave himself up to serve a 15 month prison sentence for contempt of court. (AP Photo/Shiraaz Mohamed, File)

From my perspective, as a Pan Africanist, the drivers of mayhem and destruction are the 30-year betrayal by the African National Congress (ANC). The ruling party has not come anywhere close to manifesting the realities that South Africans believed were their destiny at the end of apartheid. The world was deeply invested in South Africa’s success.

Over the last 30 years, the ANC has privatized health care, education, and infrastructure to the detriment of the country. They have slipped into the economic paradigm that was there before apartheid. They never deconstructed the infrastructure of the corrupt economic system they inherited. Instead, they became the profiteers of the system.

Today, the richest 20% of South Africans control 70% of the nation’s resources. The country faces 32.6% unemployment with 46% of youth being jobless. Thirty-five billion dollars was stolen during the Zuma presidency; inflation continues to rattle the country, and COVID-19 restrictions have devastated the “local” economy. 

Yes, South Africa has the most progressive constitution in the world and is a model for tolerance of queer people. However, as is the case with many African economies, government leaders have focussed on aviation expansion and creating a fluid environment for multinational corporations rather than establishing basic-income grants, improving service delivery in the interior regions, stamping out corruption, and implementing land reform programs. 

The call for change 

As an African American faith leader and justice advocate who has lived between Harlem and East Africa over the last ten years working with marginalized communities, when I see the youth of South Africa, I see the young people in Harlem devastated by displacement, I see the young people of Nairobi who are well educated and jobless, I see the young people in the DRC, who are terrorized by violence. And I also see their grit, determination, competence, and vision of a new reality for their people. I also see them identifying with other youth of African descent from all over the world.  

Haiti, South Africa, Texas, Colombia: It’s all connected 

Looters outside a shopping centre alongside a burning barricade in Durban, South Africa. Former president Jacob Zuma’s incarceration for contempt of court, sparked off the worst violence South Africa has seen since the nation achieved democracy in 1994. (AP Photo/Andre Swart, File)

The urgency for a new Black internationalism and the collective wisdom that only Pan Africanism can inspire has never been more necessary or possible. The plight of people of African descent can no longer be assessed and addressed within the context of any single “nation-state.” The dramatic assault on the voting rights of African Americans, the recent demonization of BLM by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the ongoing manipulation of Africa’s resources by China, the political crisis in Haiti, the dramatic lack of COVID vaccines across Africa, the unrest in South Africa, the brutality of the conflict in Ethiopia, Colombian state-sanctioned violence against Black bodies, the threat to democracy in Nigeria ALL must be understood within a global frame. We also know that local actors must be empowered to implement change. 

The need for Pan Africanism

America was the place where we could prove that we were equal. Haiti was the country where we first experienced sovereignty. South Africa was the place to birth a great modern-day African nation. 

Now, equality, sovereignty and economic justice for Black people globally are in question. The answer requires sustained and resourced Pan African connections and actions. 

An integrated U.S. domestic and foreign policy

The Biden administration is committed to aligning domestic and foreign policies. For example, their support for The Equality Act was well choreographed with decisive actions to reinstate the global envoy for LGBTQ concerns in the U.S. Department of State. It’s time to do it again for racial justice in the USA and around the world.

President Joe Biden, Congressman Gregory Meeks, United Nations Ambassador Linda Thomas Greenfield, and U.S. Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice have an opportunity to adopt new foreign policies that support a Pan African populist agenda. They must leave behind the Africa policies focused on military-based relationships and fending off China.  American officials must establish connections with and support grassroots movements powered by young people of African descent globally. These policies will protect U.S. national security for generations to come.

President Biden just called for an economic reset with the continent. Black internationalism is the practice of understanding racial oppression within a global context. This mindset opens the possibility to support Pan-African organizing and action which will give the Biden administration the credibility to pursue being Africa’s primary economic partner.

The next chapter in the story of South Africa has endless potential and possibilities. The nation’s future will be determined by its ability to create equity. This demands that all hands are on deck domestically and globally. I still have my dancing shoes and I am ready to move!

Bishop Joseph W. Tolton is the President of Interconnected Justice, a Pan African advocacy collective (ICJustice.org). 

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