And, #BlackLivesMatter to who?

In the song Crocodiles, renowned South African poet Mzwakhe Mbuli probes “Why    give chase to lizards when the crocodiles are against you?” The recent death on the 25th of May, 2020, of George Floyd, an African-American at the hands of members of the Minneapolis Police Department in America has seen an eruption of protests against racism and equal proportions of condemnatory statements, not only in America, but across the world. Ironically, on the same fateful day, the African continent was commemorating ‘Africa Day’ and I vividly recall having had a couple of engagements with a friend in Zambia and another a few hundred kilometres in Johannesburg, South Africa, on the significance of a day for the African continent and its citizens: a land bedevilled by a multitude of challenges unparalleled! My position in this discussion culminated in my asserting that Africa mattered to all and we had to lead in telling, if yelling wasn’t necessary, our story. We had to grasp the onus to   drive the African unity project with both hands. Such unity for me, comes through living life as a meditative and reflective experience. Africa is not a mere piece of land, but an identity, a way of life, a comprehensive societal system, a culture, a value, a way of thinking, Being. Mr. Floyd’s death led to the protests that have erupted across the world have reignited the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, and given real hope that popular rebellion will achieve what electoral politics has failed to do. This BLM movement became a powerful in August 2014 after the uprising in Ferguson but most of it’s leadership got co-opted into NGOs and foundations and its initial momentum was lost and the source of its real power – popular rebellion.

We can not simply look at the current wave of the George Floyd triggered protests as US-centric but black lives must matter throughout the world, not only in its largest economy but even more importantly in Africa. African governments have rightly jumped onto the bandwagon Pharisaically issuing strong statements against such. Do black lives matter only in patches of the world and not in Africa itself? Providing a global platform to about 45 million Americans of African heritage, without including the over 1.2 billion Africans on the continent in the conversation is an excruciating and unfathomable example of 1st World privilege that blatantly fails Africans and undermines the entire objectives of the BLM movement. I am not undeplaying, under any circumstances the loss of a single life anywhere in the world but that the majority of Africans remain victims of severe disadvantages to date. The struggle for racial equality has by no means ended in Africa. In Senegal, an African-American political activist Lydia Hickman had arranged a BLM protest in July 2016 which was called off by the authorities despite her  having followed all protocols including going through intelligence services before holding the protest, only to be told by police that it was a ‘sensitive’ issue. Many felt authorities feared reprisals from the American government but it was sadder to see  that such a protest did not get enough support on the continent. The crux of the matter for her was simple: the value of black lives, period.

A global debate about the treatment of black lives is in progress but the reactions to the protest that was to be held in Senegal are a stark reminder that many still have very different opinions about their place within this conversation. It is a difficult discussion to have, and the complexity that comes with it cannot be avoided if any progress is to be made. In Africa, as elsewhere, we are rightly outraged about the murder of another person by  police officers in America and the continued violent response by police against protestors. Yes, we have to speak out and in unity stand together with the victims of murder, marginalization, and repression because of their skin color, and with those who seek justice through protests across our world: but do black lives matter in our own backyards? How easy and seemingly hypocritical it has proved for our governments to not be as vocal about state machinery brutality is extremely worrying. I will not be drawn into chronicling all the incidents of such seeming silence and complicity, but I have come to note that on many occasions such brutal events are used as diversions from their own ineptitude. Such seeming institutionalised complicity in the injustices on citizens is unfortunate but a commonly recurring theme. It is “factual” that most of our black governments are not fully democratic and are mere fronts for white power, holding entire populations in bondage through debts negotiated at incredibly exorbitant interest rates.

Africa is not alien to incidences security forces’ brutality to citizens and the apparent silence is more than short of baffling, let alone when such brutality is black on black or protector on the protected? Because Africa gullibly consumes everything readily  that emanates from the West, there is a tendency to overidentify to an unhealthy degree and forget our neighbour’s issues unleashing our social media fingers typing,   ranting, and retweeting from our backyards in Africa for justice to prevail across continents.

But where’s the same energy for Collins Khosa? A black South African man who died at the boots of soldiers at his home for drinking alcohol and allegedly flouting Covid-19 lockdown regulations? No-one took to the streets out there marching for him. The soldiers have been acquitted, we all forget and the family has to simply live with it! And so it is for the other 11 black men who have died so far during this same period. How easy we find it to glom onto current 1st World issues and forget our neighbour? Too often we glom onto the latest buzz and wave, especially when it’s “first world” related. Hashtags may on social media trend for a while but hardly do we become the vociferous warriors shouting our outrage at our own injustices. Do we go out and protest xenophobic attacks that routinely sweep our country? Most of those people who are attacked or killed are black. Do their lives not matter?

How do we even begin to perceive the continental silence with perpetually increasing state security violence on civilians in Zimbabwe? The “coup-ly” ushered in new dispensation has perfected the art of evil and become second to none in unleashing violence and using heavy-handed techniques to silence dissenting voices. A Bulawayo resident Levison Ncube died after police allegedly beat him for allegedly violating Zimbabwe’s Covid-19 lockdown rules in April. Levison and his pregnant girlfriend were on their way to the shops to buy basic commodities when they encountered the police. Again it is extremely disturbing when one dies at the hands of the police who are supposedly one’s protectors and refuge in times of distress.

Strange as it may seem, it took Mr. Floyd’s death for Kenya to raise their voices against police brutality in their own backyard. Hundreds of them flocked to the Mathare slums to protest the fatal police brutality to enforce coronavirus mitigation measures across the country. More than 20 people have died  during the Covid-19 imposed curfews and in a nation where police brutality has become a formality. Maurice Ochieng who was beaten to death by police for not wearing a protective face mask in public and a 13-year-old Yassin Moyo was gunned down by police just after curfew started whilst he was at the balcony of his home when a police officer shot him for not being in the house.

If we could bring all the anger that we feel about the situation in the US home we would have a real chance of being able to start to reform policing at home and perhaps duly remind them of their mandate to not only serve but to protect ALL lives as well.  And such reforms are urgently needed for they constitute literally, matters of life and death. #BlackLivesMatter not only in the US, but in Africa as well, home to over a billion Africans. The struggle is real and collective, but must not purely be a struggle for a pocket of the total. Africa has to stand for all without regards to affiliations, social status or gender. We have to rise and yell with one voice: OUR LIVES MATTER, otherwise, what’s the point and will we really be doing anything but performative posturing?

by Farai Mandaza, Southern Africa, South Africa