African unity is under the spotlight on Wednesday as the continent celebrates 53 years since the establishment of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).
A myriad of events are expected across the continent to commemorate Africa Day which represents the vision of the continent’s founding fathers after having gained independence from their colonial masters.
For some, it is a time for reflection about the achievements and challenges which still face Africans with the focus being on ways to deepen integration amongst them.
The 25th of May is celebrated across the continent as Africa Day and marks the establishment of the OAU in 1963.
Thirty of the thirty two independent African states at the time signed the Charter of the OAU in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. That number eventually grew to the current 53 members. In 2002, it was replaced by the African Union.
Sitting OAU Secretary General Amara Essy says, “As departure from the OAU there shall be a great role for people’s representatives and civil society in the work of the African Union more than the OAU.”
South Africa joined the OAU in 1994 having been isolated for many years from the rest of the continent by the apartheid regime’s racist policies.
With many countries on the continent having embraced South Africa’s struggle for freedom, some paying a heavy price for their solidarity with the country, there was a deep sense of shock when communities across the country turned against African migrants in May 2008.
The Africa Diaspora Forum (ADF), formed in the aftermath of those xenophobic attacks, began its Africa Day celebrations on a sober note at a commemoration ceremony in Yeoville in Johannesburg to remember those who were killed in those clashes.
The ADF’s Marc Baffou sees Africa Day as a day for reflection. “This day is very important, when we are looking at the mirror as Africans that is the only thing that we should see, what is the platform put together for Africans to talk about the democracy that they have had since 1963, what is working, what are the people, the leaders that are dragging it back.”
Among the reasons cited for the xenophobic attacks which recurred in 2015 has been competition for resources with locals accusing foreign nationals of taking their jobs, competing with them for access to services and employing unfair business practices in the townships and informal settlements.
Baffou whose organisation represents the interests of Africans living in the country and aims to bring about social cohesion, says working together is beneficial for locals and foreign nationals.
“We have so many engineers, medical doctors who are in the society in the migrant community who are car washers.We can use these skills, in some hospitals you don’t find medical doctors but the medical doctors are sitting doing nothing, so if we work together it will help,” says Baffou.
The ADF has been spreading its message of integration together with the Gauteng Provincial government in the townships of Alexandra, Ethwatha, Orange Farm, Diepsloot and Katlehong. It says the reception has been good.
National government is also keenly aware of the need for South Africans to reclaim their African identity. For Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa the project must begin with the youth.
“Not many people will know who Jomo Kenyatta is, but they will know who Hitler is. There is something wrong there, so we here in South Africa are working with our counterparts, the Ministers of Higher and Basic Education, to ensure for instance that history is compulsory in schools. We are busy with that project of researching that particular part of our work because as long as the youth do not know who they are, it will be hard to embrace their African identity.”
For the vision of the promotion of people to people relations on the continent to succeed, knowledge and understanding of each other is critical.
This can be done in informal ways, according to African Music Specialist Richard Nwamba, who has for 20 years been sharing music and stories about the continent with his listeners on SAFM.
“In other words, I felt that I can use music in a way to highlight some cultural aspects of that music, maybe even the cultural aspects of that music. I felt that you can’t just play a song without explaining what informs the song and I also have this idea that whoever is listening to me is my friend, so I must speak to that person as a friend as opposed to you know being didactic. I did not want it to turn into a didactic exercise, I wanted it to be informative in a friendly way.”
Nwamba believes that progress has been made in the 22 years of South Africa’s democracy towards building an African identity.
And he may be right looking at Johannesburg’s communities of Yeoville and Hillbrow that arguably have the highest concentration of foreign nationals living side by side with South Africans in the country.
The areas were saved from any of the xenophobic attacks and according to Sanka Leya who works for a children’s community project Dlala Nje, which runs African food tours, there to raise money, it is a model for other towns.
“People who live in these places live together as a community which is something that you would not find anywhere else in South Africa. They look after one another and that has been the main key and that is what has reduced the level of crime in these places a lot of the guys who are here are just here to make a better life for themselves and it is like a hustling spot so you do not want to see anyone being taken advantage of. So if you see someone being mugged today and you watch that you pretty much will be that person’s next victim so here what you have is people being robbing and stealing a cell phone so the levels of street justice are quite high and it is just about people looking after each other.”