Make Africa Day a public holiday

It is Monday 26 May 2008 in Accra, the capital of Ghana, and it is a public holiday. Yesterday was Africa Day, a day that still goes relatively unrecognised in South Africa, and because it was Sunday, the Monday becomes a holiday.

The streets are noticeably less busy, the market is relatively quieter.

Maybe that is one of the problems with South Africa, I find myself thinking, that we don’t see ourselves as part of the African continent and we don’t even see the need to celebrate Africa Day.

Maybe therein lays the opportunity to deal with the wave of xenophobia that has gripped our nation.

Maybe we should make Africa Day a public holiday in South Africa. Maybe then we would be able to focus on its significance. Maybe we could then use the opportunity to start a discussion about what it means to be an African and the need for unity across the African continent.

Maybe we will then be able to deal with the arrogance displayed by so many South Africans who believe that we are better than our brothers and sisters elsewhere on the continent.

Like so many other South Africans, I have been searching, albeit from afar, for reasons behind the xenophobia that erupted this week. I have also been thinking about how one avoids this happening again.

Unlike most of my colleagues in the media, I was not surprised by the attacks. Shocked yes, but not surprised. If one looks at how black South Africans have been fighting for such a small piece of South Africa’s economic pie and how they have even been trying to exclude fellow black South Africans from access to this economic pie, then I am not surprised.

If we feel that certain South African groups should not benefit from our economy, then why should we agree that foreigners should benefit.

So I have been shocked by the manner of the attacks and its violent nature. I was not surprised that the attacks happened at all.

I found myself asking why we are such a violent nation. I tried to link this to poverty, but as a Ghanaian journalist pointed out to me last week: “We have more poverty in Ghana, but we do not have as much crime.”

I then found myself blaming apartheid and the way it dehumanised our people, not only the atrocities committed by the apartheid regime and its foot soldiers, but also the atrocities committed in the name of the liberation struggle.

It is probably easier to kill somebody if you tell yourself that you are not killing a human being; you are killing something below a human being.

This brings me back to Africa Day and the need for us to celebrate it as South Africans.

For so many years, we were not part of Africa. Most African countries knowingly and willingly excommunicated the white apartheid regime, and with good reason.

We have only really being made to feel part of Africa for the past 14 years, since we became a democracy.

You still find South Africans would rather travel to Europe or the United States, but not to other African countries. Yes, there is poverty in Africa, but there is also incredible beauty. It is time for South Africans to open up their eyes to the beauty on the continent.

We should actively celebrate Africa Day and being part of Africa. If it requires that our government should decree a public holiday to celebrate Africa, then I would support it.

The message it would send to the rest of the continent is that we are serious about taking our rightful place on the continent. We are serious about being Africans.

Maybe by doing that, we would then be able to start addressing the issues that led to the xenophobia of the past week or so.

(First published on the Mail and Guardian's Thoughtleader site in May 2008)