You are walking in downtown Johannesburg on a cold winter’s day. The sun has set and the chill is egged on by a light, piercing rain. The air conditioners of the cars whizzing by you are on. You know this because their windows are tearful. They tell a story.
So, too, does the woman sitting on the pavement whom you trip over as you gaze at the cars. Her story would be of her condemnation to homelessness and her increasing wretchedness. Your eyes meet, inevitably. Even in the dying light of the day, her rankling pain is palpable. Some of it is your doing – you tripped over her leg as you gazed at (envied?) the cars driving past.
You apologise. She says nothing. Then you notice her draw a patched blanket over someone lying next to her. It’s a child. In an effort to fight the cold, the patched blanket is assisted by thin cardboard boxes on either side of them It does such a shoddy job, you notice, because it only covers them from head to waist, leaving the rest exposed. That is why you tripped over the woman’s leg to begin with. You continue walking.
After a few steps, you suddenly stop. A cyclist curses you as he rides past. You can’t make out what he says. You couldn’t see his face because the light on his head briefly blinded you. As you turn back, you realise you had stopped in a recently built bicycle lane, an initiative of the City of Johannesburg.
Earlier, in the supermarket, you could not hide your shock from the cashier: Two plastic bags worth of groceries cost you nearly R600. In your hands, the platinum credit card reminded you of the dazzling lies told by the impersonal banker. It regularly betrays its promises of glamour and convenience. The card is single-handedly working against you, for its master: capital. A platinum card all right, but there is no glitter in your pocket; just a gloomy forecast.
By the time you reach the woman and child, you have already transferred the milk, biscuits, juice and lotion (the one for men) from one of your plastic bags to the other. You come in peace. You extend the plastic bag to the woman who, without question, sits up, pats her chest with her right hand and opens both hands to receive. Neither of you speaks, but the message has been sent.
Inside your tiny rented apartment, the local newscaster screams panic over the likely consequences of Britain leaving the European Union (EU). Experts have been lined up and, one after the other, they speak of “a weakened South African Rand”, prophesising an apocalypse as “vital trade agreements” implode. Almost all of them wished the people of Britain voted to remain in the EU.
This is the same EU that, earlier in June 2016, signed an EU-Southern African Development Community (SADC) Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) in Gaborone, Botswana, where the SADC Secretariat is based. You also know that this agreement “includes a bilateral protocol between the EU and South Africa on the protection of geographical indications and on trade in wines and spirits.”
What would this actually mean for a homeless person? Or a struggling black farmer, marginalised and not empowered? Indeed, what does the deal mean for citizens simply trying to survive in struggling economies whose model is premised on neo-liberal values? The complexities of such deals become hard to escape.
So, you wait for the newscaster to bring you a different narrative. Maybe something that speaks to how Britain never really wanted to be part of it anyway, except to reap the political benefits that allowed it to sustain the myth of British exceptionalism, an expression of the colonial hangover the country still suffers from. Nothing happens. You switch channels. Still, nothing happens. Radio? Nothing.
The absence of an alternative narrative regarding this main news story should worry Africans who have been made to believe that they are facing imminent problems should Britain leave the EU. In Africa, most of the fear around Britain’s exit from the EU (dubbed Brexit) is probably the fear of a loss of attachment to a mythical relationship that exists between a former colonial power and her subjects. Most commentary suggests that Britain will go into decline after its exit from the EU. So, from an African perspective, is a weak Britain necessarily bad for the continent because it threatens the ‘Empire’? Is it not an opportunity for Africa to negotiate future trade and cultural deals from a position of strength? And seeing that there was never any change in the power relationship in the post-colony, Britain still holds its dominant role in existing trade and cultural agreements. This means, for example, that Britain’s trade with Africa will remain exploitative in nature and does not come at great benefit to the people whose governments or businesses sign such deals.
Most of these deals are shrouded in secrecy and in the wake of leaks such as Panama Papers, one begins to see why Africa is bleeding from Illicit Financial Outflows. This money, running into billions of dollars, is one of the reasons that Africa remains underdeveloped. It is no accident. This is the primary logic of transnational capitalism, a notion on which the EU was founded and by whose logic policies are decided. No apologies expressed. Therefore, under this framework, Africans with no immediate connections to Britain – except through the colonial wound – cannot possibly feel as the Britons themselves do in light of current developments. It does not change anything.
Except, of course, if you are a wealthy investor and there is the likelihood of you being exposed to some financial risk. But, if you are a wealthy investor, you probably have quite a number of passports and homes at hand so you can easily mitigate this risk and feel little effect. How many passports does Aliko Dangote have again?
The major problem with Africa’s panic over Britain’s exit from the EU, as Elliot Murphy writes, is that “…many [people, including Africans,] seem incapable of acknowledging that the EU has by now become masterful at generating racism and promoting finance capitalism. Acknowledging this dynamic is frankly essential in understanding the rise of the far-right forces across Europe.”
It is these far-right movements that, on a daily basis, are agitating for their governments to fight wars in places like Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. It is also them who are calling for migrants – and Africa has a lot of them – to be denied entry into Europe, forgetting that the chaos these migrants are running away from is engineered, in most cases, by Britain and its stronger EU allies.
EU policies towards Africa and the rest of the Global South are, by their very nature, unhelpful to the ordinary African. It is against this backdrop that we must see Britain’s EU referendum and use what we have already seen the EU do to its poorer countries (which can put in the same lot as African countries) to craft much more critical and useful thoughts on how Africa can respond to developments such as Brexit.
For instance, Murphy writes that “the EU was more than willing to impose sanctions on Greece when it became tempted to disobey orders to kowtow to European banks, but it seems far less willing to do anything about the rise of the far-right in Germany, France, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Austria and Hungary.” At the time, Greece was being punished for electing into government a popular movement called Syriza, which was anti-austerity, pro-immigration and in support of funding social services that could benefit the poor, marginalised and dispossessed. Needless to say, the Syriza government was bullied by the EU into accepting reforms that were at odds with the democratic choice of many of its supporters who voted it into power. In short, the EU subverted democracy in Greece.
It is critical, therefore, that any interrogations on Brexit emanating from Africa be wary of following set patterns of coloniality, in which elite discourses (the voice of British and European elites) and concerns on the consequences of a Britain exit are mistaken for representing views of people who do not dream of ever setting foot in Britain or Europe – or, if they do harbour such dreams, will have to undergo rigorous scrutiny to test their eligibility to enter those spaces. And most Africans are not eligible to enter Britain or the rest of Europe.
Hence, if Brexit must point Africans to anything, it is the pace at which democracy is being threatened in Europe, how poor countries like Greece are being further impoverished via their association with the EU and how the EU itself has become an anti-democratic institution, often meddling in domestic policies of member states. This means that the organic (local) hopes, dreams and aspirations of ordinary European citizens are routinely dismissed or ignored altogether.
Is this what Africans concerned about Brexit are mourning? Or it is the myth of British exceptionalism, with its painful links to colonialism? Perhaps it is the trade agreements – most of them kept in secret? Maybe it is to stand in solidarity with the working class of Britain, which has borne the brunt of EU-imposed policies that have impacted negatively on their income and quality of life? Could the uproar be a conditioned expression – something that is necessary because it is Britain, and Africa must love Britain?
As you desperately try to keep warm in your flat, you think of the child lying next to the woman whose leg you had tripped over earlier. They are out there, on the dank streets of Johannesburg. In that moment, you realise that things need to be done very differently if the African child is to have a more rewarding future on their own continent. Should woman and child, in their current state, worry about Brexit? No.
For a different future, therefore, Africa, much like Europe, will have to be selfish with itself.