Navigating Jo’burg with Pan-African Lenses

africa united. pix courtesy

During the holiday season, I took a break to my beautiful home country South Africa, a rainbow nation at the end tip of Africa. Since it was a beautiful summer there, I decided to wear a vintage style pair of eye and mental glasses I had borrowed from some of my African-American friends: Pan-African lenses.

Although I had these spectacles for a few years, I had never tried them. I believed people with strange worldviews and radical tendencies designed them. It took courage to try them on because somewhere inside me lurked a common fear; a distorted image of troubled and troublesome Africans flooding and usurping the few African countries that are making progress and …sinking us all down?

Casting this mental monsters aside, I became mindful of the fact that for the past few years I have been living as a foreigner in other people’s land, driven by all sorts of dreams and hopes and yet subjected to all kinds of misinformed and prejudiced perceptions westerners have about Africans. So I decided to try the lenses, reckoning that if I started seeing/perceiving strange things, I’ll ditch them for good.

Coursing through the streets of Johannesburg wearing my Pan-African lenses, I was pleasantly surprised, albeit initially shocked to see how much has changed in the two cities: Pretoria and Jo’burg.

It is not only the streets whose colonial names had been changed to that of the various heroes of the freedom of the African struggle, it is also the diversity that has been poured in the social pot that is now evident.

South-Africa is a diverse society with population and cultural representations that reflect various parts of the world. However, in the past few years we have added the key ingredient that has been conspicuously missing; fellow Africans from all over the continent.

The streets have become an exuberant explosion of a diversity of people; Nigerians, Congolese, Kenyans, Malawians, Sudanese, the whole mix. I went to a hairdresser in midtown Pretoria where Zimbabweans styled my hair, a Senegalese man was designing modern African dresses and a Cameroonian was doing nails. Even more interesting was the fact that language was not a barrier. My Zim contemporaries spoke flawless Sesotho and isiZulu while the Francophone counterparts conversed in English occasionally spiced with local slang phrases that had us in fits of laughter.

Our conversations during the 2 hours that it took to whip up an impressive artwork with my locks covered all kinds of topics. It started with me trying to negotiate lower prices by trying to pass off as a West or East African because prices for locals are bit inflated.

They all refuted my East African claims albeit my willingness to pass a quick Swahili or French language oral test. This reminded me of the apartheid era where black Africans were differentiated from Coloureds (mixed races) by having to pass a pencil test stuck in their hair. Today, with my stubborn Afro hair, I would have passed that test with flying colours.

My hosts agreed that my humble attempts were impressive but they know a South-African when they see one. This naturally opened the talk to all kinds of stereotypes we have about each other. Ethiopians, Ghanaians, Mozambicans, Angolans…few were spared. It was stereotypes that were a mix of the weird, the true and the funny. It was the kinds of things that unites us and yet sometimes horribly divide us.

Still clothed in laughter, for a moment we all forgot why we were all here. We were all just people united by our common ancestry, heritage and destiny. An ideal.

Yet in that room stood a story of two war refugees who have not been home in 5 years. A tale of highly educated former public servants who had to flee a grossly weakened economy to become hair stylists and a case of young man without ‘papers’ who panicked every time “the boys” (cops) passed by because he could get deported. He swore he would soon find a local girl to marry. We all threatened to do worse things to him than the police would if he exploited an innocent sister’s affections for a piece of paper.

Yet we also knew that this “piece of paper” stood between this young person’s hopes and dreams, thanks to the century old colonial boundaries and rules that continue to alienate Africans from each other, making us all enemies and strangers in our own backyards.

As I bid farewell to my brothers and sisters with my hair looking like an amazing artwork and my wallet empty, I paused for a minute to reflect on what a truly united Africa could look like.

The differences and barriers for continental integration seemed to be as only huge as we imagine them to be. The African one stop shop I was leaving behind was a microcosm of what Africa has the potential to be; a powerful and diverse mix of talent, ideas and creativity.

Yet it remains a painfully sobering thought to know that against this ideal, towers a reality of a continent still riddled with wars, struggling economies, power mongering and dependence on foreign aid.

The road ahead will need the kind of faith that can move mountains. However because we built the majestic pyramids and showed strength and resilience over decades of oppression, no challenge is insurmountable for a people tied by a common purpose and vision: A united and prosperous Africa.

On that day, donning a pair of Pan-African glasses, I caught a glimpse of what Du Bois, Nyerere, Nkruma et al envisioned. Wherever we find ourselves in the world, we are all one people. United We Stand, Divide We Fall. I will not be returning these vintage glasses to my friends anytime soon, they gave me a compassionate way of looking at ourselves.

God Bless Afrika!

Pearl P Mashabane


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