Why Africans are showing solidarity with Black Lives Matter movement

Activists in both South Africa and Kenya are drawing on the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile to highlight the global echoes of their own social justice causes.

Ashraf Hendricks
A protester holds a banner stating "Stop killing blacks" during a black solidarity protest outside the US Consulate in Cape Town, South Africa on July 13, 2016. The protest comes a week after police killed Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in the United States.

The marchers bore familiar signs – “Stop Killing Blacks,” “Black Lives Matter,” “We are against police brutality” – and familiar anguish.

“Our brothers … are being killed daily by the police,” says activist Moses Tafah. “We are saying enough is enough.”

But this march of about 100 people Wednesday morning wasn’t in Atlanta, Wichita, St. Paul, or Chicago. It was to a US consulate in a lush suburb of Cape Town, South Africa – nearly 9,000 miles from the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement, but stitched to it, organizers say, by a hurt that traveled without a passport.

“We are lamenting the same pain we are feeling with them,” says Monde Nonabe, a student activist from the nearby University of the Western Cape. “We are here to send the message that black lives matter everywhere in the world.”

When bystanders in the US captured footage of two separate black men being shot to death by police in the span of 24 hours last week, it drove a wave of sadness and anger that swelled well beyond American borders to activists and movements around the globe who saw their own communities reflected back in the faces of the grief-stricken protesters linking arms across US highways and haunting the sidewalks outside government buildings.

Perhaps nowhere was this truer than in sub-Saharan Africa, a region that carries many of the same racial scars as the US, and whose history is inextricably knotted by slavery to America’s own.

Tentacles of the same struggle

Activists in both South Africa and Kenya, where the bodies of three men killed by police were discovered in early July, have used the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile to highlight the global echoes of their own social justice causes. In South Africa, some demonstrators took a more extreme stance, in some cases calling for violence that harkens back to the armed struggle against Apartheid here.

And in Zimbabwe, where protests against President Robert Mugabe reached fever pitch over the past two weeks, government representatives used the US demonstrations to prove a different point – that the United States has no moral high ground to condemn the way it handles its own detractors.

"We are witnessing [in the United States] racial chaos that has never been seen before,” George Charamba, spokesperson for President Robert Mugabe, told a local newspaper earlier this week, perhaps overstating his own case given the history of racial violence during the US civil rights movement. He went on to accuse the US of fueling the demonstrations in Zimbabwe. “So who are they to tell us what to do?" 

For activists on both sides of the Atlantic, forging connections between their movements is hardly a new idea, notes Brian Ihirwe Kamanzi, a student activist in South Africa. Demonstrators who took a stand against segregation in the US, apartheid in South Africa, and colonialism on the rest of the continent between the 1950s and the 1980s largely saw themselves as variations of the same struggle. But in the ensuing decades, he says, many of those connections slowly faded away.

Then, late last year, college students in South Africa ignited a wave of protests over tuition hikes that briefly shut down the entire university system – and American activists took notice. Several Black Lives Matter protesters traveled here to meet their South African counterparts – and to figure out how they’d organized.

“The black struggle against white supremacy is a global struggle,” says Cosette Hampton, a protester outside the Cape Town consulate and a student at the University of Chicago. She came to South Africa for her summer break to intern with a local social justice organization. “I think it’s my duty to not just fight within Chicago but also to learn about the movement here and make the movement … more accessible to people around the globe.”

'A one-way deal?'

But not everyone here feels that solidarity runs both ways. Several activists have noted that while Africans seem aware of American struggles, the same can’t be said of American awareness of conflicts in Zimbabwe, South Sudan, or the Central African Republic.

“Americans haven’t felt our pain,” Mr. Tafah says. “It’s a one-way deal.”

Still, says Kenyan writer and political analyst Nanjala Nyabola, the groundswell of protest in the US gives her reason for hope.

Last week, she marched alongside thousands of others in central Nairobi protesting the recent police killing of human rights lawyer Willie Kimani, his client, Josphat Mwenda, and their driver, Joseph Muiruri, whose bodies were discovered in a river near the capital on July 1. In Kenya, she says, such large-scale, coordinated protests are rare, and it energized her to see them happening in step with those in the US. 

“I would love for us to learn from them that you don’t always have to be polite in your protests, you don’t always have to ask nicely,” says Ms. Nyabola. “If you want to see a radical change in your society, you have to be ready to push for it. You have to decide what kind of society you want to live in.”

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