Trump’s insult to Africa offensive – and cause for introspection: Two opposing views

CAPE TOWN — The two diametrically-opposed viewpoints carried below inform the bushfire debate sparked by US President Donald Trump’s description of Africa as consisting of ‘shithole countries,’ each carrying half a glass of evidence to back their arguments. Reassuringly, both agree that Trump is racist, misogynistic and xenophobic; but that’s where it ends. Former 1960s political activist Errol Horwitz who returned to South Africa after three decades abroad makes a seemingly telling argument for the half-empty glass, filled as he has it, with polluted water. In contrast, visiting Professor of International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand, John Stremlau, singles out the lasting harm Trump’s comments have done to diplomatic relations, (not that he bothered to set up any meaningful channels in the first place). He quotes the New York Times to lambast conservative middle-America to whom Trump plays. His half-full glass consists of the values the African Union espouses and the swathe of successful people who’ve emerged from this continent whom he encourages to take the fight to Trump, siding with African-American lobbyists and the growing number of NGOs vehemently opposing his policies. Maintaining dignity, Ebba Kalondo, chief spokesperson for the AU reminds Trump that migration gave birth to a nation (the USA), built on strong values of diversity and opportunity. Diplomacy is a necessary tool – one that Trump ignore at his peril. – Chris Bateman

Shithole Utterance. More of Zapiro’s cartoon magic available at

By Errol Horwitz*

The backlash to Donald Trump’s disparaging comments about African nations as “shithole countries” was fast and furious. The African Union, African ambassadors to the UN, and leaders of African countries called on Trump to retract his statement and apologize.

Trump’s rant was in keeping with his frequently racist, misogynistic and xenophobic outbursts. To him it is simply “locker room talk“, a narrative clearly acceptable to his base supporters.

One must ask what Trump meant by the term “shithole country”. Did he mean as one commentator put it:  “a generally poor and struggling, politically [economically] conflicted country that seeks relief from the United States, thus imposing burdens on the great white nation”. Or, to put it differently: a third world country that does not have a hotel and a casino that bear his name. For this reason one suspects Trump did not include the Philippines to be a “shithole country” because it has a hotel and casinos that bear his name. If anything the Philippines fits the definition of a poor country, politically and economically conflicted, and reliant on generous US aid packages.

Many would take exception to what Trump said about African countries. But, considered objectively was he wrong?

The facts unfortunately are on the side of Trump:

The African Continent is made up of 54 countries. Every single country in Africa, post-colonial rule, has degenerated into a political and economic basket case. Economies and infrastructure of these countries are in a state of collapse. Crime is rife, unemployment is off the charts, lack of honest and accountable leadership and mismanagement rear its ugly head day after day. Bribery and corruption spills over every aspect of life in Africa in lock-step with predatory politics carried out at all levels of government.

Most African leaders are preoccupied with self-enrichment for themselves and their cronies. They have done little to improve the welfare of millions of their people who live in abject poverty. There is a common thread that runs through the veins of African leaders – once firmly entrenched in the corridors of power, nothing meaningful is done to remedy the plight of the poor.

The latest victim of Africa’s proclivity for state capture is the once flourishing country South Africa. It’s corrupt president, Jacob Zuma, and his cabal of looters and incompetent sycophants have brought the country to its knees. The country’s infrastructure is in a state of collapse; health care is neither healthy or caring; unemployment is rife; crime and poverty rampant; intolerable living conditions for the poor; corruption and bribery regarded as an acceptable means of income; a disastrous education system headed up by incompetent crony of the ruling party. One can list the country’s systemic problems ad nauseam – suffice it to ask the question: is South Africa like the rest of Africa a shithole? The facts don’t lie.

The rest of the world sees Africa for its bloody coups d’etat, warring tribalism, xenophobia, desperate men, women and children fleeing their countries in droves for Europe on a scale never seen before to escape Africa’s agony: hopelessness, despair, hunger and disease. As one political commentator in Egypt put it: “Women, children, the poorest of the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, the unskilled and uneducated of this continent are bearing the brunt of all this misery heaped upon them by those who “run” their countries.  Those who are supposed to put the needs and safety of its citizens first. Those who [are]supposed to make their countries grow. Those who [are] supposed custodians of the land for future generations. Unfortunately this has never happened in post colonial Africa”.

No matter what Trump has said, or will say about Africa, could at least one African country be willing to dig itself out of the hole? In doing so, to be then counted upon to exemplify good governance and prosperity. Not likely. That being the case, Africa will continue to be regarded as the continent of shithole countries.

  • Errol Horwitz was a political activist in the 60s, and returned to South Africa a few years ago, after residing abroad for more than three decades.

Africa should respond to Trump’s racist rant by taking the moral high ground

File 20180115 101511 16zdv8z.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
US President Donald Trump has yet to announce his administration’s Africa policy. Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

By John J Stremlau*

Official reactions from Africa were appropriately critical of President Donald Trump’s credibly reported comments about not wanting more immigrants coming to the US from “shithole” countries. This included all those south of the Sahara. A few reactions even included constructive suggestions.

The African Group of United Nation ambassadors unanimously dismissed the comments as “outrageous, racist and xenophobic”. They demanded Trump retract them and apologise. Botswana, Senegal and South Africa summoned US local representatives to be served with a demarche. In normal diplomatic practice this is a stern request for an explanation and is tantamount to a formal protest.

But in dealing with Trump, normal protocols are beside the point.

Flag map of South Africa

More than a year after he took office Trump has yet to announce an Africa policy, or even fill important diplomatic positions. He has yet to nominate an Assistant Secretary of State for Africa or an ambassador to South Africa. This means that African leaders lack any policy context in which to frame and guide traditional diplomatic reactions.

The Trump administration’s incompetence makes it difficult for African countries to engage Washington in seeking meaningful explanations, much less substantive negotiations. Even at lower working levels sustaining routine relations are complicated by a lack of policy guidance, budgetary uncertainty, and inter-agency management. This affects complex development, environmental, trade or security issues.

Africa’s limited resources, institutional capacities and vulnerabilities add to the risks associated with the current state of affairs.

Challenging racism with reason

Ebba Kalondo, chief spokesperson for the African Union said Trump’s comment “flies in the face of accepted behaviour and practice”. But she then sounded a possibly hopeful note. She added that the US

remains a global example of how migration gave birth to a nation built on strong values of diversity and opportunity. We believe that a statement like this hurts our shared global values on diversity, human rights and reciprocal understanding.

Kalondo’s appeal to what Abraham Lincoln famously called “the better angels of our nature” also recalls how Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, sought to transform troubling moments into what he suggested could be “teachable moments”.

The flag of the United States of America.

In this spirit prominent African Americans, such as popular TV news pundit Joy Reid, have responded to Trump with positive reminders. Reid informed her viewers that her mother is a professor who immigrated from Guyana and her father a successful Congolese-American geologist. Other successful Africans are also speaking out. This affirms that Kalondo’s reference to enduring shared global values may not ring as hollow as Trump’s bigoted comments might cause us to fear.

This does not deny the immediate danger posed by Trump. As a New York Times editorial reminded readers the day after the reported comment and his attempt to retract it:

Mr Trump is not just a racist, ignorant, incompetent and undignified. He is also a liar … And still supporting Trump are a substantial number of the 63 million voters who elected him. It is these people, albeit not a national minority, who he continues to court, with his denigration of immigrants and especially those of African origin.

Trump’s comments can be viewed as a reflection of his personal animus and a conviction that they will play well with his political base.

Further complicating any effort to hold Trump and his supporters to account is that he’s repeatedly said he “is the least racist person he knows”. Polling suggests that most of his political supporters also believe they’re not racists.

Such denials have a long history in US politics. They are at the heart of America’s ongoing struggle for racial justice as recounted in “The Nationalist’s Delusion” by Adam Serwer.

Trump and his white nationalist supporters will also never concede that the history of slavery and colonial exploitation perpetrated by their own American and European ancestors contributed to Africa’s problems of economic underdevelopment and political balkanisation.

Time to break with protocol

African governments and non-governmental groups are right to voice outrage in reaction to Trump’s outbursts, and to criticise his behaviour.

But they need to do more. They can encourage and cooperate directly with those in Congress, African-Americans and the growing network of civil society groups opposed to Trump. This may bend, or even violate, traditional diplomatic practice. But Trump’s own disregard for international principles and norms justifies using alternative methods and interventions.

Having America as a more politically capable, willing and acceptable partner is surely in Africa’s long-term interests. This aspiration can be rooted in the same values as the pan-African democratic vision enshrined in the AU’s Constitutive Act. The vision was championed more than a decade ago under the banner of an African Renaissance. It is based on shared commitments to democratic cooperation, greater collective self-reliance and eventual democratic integration. But it is floundering and could founder.

The ConversationIf Americans succeed in resisting Trump and reconsolidating their democracy, then this could lend critical support for African democrats who still believe in the shared vision that the AU’s Kolondo refers to.

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