By Andrew M. Mwenda
On October 24th, I went to Entebbe Airport to catch a South African Airways flight via Johannesburg to Namibia. Airline officials said I needed a transit visa through South Africa. I explained that I was not going to enter the country, only to change flights in the airport. ‘You still need a transit visa. These are new rules,’ a lady told me. Frustrated, I went to Kenya Airways and booked a ticket via Nairobi to Lusaka from whence I could catch Namibian Airlines to Windhoek, Namibia.
However, upon arrival in Lusaka, I was told that the Namibian Airlines flight to Windhoek passes through Johannesburg. Under the new rules, passengers are required to disembark, enter the transit lounge and re-board the plane. You need a transit visa to do this. I changed my flight, returned to Kampala without getting to Windhoek. I had spent three days flying between Entebbe, Nairobi, Harare and Lusaka (and staying in hotels) without getting to my destination, another country in Africa. Talk of the African Union!
However, the new visa requirements do not apply to British, Americans, Irish and other Europeans (or nations of white people); so my colleagues going to the same conference from the United States and Europe faced no problem transiting through that country. South Africa employs the new rules against African people except on her neighbours ‘ Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, Namibia and Zambia.
There has never been an issue that united the whole of Africa than the apartheid system in South Africa. Almost every country on our continent ‘ big and small, rich and poor, powerful or weak made a commendable contribution to the liberation of South Africa. Uganda under all its governments ‘ Milton Obote, Idi Amin, Milton Obote II and Yoweri Museveni committed a lot of its resources to the struggle against apartheid.
I went to public schools in Uganda where I studied with South African students. They carried Ugandan passports, their accommodation in Kampala and fees at school were paid by government of Uganda (I paid my own fees) etc. And this was a time when tax revenues of Uganda were Shs 90 billion (now it is Shs 5.5 trillion). But we sacrificed the little we had for our South African brothers and sisters. I always felt proud that my government did so; and as a 17-year-old when I met Nelson Mandela in person in 1990, I volunteered to join Umkoto Wesizwe to fight the apartheid system.
The struggle against apartheid was important to all Africans because South Africa was the last frontier in the open and institutionalised mistreatment of the black person based on skin colour. Black people today continue to suffer one million and one indignities. Africans are humiliated beyond description daily; treated as criminals in their Western countries of residence (30% of all African American male youths live in prison) and as vagabonds at Western embassies when trying to get visas to travel to Europe and North America. Despite our internal problems, our independence and sovereignty is our last stand.
These ‘democratic countries’ demand bank statements (invasion of privacy), land titles (one’s right to travel depends on property qualifications), family members (literally seeking to hold people hostage) from persons seeking to travel to Western countries. At any major airport, the African is treated as an unwelcome intruder. This racial discrimination is institutionalised through the democratic process. It is global apartheid where a few Africans are admitted into these ‘civilised’ societies as citizens or permanent residents. Talk of the world as a global village!
Yet in spite of all this, I transit through Schipol Airport in Netherlands without a visa. I have transited through the USA and spent two nights in Chicago without a visa. I have also transited through Switzerland, cleared through immigration and stayed two nights in Zurich without a visa. It is post-apartheid South Africa which is introducing these apartheid-like requirements specifically on Africans and exempting whites.
Under apartheid, South African blacks were required to carry pass books (visas) to move around the country. Meanwhile, Africans from other countries could travel through and to South Africa without much hindrance. In fact it is African countries that issued passports saying ‘free to travel to any country except South Africa.’ It is under post-apartheid South Africa that other Africans are required to carry the equivalent of the passbook (the visa) and where black South Africans have rioted to kill fellow black people from other African countries.
Yet this anti-African policy against Africans is practised by other African countries. People from Europe and North American can travel to Uganda and get a visa at the airport, a very good thing. However, Ghanaians are required to get a visa before they depart for Uganda. In return, Ghana today also demands that Ugandans apply for visas before they travel. The same applies to Ethiopia and many other African countries. Last year, I was attending a conference in Addis Ababa. The delegates who came from other African countries without Ethiopian visas were held hostage at Addis Ababa Airport for the night while those from Europe and North America would be allowed to apply for the visas right at the airport.
All this happens in spite of 47 years since the formation of the Organisation for African Unity; nine years since the African Union came into life, and in spite of COMESA, PTA, SADC and other regional groupings. While the case of South Africa is extreme (you can transit through any country in Africa without need for a visa), it is difficult for Africans to travel, work and trade with each other on this continent.
There are many big things that colonialism did to separate and hinder mutually beneficial interaction among us. However, there are small things we can do that can correct a lot of these colonial distortions. We do not need grandiose ideas like African Unity or the East African Federation. We need, initially, little things like the removal of visas within Africa, removal of border controls and roads linking our countries for our people to begin to move and trade freely on this continent. No one is going to develop African except Africans through trade.