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Historical clarity is the talk of the week at the 20th commemoration of the genocide in Rwanda. Where did the vision of division come from, and why? When was it institutionalised? How did it come to life, and give birth to death? Who taught you to hate your neighbour?

It is hard to know all the events of history, said Linn Hansen, but it is easy to begin.

Say we begin here, at the commemoration, where South Africa’s lukewarm participation stems from the cold war that followed heated accusations of South Africa harbouring terrorists/dissidents from Rwanda, and Rwanda assassinating dissidents/terrorists on South African soil. The clash came to a head when three Rwandan diplomats were expelled from Pretoria on charges of espionage, and Kigali expelled six South African diplomats in response.

Since then, the embassy’s visa section has been closed, effectively barring new entries from Rwanda to South Africa – or any other country that pegs its borders to Pretoria. Upon trying to apply for a Swazi visa, I am told, “Firstly you will not be able to travel to Swaziland without passing through South Africa. Bring the application to the High Commission in Pretoria upon your arrival in South Africa after receiving your South African visa.”

I check in with the South African embassy. The visa section is still closed, indefinitely. Can I apply from an embassy in a neighbouring country? No. Unless I can get an official government passport, which is exempt from visa requirements, the only thing to do is wait. So I put my trips on hold and carry on with life. Funnily enough, as it turns out, being unable to apply for a South African visa is less stressful than the process of applying for one.


“My visa has been denied? Why?”

“I don’t know.” The woman behind the glass shrugs as a trace of sympathy flits over her face. Faint enough to leave her professional detachment unruffled, perceptible enough to assure me that she’s not a humanoid robot powered by piles of paper and applicants’ exasperation. My flight to Johannesburg is leaving in 24 hours. I take a deep breath, careful to keep my tone calm and expression neutral. These are border blues.

Can’t shoot the messenger, or anyone for that matter – you have no shots in this power dynamic. The only option is to appeal and hope for the best.

“Can I speak to the person who handled my application?” The woman disappears and returns after a few minutes. “She said she’s busy. You can phone her.” She slides me a number and I trudge outside, dreading the conversation with this faceless officer. Perhaps she is The Robot, that’s why I can’t see her in person, an imposing but efficient machine strapped together with miles of red tape…

My suspicions are soon confirmed. “You did not provide a valid proof of address for your host,” she barks down the line, her blatant hostility causing my stomach to sink even further. I am arriving shortly before my work engagement begins, and for those two days will be staying with a friend whose lease I submitted along with my application. I point this out. “Yes,” comes the response, “but there was a witness signature missing on the lease.”

It’s the last answer I was expecting to hear, and I’m struck speechless for a couple of seconds as I process it. How can an entire visa be denied without warning because of one missing witness signature on a lease – despite the signature of the lessor, lessee and other witnesses, despite this extra stay constituting only a tiny portion of my trip, despite the rest of my documents being in impeccable order? It’s vaguely comical, but the maddening inconvenience of it all preempts any laughter.

“Can I submit an alternative proof of address?”

“No. Your file has been closed. You must submit another application.”

I try to appeal. “I’m not here to negotiate with you,” she snaps. Her tone gets increasingly irate until, mid-conversation, she hangs up. I am officially back to square one.

Visa red tape is an inescapable part of life with an African passport – some countries more than others, since we are all equal but not equally so. Many people I know who have applied for European or north American passports were driven not by desire for a different identity, but for a different degree of convenience, for freedom from the tediousness of ticking one’s way through a relentless list of visa requirements…

And when finally equipped to become a beggar at the altar of bureaucracy, then comes the nervous discomfort as you approach the visa desk – the uncertainty about whether this stranger behind the counter will be pleasant or obnoxious, helpful or unreasonable, and the knowledge that there’s little you can do about it either way.

There is always at least one option. You could stay home. In 2013, the indignity and indignation of visa processes was placed in the spotlight by Bousso Dramé, the winner of a competition organised by the French Institute in Dakar. Her prize was an all-expenses-paid trip to Paris to take part in a documentary film-making training course on the themes of human rights and global citizenry.

As it turned out, the French Institute would have been well advised to offer that training to its own employees and to those of the French consulate, who treated Dramé with so much contempt that she eventually turned down the trip and wrote a public letter to explain her decision:

“It is high time for Africans to respect themselves and to demand they be respected by others. An all-expenses-paid trip, even the world’s most beautiful and enchanting one, is not worth the suffering that my fellow citizens and myself endure from the French Consulate, the pain of enduring these kinds of behaviour unfortunately widespread under African skies. As a matter of coherence with my own value system, I have, therefore, decided to renounce that offer, despite being granted a visa. Renounce symbolically. Renounce in the name of those thousands of Senegalese who deserve respect, a respect they are being denied within the walls of these French representations, and on Senegalese soil moreover.”

Her letter made the rounds, eliciting a swell of vicarious vindication from Africans all over the world. Who has not experienced the urge to tell consulates where to stick it? But usually, in the name of that murky mitigation known as pragmatism, we take a deep breath and suck it up – and oppression continues to thrive on the certainty that we need or want something badly enough to swallow the bitter pill of disrespect. So when Dramé spat it out, sacrificing a prestigious trip in defence of dignity, it was inevitable that her action would assume heroic status as a symbolic middle finger to the institutionalised racism that oozes from overseas consulates.

But absent from the conversation was a consideration of how Africans treat each other when it comes to immigration. According to the African Development Bank, “Africa is one of the regions in the world with the highest visa requirements. This situation is even more restricted for Africans traveling within Africa, as compared to Europeans and North Americans.”

Beginning in infancy, when my mother and I spent a few days stuck in Jomo Kenyatta International Airport – denied entry into Kenya from Nigeria until she could obtain a passport for two-week-old me – immigration woes have been a constant companion throughout my life. And my experiences, no matter how irritating, are certainly on the pleasant end of the spectrum of border blues, which stretches from inconvenience, to irrevocable exclusion, to brutality inflicted on those who bear the label “foreigner”.

Often, the people inflicting these blues are not technically outside the law. They are following rules and regulations – sometimes with malicious relish, yes – but at the end of the day, immigration officials are simply faces of a rigid bureaucracy that has embraced hand-me-down tools of divide and rule. So as we throw stones at European consulates, we might do well to reflect on our own glass walls.

Consider the history of borders. Starting with the Berlin Conference of 1884 when seven European countries carved out their stakes on the continent, Africa was gradually broken down into an illogical clutter of nation-states. The borders of these states had no regard for historical groupings and identities, and shifted depending on what was most politically and economically expedient for the colonising country. At different points during the first half of the century, for example, Burkina Faso was part of Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, Mali and Senegal, before eventually coagulating as the Republic of Upper Volta.

In the early 1960s, as more African states gained “independence” and moved towards establishment of the Organisation of African Unity, border blues drove one of the earliest rifts in continental politics. The “Casablanca group” of states led by Kwame Nkrumah advocated a radical approach to African unification, while the “Monrovia group” led by Leopold Senghor called for a more conservative approach, one that held the borders of nation-states in higher esteem.

The Monrovia group won, and one of the first resolutions of the OAU was to endorse colonial borders. Today, there are only a few African countries – Comoros, Madagascar, Mozambique, Rwanda and Seychelles – that allow all Africans either to enter without visas or to obtain visas upon arrival. For the rest, fellow Africans have to jump through hoops whose variations in complexity often reflect larger political dynamics. It seems that what has infiltrated our psyche even deeper than colonial geography is the spirit that inspired the origin of borders: perceptions of superiority and inferiority, the violence of competition for resources, selective openness determined by levels of perceived threat and historical animosity. And questions of historical clarity are chronically present.

Where did the vision of division come from? How does it stay alive? Who teaches you to hate your neighbour? Official classifications along invisible lines were both symptoms and tools of oppression throughout the 20th century. In apartheid South Africa, pass books determined where and when Africans had the right to exist in their own land. In Rwanda, Belgium introduced identity documents with “ethnic” classifications, to nurture divisions in the incubator of rigid bureaucracy. Across the continent, people put arbitrary colonial divisions on paper and called them passports.

The power of these tools does not come from the paper itself, but from the heaviness of history and intent in the ink. With border blues, this heaviness is embedded so deeply in the institutions that shape life as we know it today, that all historical clarity is lost. And so we revere and even celebrate them, with little thought for what borders really represent – a violent carving of the land into bite-sized pieces. But for whose consumption, and to what end?
it keeps repeating itself
as if we liked it

In commemoration of our 20th year, we will be digging through our extensive archive.

This story, and others, features in The Chronic (July 2014), which explores the unholy trinity of land, property and value – the life force of cities everywhere. 

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