What the Sudan needs is a Nelson Mandela. If the crisis in that country is ever to attract the same level of outrage and righteous indignation — and media attention — that South Africa received from the United States during the declining years of the apartheid regime, we’ll need a media hero, preferably accompanied by a media villain. Or, if no heroes are available, then a good solo villain will do just fine. Someone like Germany’s Hitler, or Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, or Terrorist No. 1 Osama bin Laden.
The point is, we need a powerful image to rally around in order to really care about the issue. We need the dramatic storyline. We need the movie. Images of a starving, brutalized people evokes tremendous sympathy, and Americans have certainly been known to respond financially and otherwise to these sorts of images, but nothing works quite as well to stir the troops to action like good old star power.
When former South African President Nelson Mandela was finally released from Robben Island where he had been a political prisoner for 27 years, you could practically hear the world stand up and cheer. Eyes were glued to television screens around the globe to see one of the world’s most celebrated and respected freedom fighters who had actually managed to beat the system that had tried for so long to beat him and his cause.
But as remarkable a figure as Mandela was, and still is, he would never have been set free — and apartheid would never have ended — had it not been for a global network of supporters who refused to let the issue of South Africa fade away. Some of the most active and influential of those supporters were located here in America. Randall Robinson, founder of African advocacy group TransAfrica, made noise about South African apartheid for years, and his tenacity helped turn the anti-apartheid struggle into a near-pop phenomenon; in the latter years the cause was taken up by everyone from Hollywood celebrities to mainstream politicians who realized this was the bandwagon to ride — and a good way to get moral chits for doing the right thing.
The international pressure placed on the South African government to change was more than justified. The freedom of Nelson Mandela — not to mention his eventual elevation to the presidency and the images of all those thousands of black South Africans waiting for hours in the hot sun to cast their vote for him — is certainly one of the most remarkable and emotional events I have ever witnessed.
But South Africa was hardly the only country on the African continent in need of assistance. The bloody proof was in the genocide that occurred in Rwanda more than a decade ago, leaving hundreds of thousands of dead Africans. And as in South Africa, the circumstances that led to the Rwandan crisis were a long time in the making. Unlike the situation in South Africa, the Rwandan genocide did not involve an easily definable struggle against white oppression by the black oppressed. In Rwanda the battle was black-on-black. That’s one reason the reaction from African-American leaders was curiously muted for an uncomfortably long period of time.
Also unlike the South African situation, the genocide in Rwanda did not have a “face” like Mandela’s that could be used by the media as an easy way to promote and sell the story. Today when people think of South African apartheid, they can’t help but think of Nelson Mandela as a symbol of how that regime was ultimately defeated. His face is still associated with the hopes and dreams of the new South Africa. Mandela was the hero.
In Rwanda there were no real heroes, just bodies. Thousands upon thousands of dead bodies that had been hacked to death, burned or otherwise tortured were eventually featured on news reports, but this was long after things had twisted horribly out of control. To quote a recent edition of TransAfrica Forum Newsletter: “When the Rwanda genocide occurred in 1994, it was not only the then Clinton administration that was silent. So, too, was most of Black America. It was almost as if we were ashamed or embarrassed.”
The current TransAfrica Forum Director Bill Fletcher told me last week that American blacks are responding somewhat better than during the Rwandan horrors, but still are uncomfortable tackling a black-on-black crisis, especially an extremely complicated crisis in a remote African nation that challenges our assumptions about what “black” really means. For example, Fletcher said that although the media generally reports the story as Arabs oppressing blacks, what isn’t noted is that Arabs don’t all look like Saddam Hussein; in the Sudan the Arabs doing the oppressing are black Arabs.
“This is black-on-black, let’s be clear,” said Fletcher. “This is an ethnic cultural conflict,” and it is the culture, language and ethnicity of the Arabs in the Sudan that defines them as Arab, not the color of their skin or the texture of their hair. But just because these Arabs look more like “us” is no excuse for “us” to swallow our horror and revulsion. This time around, silence is unacceptable.
The sheer magnitude of horror has indeed attracted attention — including fact-finding visits by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan — but not the kind of outrage and deep involvement that makes a difference. Watching the cars pile up in this wreck is a far cry from helping the victims.
To date, more than 1 million Sudanese people have been displaced, which gives Sudan the dubious distinction of having the largest internally displaced population in the world. More than 300,000 have died since February 2003 when the violence first began, and there are an additional 300,000 refugees in prison enclaves with no access to international relief, according to a Washington Post report.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson and other black leaders have recently accused the Bush administration of racism. The administration, they say, is ignoring the situation because these are black Africans getting killed, not Europeans or European-Americans. There is probably some truth to that, but even if this were happening in Europe we would still need the proper hero and/or villain, plus the accompanying dramatic script to get our blood really boiling.
We are, after all, a TV nation.Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org