There has been a deluge of media coverage on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In particular some of the reporting seems to suggest that Ukrainians are more deserving of empathy than, say, victims of aggression and war in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. 

While on air, CBS News senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata stated last week that Ukraine “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilised, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city, one where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen”. 

Many people rightfully picked up on the racist undertones of the reporting but there is a deeper point that has gone missing:  how Europeans respond to tragedies and aggressions that happen to Europeans and how Africans respond to tragedies and aggression and violence that happen to Africans.

Whether it is the Ukraine or events like the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris and the Manchester terrorist attack, Europeans care when bad things happen to other Europeans, and maybe because so many bad things happen in Africa, Africans don’t always seem to care when bad things happen to other Africans.

Genocide, torture, and police violence.

Gukurahundi refers to the attempted genocide of the Ndebele by Robert Mugabe’s Fifth Brigade, soon after Zimbabwe gained independence. Beginning in January 1983, Mugabe waged a campaign of terror against the people in Matabeleland in the western part of the country. The Gukurahundi massacres were one of the darkest times in the country’s history since its independence — between 20 000 and 80 000 civilians were killed by the Fifth Brigade.

How many African leaders not embroiled in specific struggles sought to restrain Mugabe’s bloodlust?

In 2007, with the late Morgan Tsvangirai and the opposition MDC looking likely to challenge and even beat Robert Mugabe at the election polls a year later, Mugabe arrested, beat, tortured, and humiliated Tsvangirai and unleashed a reign of political violence on opposition supporters and any other Zimbabweans caught in the crossfire: political violence which continues under Mugabe’s successor Emmerson Mnangagwa.

What did African leaders do to truly restrain Mugabe and ensure the will and the human rights of the Zimbabwean people would be respected?

Aren’t these the same leaders who lined up to honour Mugabe when he passed away?

Which European leaders lined up to honour Slobodan Milosevic?

In fact, the responses to Mugabe and Milosevic stand in stark contrast to each other.

Even the response to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is revealing. South Africans and indeed Africans cared very much about that because the popular perception among some is that a white police force in service to white supremacy is murdering black people. All the while they ignore the brutality of SAPS who are twice as deadly as the American police. Never mind that while black Americans are four times more likely to die at the hands of police, American police do in fact kill twice as many white people as they do black people. And therein lies the rub.

Africans seem to only care about the injury and death of other Africans (black people) if the perpetrator is white.

We care because they are white.

Mozambican national Ernesto Nhamuave was beaten, stabbed, and set alight in full view of the media as part of wider xenophobic violence in 2008. Some sixty foreign nationals were killed as their houses and shops were looted, burned and appropriated during that pogrom. Nhamuave suffered a death more horrifying than George Floyd but the perpetrators were not white or seen as agents of so-called whiteness, like those at Marikana, which gained far wider traction and elicited far more empathy for victims of that tragedy.

Racists and starving black children

In 2020, the Department of Basic Education suspended the National School Nutrition Programme, effectively starving nine million (almost exclusively black) children for months on end. This in a country where a quarter of children, according to the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town, are chronically malnourished. This was a crime against humanity visited on the most vulnerable amongst us; defenceless children, by an uncaring and rapacious government. Even when compelled by Judge Sue Potterill of the North Gauteng High Court to reinstate the programme with haste, the government continued to drag its feet.

There was minimal outrage from the public and nobody has really been held accountable.

Contrast this with the level of public outrage should any white person say anything remotely racist. Let me say this before I am misunderstood, racism is deeply wrong but there is something very wrong with our society when millions of children being purposely starved elicits less outrage, empathy and accountability than somebody saying something racist.

It is the consequence of a victim narrative that runs through the spine of the continent that affords black victims humanity only in relation to white people.

This is how the media can talk about racialised inequality and poverty, while ignoring the elephant in the room of a black government which lets black children down in education, often sides with unions and other special interests over black children, and blames apartheid almost exclusively, 28 years into democracy.

It is how people can minimise and excuse the brutality, violence and murder against foreign nationals, often spurred by deeply xenophobic attitudes, but give full-throated condemnations of racism. It is a moral calculus that is bereft of true empathy, justice and fairness and therefore something that is truly evil and nefarious. 

The commentary coming out of Ukraine, implying that only blonde, blue-eyed, white victims of war and aggression are worthy of empathy and justice, that they are only cared about because they are white, has rightly been criticised.

But, why then do Africans only seem to care about African victims when the perpetrator is white or seen to be an agent of so-called whiteness?

Aren’t those two sides of the same coin?

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR.

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Sindile Vabaza is an avid writer and an aspiring economist.