Why do we Africans treat ourselves so badly?

Why do we Africans treat ourselves so badly?
  • PublishedFebruary 1, 2018

Despite achieving independence decades ago, why are our governments still maintaining inhuman laws and conditions which were imposed by the colonial regimes? By Baffour Ankomah

Since 5 January 2018 when I had the dubious privilege of visiting my brother-in-law detained in a police cell in one of Harare’s sumptuous suburbs, one question has continued to ring in my head: “Why do Africans treat themselves so badly?”

By convention (and this accursed regime was put in place by the colonial White governments of Rhodesia well before Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980), police cells in Zimbabwe do not have lights or beds or beddings. Bed is the cold cement floor, often dirty and stinking.

The prison regime allows for a form of improved pit latrine (called a Blair Toilet) inside the police cell. The ‘invention’ of the Blair Toilet is partly credited to Dr Dyson Blair of the Blair Research Institute of Rhodesia (established in 1939), who is said to have encouraged a young Rhodesian scientist, Dr Peter Morgan, to address rural water and sanitation problems in the 1970s. Dr Morgan’s exertions led to the Blair Toilet which, according to its supporters, revolutionised sanitation in Zimbabwe’s rural homes.

“Its design,” according to Wikipedia, “makes use of air currents, a septic tank-like pit, over which is built an upper structure with an open light-trap entrance and ventilation pipe from the bottom pit with a fine wire grate to keep out flies but more importantly to trap those entering the toilet hole from flying out towards the light. The result is hygienic, as flies cannot escape from the fecal matter to spread disease, and the gases produced by the decomposing waste are redirected outside.”

The Blair Toilet may have had its merits in the 1970s and 80s, but no more. Its modernity went out with the change of name of the Blair Research Institute to the National Institute of Health Research years after Zimbabwe’s independence.

That notwithstanding, the Blair Toilet (or a modified version of it) is still in use in Zimbabwe’s police cells where detainees, after answering the call of nature, have to wait for a long time for a police officer to come by and flush the toilet from outside the cell, or, where the ‘flushing system’ no longer works, the detainees are allowed to use buckets of water, when they are woken up at 6 am, to flush the toilet from inside the cell.

If the detainees are not so lucky for a police officer to come by early, the stench increases inside the cell and woe betide them if they don’t have the constitution to withstand such a poisonous environment.

To make matters worse, there is no proper ventilation in the cells and there are no toiletries – no toothpaste, no toilet rolls – so detainees cannot clean themselves after attending to nature’s call. Worse still, they are allowed only a shirt and a pair of shorts or trousers inside the cell, and with no blankets, the winter months are especially dire.

Police cells elsewhere in Africa may not be any better, but that does not nullify the question ringing in my head about why Africans treat themselves so badly.

Colonial relics endure

Generally the terrible conditions existing today in African police cells and prisons are a relic of the colonial past, where the European overlords were imbued with the racist idea that criminals could only be Africans and therefore the prison regime should punish and dehumanise the African sufficiently to reduce him to a station closer to animals.

My problem, dear reader, is what have we Africans done to the prison conditions since we became the supreme rulers of our own countries? We can somehow excuse the white man for imposing those conditions because after all, he was a stranger who took power and abused it. He even thought he was a superior human being.

But what about our own Africans who became the rulers of our countries after independence? What have they done? Ironically, for most African leaders the way to the State House often went through prison where some of them stayed for a decade or more (in the case of Nelson Mandela, for 27 years). 

Yet once the joys of State House took hold of them, or more correctly when they took hold of the joys of State House, the African leaders forgot all about the bad prison conditions and their governments continued to apply the same inhuman conditions against fellow Africans.

I have written this before: Zimbabwe is a typical example of where the Africans in power have woefully neglected to get rid of some of the dreadful laws and regimes that the white man enacted and established, just to frustrate the African and stop him from enjoying his own country or building businesses to improve his lot.

For example, while you need about five licences and permits to set up a restaurant in the US, in Zimbabwe you need nine licences and permits. What gets my goat is the religious fervour with which some of these Africans in power apply these colonial era laws and conventions against their own people.

Outdated and racist law

One such law in Zimbabwe is the Regional, Town and Country Planning Act (RTCPA) Chapter 29:12, which is the main Act of Parliament (dating back to the colonial era) that regulates town planning in the country. It has been highly criticised in the past for its rigidity but the Africans in power have done nothing more than tinker with a few provisions here and there and continue to apply it with the eagerness of zealots.

Remarkably, this was a racist Act that deliberately consigned Africans to tiny living spaces (mostly 200 square metres per house and compound) while whites enjoyed huge, tree-lined spaces in sumptuous suburbs that have now become the choice territory of the African elite and nouveaux riche.

Crime of all crimes, 38 years after independence, this racist Act is still the centrepiece of planning law in Zimbabwe. As such, millions of Zimbabweans of the lower classes have been consigned by this Act to live cheek by jowl, clustered like cattle in tiny allotments while the rest of the vast country lies fallow.

Each time I have asked why the government cannot amend the RTCPA 29.12 substantially enough to give its citizens a chance to breathe fresh air and enjoy their country, I have been given the absurd answer that it is easier to provide amenities such as water, sanitation, electricity and roads by clustering people together – i.e., give them small plots to build on. But if this were true, how was the white man able to build the palatial and low density suburbs where the African elite now love to live, where plot sizes are like from here to Jericho? 

Interestingly, Zimbabwe, with a total land area of 390,787 square km (or 150,871 square miles), is the 60th largest of the world’s 195 countries. With a population of 13.5 million, Zimbabwe has a population density of 34 people per square km.

In comparison, the UK (made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) has a total land area of 243,610 square km (or 94,060 square miles), making it the 80th largest country in the world. With a population of 65.6 million, it has a population density of 270 people per square km. It makes no sense for living spaces in Zimbabwe to be fashioned after the UK’s as the RTCPA 29.12 attempts. But who will tell this to the Africans in power?

It is my prayer that the new dispensation in Zimbabwe will take a broader look at all the arcane laws and regimes carried on from the colonial era and either seriously amend them or scrap them altogether so that Zimbabweans can enjoy their country. It is a duty the government can no longer shirk. NA

Written By
Baffour Ankomah

Baffour Ankomah is New African's current Editor at Large. He has spent much of his 39 years of journalism at the magazine, having served as its Assistant Editor for 6 years, Deputy Editor for 5 years, and Editor for 15 years, retiring from active service in 2014. In 39 years of his journalism career - Africa and his many causes have been his passion. His personal column, Baffour's Beefs, which has been running continuously in New African since 1987, is a big hit and a must-read for the magazine's worldwide readers. He is now based in Zimbabwe, where he and his wife Elizabeth run their own media consultancy and fashion house called "African Interest" which trades under the trademark "I am African".

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