African Unity from Below: a view from South Africa

On Africa Day – the annual commemoration of the foundation of the Organisation of African Unity on 25 May 1963 – Sanya Osha celebrates a real unity of African people and communities living in South Africa. Osha argues that South Africa bears miracles within that it doesn’t even know it possesses. A pan-Africanism is evolving that is practical and realistic and unhampered by rigid presuppositions of state politics and ideology.

By Sanya Osha

Undoubtedly, it is a contradiction in terms to even imagine that a cosmopolitan ethos and praxis are possible in a South Africa renowned for frequent outbreaks of xenophobic violence. I want to illustrate that it is possible to flip the script by demonstrating that regardless of South Africa’s renown insularity and so-called exceptionalism, we can in fact identify and celebrate a country defined by a cosmopolitan character in spite of widespread anti-foreigner sentiments and endemic violence.

Sunnyside, in South Africa’s capital Pretoria, is a hub of informal activities, relatively expensive tenement blocks, small businesses and high-tech commerce. Exorbitant rents, repeated renovation and migration have seen the city constantly transformed. People come and go. Nothing stays the same. A few bars and clubs have managed to thrive for a few more years longer than usual. Clubs like Europa have become a local mainstay even though it has changed its premises at least once.

The Sunnyside Mall is a central meeting place. Filled with boutiques, banks, a gymnasium, IT businesses, it is also like all malls, littered with eateries and nightclubs for the young and the eternally young at heart. The mall is a leveler of sorts. It isn’t always easy to read an individual’s economic status by mere appearance. Almost everyone looks young, sexy and alluring, attributes that are highly priced even if you happen to be out of pocket.

Youth is a powerful currency in today’s world and the mall attracts them in huge numbers. Outside, there is taxi rank as old as any in Pretoria which, until recently, used to be dominated by grandfathers who had been working there since the apartheid era boycotts. Being grandfathers, they were immune to the giddy sexiness of youth. These were hardened and experienced geezers who took great pride in their jobs until their work was decimated by companies like Uber and Bolt. Many of them have sons who have taken up the trade.

On Robert Sobukwe Street (formerly Esselen Street), a route that never sleeps, the parade of youth continues especially at the height of summer where every physical feature can be exposed. The street is not merely a street but a community perfectly suitable for constant and random meet and greets, “you look drop dead gorgeous! Are you prepared for a drink with me?”

“Oh sure, can I bring along my friends too?”

You can never avoid the cacophonous sounds; blaring car horns, infernally loud motorbikes mounted by various riders kitted out in all kinds of leather, shining, battered and worn – a swirling universe of human sounds that rise above the din of commerce, feverish activity and sheer longing.

Indeed, Sunnyside is a haven of dreams most of which are smashed to pieces and left like broken glass on some disused pavement. Most of all, you hear and see the struggling dreams of Africa born by Ethiopians, Somalis, Nigerians, Cameroonians, Ghanaians, Congolese, Chinese, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Tanzanians, Mozambicans, Burundians, Angolans, Zimbabweans, Angolans etc. Everywhere there is life on the continent and beyond you find it in Sunnyside. Each person bearing a fragment of a dream to be borne by toil, sweat and blood to the next shore of promises or else to a desolate bone yard where all dead dreams are buried noiselessly. An abundant flow of tears keeps the burial ground moist.

Yet the experiences of these paperless ‘aliens’ from the across the world are often brutal. With each pounding beat of the heart and each surreal thud of frightened feet, the words pierce through the inner ear and singe the soul: “go home or die”.

As Africans why do we forget so easily our shared horrific past? Why do we deny the umbilical cord we all buried together in secret in order to remind ourselves that never again would we allow our collective tears and shame to be stolen from us in times of revelry?

Yet South Africa bears a promise many South Africans themselves chose not to see: a dream that gleams in the faces of each toiling Ghanaian, Tanzanian, Zimbabwean, Eritrean, Sudanese, Ethiopian, Nigerian.

On 24 February 2017 when aggrieved South Africans largely from the township of Mamelodi on the outskirts of Pretoria attempted to invade Sunnyside in a fit of xenophobic anger, they were stopped by numbers larger than themselves. These South Africans were made to see colours they hardly ever noticed, sounds, voices and languages they hardly ever heeded and finally, they were made to feel the yearning and connectedness by which they could link up with the larger world. South African residents of Mamelodi had sworn to expel all foreigners residing in Sunnyside or at least assault them physically. But they found a community of foreigners ready and waiting for them. Sunnyside residents stopped them in their tracks.

Since 2008, during the presidential era of Thabo Mbeki, an apparent pan-Africanist of note, South Africa has been plagued by ongoing spates of xenophobic violence or what others have termed Afrophobia, where South Africans target and assault other Africans from elsewhere. This phenomenon pits internal versus external, regional versus national, local versus global, insider against outsider, citizen versus alien and refugee and finally, it seeks to articulate a politics of belonging that essentialises what is irreducible and expansive. A disturbing parochialism has emerged that undercuts a reality, both present and future, that South Africa can no longer deny.  South Africa is increasingly – whether accepted it or not – being significantly changed by externally fueled subcultures.

Languages ricochet from walls to sidewalks in fragments of siSwati, seTswana, isiZulu, isiXhosa, Yoruba, Igbo, Lingala, Ndebele, Swahili,  Shona, seSotho, isiVenda, Sepedi, Twi, Akan, Amharic Tsotsitaal, Pitori, Central and West African pidgin, Luba, French, Portuguese, Afrikaans, Arabic, Mandarin, Pentecostal jive, speedball verbal psychosis and aural ribbons created by birdsong etc. Sunnyside thus becomes a slightly frayed garden of languages and dialects set amid a decaying city of concrete where people come to find and lose their souls.

When a few anxious South Africans hurriedly rush through mini-Kinshasa, mini-Accra, mini-Addis, mini-Lagos, mini-Mumbai, Chinatown, mini-Harare and mini-Maputo they miss the treasures of those boisterous and colourful worlds. Secrets others have to seek outside the lands of their birth, traversing vast distances and enduring unbearable hardships in order to discover.

In reality ubuntu – a principle of humanism, reciprocity and human connection – is also a belief in different colours, sounds and dreams; it is, in other words, a striving to grasp something beyond the self; the annihilation of fear and all that is implies. This is, arguably, the most enduring promise of ubuntu which is alive and thriving on the streets of Sunnyside where the multi-various sounds of Africa illumine the skies.

At the poorly kept Jubilee Park on lazy afternoons, a drug addict or two sleep engulfed by the sun’s warmth. Kissed by the confident sunlight, his suffering is somewhat muted by the momentary innocence granted by the light. Various visitors sit on benches glued to their cell phones. Others just watch time and life drift by, savouring the peace contained in each minute. Cars speed past seemingly indifferent to the surrounding scenes of bliss. The high-rise apartments which have constantly changing tenants bear imprints, echoes and fragmented mementoes from all corners of Africa and beyond.

Many South Africans know it is self-nullifying not to acknowledge the intoxicating aroma of Ethiopian injera emanating from the other end of the street. There are thriving fufu spots fronted by diehard regulars who trade gossip, dreams and nightmares in equal measure. Exile and migration are definitely not for the faint-hearted.

Still the adventurous at heart, lost souls, dare-devils, day-dreamers and entrepreneurs of all stripes embark on the uncertain journey for new lives, new opportunities and the decisive meeting with destiny in order to re-make themselves. Yet on the journey there are those who have taken their own lives rather than return humiliated and destitute to the countries of their birth.

While each expectant soul waits patiently at the door of destiny, life goes on, wives are taken, children are born and families are made even as the grounds beneath the feet shifts constantly, refugee statuses remain unconfirmed, and as daily bread and wages remain uncertain. Life goes on as men assume the façade of being men and women continue to face life’s hardships with grace, indignation and grit.

South Africa bears miracles within it that it doesn’t even know it possesses. The unity Somalis crave back at homeland is hatched in South Africa. The same applies to people from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Sudan and everywhere else in Africa.

A pan-Africanism is evolving that is practical and realistic and unhampered by rigid presuppositions of parochial politics and ideology. Indeed, there is a pan-Africanism at work which politicians and policymakers are unable to heed.

Whilst the South African political firmament gets splintered by the all-too-familiar ills of factionalism, greed, corruption and incompetence another kind of miracle is occurring in which brothers and sisters from other parts of Africa have converged in the country to make and pursue life in inimitable ways. These people have managed unobtrusively, against immense odds, to extend and re-fashion the South African national miracle of 1994 to include all of Africa and the rest of the world.

The real South African miracle has also become a veritable African miracle made from below by the mass peopling of the country.. The miracle, undoubtedly, is an ongoing work-in-progress, a practical laboratory of human experimentation, as well as the next phase of evolution in the project and ethos of global Africanism.

The colours, hairstyles, sartorial designs, cuisines and spices, languages, sounds and music from other parts of Africa are currently re-defining the face and character of South Africa. South Africa seriously needs this connection to the larger world in order to remain true to itself and so as not to neglect crucial lessons of its own history.

In the neighbourhoods of Hillbrow and Yeoville in Johannesburg and the beachfronts of Durban populated by immigrants from all over the world, and amid chronic urban precarity, new threads of communality and belonging are being woven. To a fresh immigrant or former rural dweller, any city is always a forbidding proposition and the need to draw on the strengths and support of the collective is essential. Just as traditional South African townships of apartheid spatial design forged bases of identity and community, immigrants in South African inner cities are finding inventive ways to nourish, re-make and sustain themselves by drawing on their own resources.

South Africans who embrace these vibrant and colourful environments discover new meanings for the idea of freedom. They also discover that the realm of the imagination has no limits and more importantly, that the ties that bind us outnumber our differences.

Sunnyside is beauty in full profile, hopeful artists, craftsmen and women, seasoned denizens of assorted linguistic and cultural Meccas, professional pickpockets, armies of drug addicted car guards, internet fraudsters, streetwise hairstylists, con-artists, part-time hookers, students, hard-bitten families and those who are simply passing through. Even with a grumbling stomach it is always possible to offer high-fives and click knuckles in greeting or share a palm full of crisps. More importantly, smiles and laughter are free. The street level camaraderie tells you true life lies in people.

The late South African writer, Phaswane Mpe explored some of these worlds in his 2001 novel, Welcome to our Hillbrow. Such novelistic possibilities attest to propulsive Afropolitanisms, vernacular cosmopolitanisms and Afrofuturisms which hold the possibility of displacing and dissolving divisions at bewildering velocities.

Urban communities such as Sunnyside attract much of the world without trying. AbdouMaliq Simone’s 2018 book Improvised Lives: Rhythms  of Endurance in an Urbanised South is a concise and impassioned attempt to project a sense of the densities, ruptures and continuities, velocities and forms of conviviality which almost miraculously multiply life forms where ordinarily there ought to be none. The local and global collide ceaselessly in ways that do not necessarily submerge local identities. In many respects, the encroachments of the global are used by the state and politicians to accentuate the fears and anxieties of the local which flare up in random bouts of xenophobic violence.

Communities such as Sunnyside, Pretoria attest to the possibilities of realising a unity from below that is governed by a diverse yet inclusive vision of Pan-Africanism and an ethos of communalism that is as broad and propulsive as the African continent itself.

Sanya Osha is the author of several books including Postethnophilosophy (2011) and Dust, Spittle and Wind (2011), An Underground Colony of Summer Bees (2012), On a Weather-beaten Couch (2015) and Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Shadow (expanded edition, 2021) amongst other publications. He currently works at the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA), University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Featured Photograph: Yeoville in Johannesburg in recent times – Yeoville African Market (25 October 2018).


  1. Thank you Sanya Osha for this interesting blogpost, which vividly challenges commonly-held assumptions about the interactions between South African nationals and African transnational immigrants in South African cities as necessarily determined by conflict and violence. While violent xenophobic attacks are sadly a common reality in contemporary South Africa, there is also undeniable evidence of spaces of cosmopolitan and Afropolitan conviviality, as Sanya points out in his blogpost on

    Allow me to draw attention also to the work of Odette Murara, who recently graduated with a PhD in Anthropology at the University of Western Cape (which I was privileged to accompany as her supervisor). Odette’s dissertation, “‘Performing Diversity’: Everyday social interaction among migrants from the Great Lakes Region and South Africans in Cape Town” presents an in-depth ethnographic study of the everyday interactions and conviviality of South Africans and transnational African migrants in two Cape Town townships. Over a period of more than a year of field work, during which Odette, herself a Rwandan national, lived in the two adjacent townships of Phoenix and Joe Slovo in Cape Town, she explored interactions in spaces such as townships restaurants, barbershops and hair salons, tailor shops, pentecostal churches, and the street. Similar to Sanya Osha’s argument, Odette’s research, based on close-up participant observation, shows that everyday encounters between members of diverse groups are often based not necessarily on conflict but on tolerance, acceptance, mutual recognition, and the awareness that they are dependent on each other. Through showing a high degree of conviviality in township spaces, Odette’s ethnography of life in Joe Slovo and Phoenix, similar to Sanya’s observations in Sunnyside/ Pretoria, demonstrates that the dominant narrative of the relations between South Africans and African transnational migrants being inevitably determined by conflict needs to be modified.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.