'Apartheid and Jim Crow are really no different': Why George Floyd's death reverberated in Africa

iStock/Josie DesmaraisBy: MORGAN WINSOR, ABC News

(LONDON) — LONDON — Bongani Sibeko was just a toddler when he and his family were forced to flee their home in apartheid South Africa, as Black men, women and children were dying at the hands of authorities upholding the country’s legal system of racial segregation.

As the son of revolutionaries, he found things weren’t much different in the United States when they moved to New York City in the 1970s. Although apartheid wasn’t the law of the land there, he said he grew up as a Black man knowing that if he encountered police on the streets, “there was a very good chance I would not make it home.”

“Cops [in New York City] used to drive around at night looking for young Black folks to beat the hell out of,” Bongani Sibeko, now 59, told ABC News in a recent telephone interview. “I was a victim of that and so was a majority of my friends.”

Promised as the land of opportunity, America has long heralded itself as the world’s beacon of democracy, freedom and progress. But many Black Africans and African Americans alike see the United States in a different light, saying the country’s racist past is still very much a part of its present and that the recent death of George Floyd in police custody is a global tipping point for systemic racism. Africa-based experts also point out close parallels between the plight of Black people in America and in southern Africa.

“The distinction between first-, second- and third-world countries is no longer a stable set of distinctions, because from the founding of the United States to the present there’s always been an excluded, dehumanized population,” Dr. Joel Modiri, a senior lecturer in jurisprudence at South Africa’s University of Pretoria, told ABC News in a recent telephone interview. “Apartheid and Jim Crow are really no different.”

While some are holding out hope that the groundswell of support from millions in the United States will propel systemic change through the Black Lives Matter movement, others are looking beyond America’s shores to Africa for fresh perspective and in some cases a fresh start.

American history is a violent one. When European explorers and settlers arrived hundreds of years ago on the shores of what they called the “New World,” they claimed the land as their own and slaughtered Indigenous tribes in the process. The Atlantic slave trade was born when European colonizers kidnapped Africans and began selling them as slaves to the British colonies in North America in 1619.

The United States abolished slavery in 1865, after the American Civil War had ended. But the racial segregation and economic discrimination of Black people was enforced openly in the South until the mid-20th century through state and local legislation known as Jim Crow laws.

Experts said racial inequality remains deeply entrenched in American society today, as a lingering legacy of slavery and segregation.

“My view is that the United States has structural racism,” Dr. Jibrin Ibrahim, a political scientist and senior fellow at the Center for Democracy and Development in Abuja, Nigeria, told ABC News in a recent telephone interview. “The whole society is structured against basically the Black community, that has a very high level of incarceration and has very brutal policing.”

For instance, Black adults make up just 12% of the U.S. population but represented 33% of the country’s sentenced prison population in 2018, according to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the statistical agency of the U.S. Justice Department.

And though there is little research on police violence and racial bias, a peer-reviewed study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in November 2016, which examined data from a public health surveillance system on the use of lethal force by on-duty law enforcement officers from 2009 to 2012 in 17 U.S. states, found that the victims were disproportionately Black — 32% — with a fatality rate 2.8 times higher among Blacks than whites.

Experts said South Africa shares many of the features of structural racism that are found in the United States. When the National Party gained power in South Africa after the 1948 general election, its all-white government immediately started implementing its apartheid policy of racial segregation and economic discrimination against non-whites in the country as well as in the territory of South West Africa, the name for modern-day Namibia when it was under South African rule.

“South Africa really is unique because it’s the place where we’ve had the most sustained period of white supremacy,” Modiri told ABC News.

The system of apartheid was dismantled in the early 1990s through a series of bilateral negotiations between the National Party and the African National Congress, the leading anti-apartheid political movement at the time. Nelson Mandela, president of the African National Congress party, was then elected as the country’s first Black head of state during the 1994 general election, the first in which South African citizens of all races were allowed to vote. The African National Congress has been the ruling party of post-apartheid South Africa ever since.

However, experts said white South Africans have retained economic, social and cultural power, enjoying a far better standard of living and quality of life than their non-white counterparts. National Transfer Accounts data from 2015 shows the average lifetime work-related earnings for whites peaks at over 300,000 South African rand per year, while for non-whites the peak is 70,000, according to a recent paper by the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research.

“So in a way, Black South Africans here — although a numerical majority — are nonetheless still a political, social and economic minority,” Modiri said, “not unlike African Americans.”

Police brutality also remains an issue in post-apartheid South Africa as well as in other African nations, including Kenya and Nigeria.

“This brutality is not structured racially but it is structured against the poor in society,” Ibrahim told ABC News. “The African police systems never succeeded in making the transition from the colonial to the post-colonial police and retained a lot of the brutality and illegalities associated with colonial police.”

Experts agreed that the only major distinction between the apartheid system and Jim Crow is the fact that Black people make up a majority of the population in South Africa, while they are the minority in the United States.

“Black South Africans and Americans are bound together in a long history of racial segregation, and it has not ended” Modiri said. “The struggle against white supremacy is a transnational one.”

The year was 1963 and Bongani Sibeko’s father, David Sibeko, was a rising member of the Pan Africanist Congress, a Black South African political movement that had broken away from the African National Congress. Both groups were working to end racial segregation and white majority rule in South Africa, and they had taken up arms in the wake of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, when the national police force opened fire on a group of unarmed Black protesters, killing 69 of them.

As commander of the Pan Africanist Congress’ paramilitary unit in the Vaal area, David Sibeko devised a plan to sabotage a train carrying South Africa’s then-minister of justice, who had allegedly ordered the secret hangings of more than a dozen anti-apartheid activists. But he was captured on the night of the operation and held in detention for months.

David Sibeko was ultimately acquitted of the charges, and the Pan Africanist Congress leadership advised him to go into exile with his wife and children. Bongani Sibeko was 3 at the time.

The family was smuggled out of the country via a train from Johannesburg. When they eventually arrived at a refugee camp in Botswana, a bomb allegedly planted by South Africa’s apartheid regime tore through the offices. So they had to stay on the move.

“They were after my father,” Bongani Sibeko told ABC News.

From there, they traveled to Zambia and then Tanzania. They moved to London in 1968, when David Sibeko was appointed head of the Pan Africanist Congress’ mission to Europe and the Americas. A few years later, he became the group’s permanent observer at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, in association with the U.N. Special Committee Against Apartheid.

The family put down roots in a predominately Black neighborhood on the Upper West Side. Bongani Sibeko, who was 13 at the time, recalled knowing that he was South African but still feeling “amongst my own.” Both his parents became involved with African American grassroots movements.

As a young Black man growing up in the United States, Bongani Sibeko said he had to quickly learn the rules of survival when dealing with law enforcement. He said his first brush with New York City police happened just after they had moved there, when his mother sent him out to buy groceries on Broadway.

“As I got onto Broadway, I saw a lot of people gathered around, police were everywhere,” he recalled. “I saw this one cop and, you know, I basically asked him, ‘Officer, what’s going on?’ He looked at me, spat at me and he said, ‘F— you n—-! Get the hell out of here!'”
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That encounter set the tone for the rest of his young adult life in New York City, he said, including one instance when he was beaten up in the street by seven white officers who he said had baited him into a confrontation.

“There’s that moment that your life is at the cop’s mercy, and if there’s more than one you know that you’re in serious trouble,” he told ABC News. “One thing you have to understand is, your life is on the line.”

Over the years, there have been several high-profile cases of police using deadly force against Black people that have energized America’s debate on racism and inequality. The most recent was George Floyd.

Floyd, an unarmed 46-year-old Black man, died in Minneapolis on May 25 after a white police officer was filmed kneeling on his neck as three other officers watched. His death has sparked anti-racism protests and calls for police reform across the United States and around the world, including in Africa. The continent voiced its anger in a statement released on May 29 through its regional bloc, the African Union, describing Floyd’s death as an act of “murder.”

The chair of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, condemned Floyd’s killing and urged “authorities in the United States of America to intensify their efforts to ensure the total elimination of all forms of discrimination based on race or ethnic origin.”

Then in June, Burkina Faso’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva penned a letter on behalf of 54 African nations, asking the U.N. Human Rights Council for an “urgent debate” on “racially inspired human rights violations, police brutality against people of African descent and the violence against the peaceful protests that call for these injustices to stop.”

Although the letter called for a debate on racism around the world, Ambassador Dieudonne Desire Sougouri highlighted the situation in the United States, saying that Floyd’s death “is unfortunately not an isolated incident, with many previous cases of unarmed persons of African descent suffering the same fate due to unchecked police brutality.”

“The protests the world is witnessing are a rejection of the fundamental racial inequality and discrimination that characterize life in the United States for Black people, and other people of color,” Sougouri wrote.

Experts said the widespread outrage over Floyd’s death and the ensuing global support for the Black Lives Matter movement give reason for cautious hope, but substantial and meaningful change in the United States would be difficult. The same is true for post-apartheid South Africa.

“When a system becomes so deeply entrenched, it becomes harder and harder to uproot it,” Modiri told ABC News. “The nature of the racial antagonism and racial conflict, and the trauma and the damage that racism has done in both the United States and in South Africa is fundamentally irreparable. It’s unlikely that we can ever come out of it the same.”

Still, Modiri added that “we should always be hopeful when communities of people refuse to accept the way things are.”

Experts noted how the widening rift between liberals and conservatives in the United States has made legislative reform a challenge.

“I’ve seen many such demonstrations in the past and they never led to reform,” Ibrahim told ABC News. “It’s important for the Black Lives Matter movement to forge alliances with liberal Americans so they can sustain movement for a longer time, create more traction and, above all, ensure that the protests would be sustained up to the level where reforms are introduced.”

When the coronavirus pandemic hit earlier this year and countries around the world began closing borders, Rashad McCrorey found himself at a crossroads.

The 40-year-old New York City native was in Ghana for a trip organized by his tourism company, Africa Cross Culture, which specializes in bringing Black Americans and the African diaspora to visit the continent. He could either return home immediately or stay in Ghana indefinitely. He chose the latter.

“I did some soul-searching,” McCrorey told ABC News in a recent telephone interview. “I felt like I could run my business remotely and not only survive in Ghana but thrive out here.”
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Ghana, a former slave trading hub, has long advocated for Africans and those of African descent abroad to return to the continent. Many Black Americans, such as civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois, settled there in the 1960s. Last year, the West African nation launched the “Year of Return, Ghana 2019” on the 400th anniversary of slaves being brought to the United States with the goal of encouraging visits.

Reports estimate thousands of African Americans live in Ghana’s capital of Accra, some looking to escape racism and other strife in the United States.

As civil unrest unfolds back home in America, McCrorey said he’s confident he made the right decision to stay.

“It’s the same merry-go-round,” he said. “I saw the same thing in 2014.”

In 2014, McCrorey was among thousands of protesters who took to the streets following the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed 43-year-old Black man who famously shouted “I can’t breathe” as a white officer was filmed putting him in a chokehold while arresting him in the New York City borough of Staten Island. Black Lives Matter demonstrations soon spread across the country and the globe.

Although the officer involved in Garner’s death is no longer patrolling the streets, McCrorey expressed frustration that there has been no real reform or structural change.

“Over time, things calm down, people go back to their regular lives until the next outrage happens,” he told ABC News.

McCrorey visited Africa for the first time a few weeks after Garner’s death. He fell in love with the country of Ghana and its people, and the trip inspired him to start his back-to-Africa travel company.

McCrorey described the experience of returning to the continent as an African American as healing and revitalizing, even if it’s only for a visit. He said it’s empowering to be surrounded by people who look like you in all aspects of society, from street vendors and shop owners to doctors, lawyers and politicians.

“We look to Africa to find our roots,” he said. “We can look at Mother Africa as a rehab center to kind of get out of this systematic oppression.”

Bongani Sibeko had not yet turned 19 when his father was murdered.

David Sibeko had risen through the ranks of the Pan Africanist Congress, becoming a leading member of the group’s central committee and being appointed director of foreign affairs. Meanwhile, he was doing important work for the U.N. Security Council and investigating South Africa’s apartheid regime — all of which put a target on his back.

On June 12, 1979, David Sibeko was assassinated during a meeting in Tanzania by sleeper agents of the apartheid regime who had infiltrated the Pan Africanist Congress, according to Bongani Sibeko. He was 39, leaving behind his wife and their four children.

Nearly 15 years after his father’s death, Bongani Sibeko left New York City and moved back to South Africa when apartheid had ended. He has lived there ever since and said he is a proponent of Africans and the diaspora returning to the motherland.

“Our continent has been robbed of its people, and they should be welcomed back home,” Bongani Sibeko told ABC News.

He expressed hope in the global momentum and support of America’s Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of Floyd’s death, recalling how the world in the same way backed the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

“This is a very emotional time for me because it reflects the global support that’s happening for George Floyd and the plight of African Americans, it’s very similar to the struggle we faced in that we did not struggle alone,” he said. “Without the world, we would have never been freed.”

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