US President Donald Trump used the words “shithole countries” to describe Haiti, El Salvador and various African countries behind closed doors in the Oval Office last week in response to suggestions by US lawmakers that they restore protections for immigrants from those nations who happen to be peopled overwhelmingly by black Africans or, in Haiti’s case, people of African descent.
Trump’s pejorative remarks on El Salvador reflect his disparaging remarks concerning Latin Americans in general.
One aspect of this latest Trump outrage is that it deflects attention away from the historical ties between the US and Africa. Most Africans believe that it is time for a paradigm shift in the way Americans relate to the world.
Trump reportedly demanded to know why the US should accept immigrants from “shithole countries” after lawmakers raised the issue of protections for immigrants from African nations, Haiti and El Salvador.
The uncouth language used by Trump was unprecedented. Many Americans voted for Trump, and it seems that many Americans cherish racist attitudes towards Africans and Latin Americans. The main concern in many African and Latin American capitals is that those who voted for Trump and adhere to his racist ideology may constitute a majority in the contemporary US.
This has taken on greater significance because Africans and Latin Americans are obliged to accept that racism is a formative part of the culture of the US. The industrial heartland of the US remains loyal to Trump, in spite of, or perhaps because of, his outlandishly racist utterances.
Even though Trumps buoyant first term in office is unlikely to end in turmoil, the world cannot overlook the fact that Washington under Trump’s leadership will never be the same again. Trump’s mantra “America First” has come to imply “America Alone” even as Washington has never pushed for an abrupt and brutal exit from the international arena.
The 55-nation African Union (AU) condemned Trump’s remarks last Friday, while a statement from ambassadors of all the countries on the continent at the United Nations demanded a retraction and apology. US diplomats on the African continent were summoned for a formal reproach. Trump denied that he had uttered the offensive language, but Democratic senator Dick Durbin, present at the meeting with the US president, maintained that the reports were “entirely accurate”.
“Shithole was the exact word used not once, not twice, but repeatedly,” Durbin stressed. Last Friday, Trump tweeted that the language he had used at the private meeting with lawmakers to discuss immigration legislation had been “tough”. But he added that the words attributed to him were “not the language used.”
The UN promptly slammed the reported remarks as “shocking and shameful” and “racist”. “You cannot dismiss entire countries and continents as ‘shitholes’ whose entire populations, who are not white, are therefore not welcome,” Rupert Colville, spokesman for the UN Human Rights Office, told reporters in Geneva.
In a strongly-worded statement, the UN said it was impossible to describe Trump’s remarks as anything other than racist.
None of this should permit a whitewash of the current regimes ruling Africa, even though it must be noted that the vast majority of African and Latin American nations have embraced Western-style democracy. In South Africa, one of Africa’s most democratic nations, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) Party declared that “ours is not a shithole country” and described Trump as “extremely offensive”.
Cyril Ramaphosa, the newly-elected president of the ANC, has outlined plans to radically transform the economy through free education and social welfare and expanding the mandate of the state. Ramaphosa will lead South Africa’s delegation at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where Trump is to become the first US president to attend the forum in nearly 20 years.
“Good morning from the greatest, most beautiful ‘shithole country’ in the world,” Leanne Manas, a news anchor for South Africa’s SABC broadcaster, wrote on Twitter.
Across the African continent there was diplomatic fury. African ambassadors at the UN unanimously agreed on the resolution condemning Trump after an emergency session to weigh the remarks.
In Western countries many people do not necessarily have much reliable information about Africa. But responding to the US president’s remarks AU spokeswoman Ebba Kalondo reminded Trump that many Africans “arrived in the US as slaves” and added that Trump’s statement “flies in the face of all accepted behaviour and practice.”
The comment was “clearly” racist, she said. “This is even more hurtful given the historical reality of just how many Africans arrived in the United States as slaves, and also terribly surprising as the United States remains a massively positive example of just how migration can give birth to a nation,” she added.
Senegalese Foreign Minister Sidiki Kaba said his government “firmly condemned the unacceptable remarks which undermine human dignity, especially of Africa and her diaspora.”
Trump’s remarks may betray the ignorance of many Americans of the rest of the world. Trump was widely derided last year after twice referring to Namibia as “Nambia.” Did he mean “Zambia,” many asked.
“This is no different from what Hollywood and right-wing Western media outlets have been saying about Africa for decades. We have consistently been portrayed as shitty people from shitty countries,” noted Kenyan commentator Patrick Gathara.
South African comedian Trevor Noah, a star of the popular programme “The Daily Show,” described himself as an offended citizen of “South Shithole”.
“This summer, I went to Kigali, and Nairobi and Lagos, and I went to Kampala and Abidjan and Dakar and Johannesburg and I saw great cities, and great people,” the Toronto Raptors sports team’s Nigerian President Masai Ujiri told the ESPN network.
“And I went to visit the refugee camp in Dadaab, and I met good people and good families with plenty of hope. If those places are being referred to as shitholes, go visit those places, and go meet those people,” explained Ujiri who emigrated from Nigeria to play basketball and was named NBA Executive of the Year in 2013.
“I don’t think it’s fair, and I don’t think it’s what inspiring leadership can be. What sense of hope are we giving people if you are calling where they live, and where they’re from, a shithole,” Ujiri asked. “We have to inspire people and give them a sense of hope. We need to bring people along, not ridicule and tear them down. This cannot be the message that we accept from the leader of the free world,” he said.
If Trump wants his rhetoric on immigration to the US to be taken seriously by the rest of the world, he has to show that he is not racist and that immigrants to the US from Africa and Haiti are just as important as those from Norway or other white-majority countries.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper