In this photo released by the Italian Navy on May 22, 2014, a fishing boat filled with migrants receives aid from an Italian Navy motor boat. The boat was towed into the Navy ship San Giorgio headed to Sicily. (AP Photo/Italian Navy, ho)

The search for better lives away from Africa is incredibly sad to watch, says Makhudu Sefara.

Johannesburg - About two weeks ago, 36 people drowned, more than 40 were declared missing and 56 others were rescued after a boat carrying scores of Africans capsized in the Mediterranean Sea en route to Italy.

It was not the first time that Libya’s porous 1 600km borders were used to ship migrants from various African countries to either Italy or Malta. And, sadly, it’s not the last. The Italians even have a name for an operation focused on the rescue of Africans and others from the Middle East – Operation Mare Nostrum.

The Telegraph reports that this operation was launched after 350 Eritrean migrants drowned when their boat capsized at night when they were within sight of the Italian island of Lampedusa.

So far, states the paper, about 25 000 people have been rescued this year alone, putting immense strain on the Italian military as well as civilian refugee reception centres in Sicily and the Italian mainland.

The paper quotes Libya’s representative on the International Organisation for Migration, Othman Belbeisi, as saying the country is home to more than 2 million migrants in search of jobs and a better life, many of whom end up braving and perishing in the Mediterranean.

The BBC reports that these migrants rely on unseaworthy and overcrowded vessels that carry “people who hope for better lives in Europe after fleeing war and poverty in various parts of Africa and the Middle East”.

This is troubling.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a writer and philosopher of the 18th century, credited for his influence in the French Revolution and the shaping of modern political thought, notes: “Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains”.

From Libya on to Nigeria: we must, in a month since the kidnap of over 200 girl children at a boarding school, ask why it is that all of us, including the major powers, are unable to locate them. Is it really the impotence of global security structures?

In The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama writes that human beings subordinate themselves to a greater power (the state) in exchange for a level of security the state ought to provide as its principal task. Or words to this effect.

Now, when a group of people such as Boko Haram think it not only possible, but go ahead and abduct so many girls, and for a long period, no one, no power in the world, is able to free the girls – that must say something fundamental about all of us. Is it that many can’t be too bothered because these are African children, or is it mere impotence?

Man was born free, but…

When African leaders Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, Paul Biya of Cameroon, Idriss Déby Itno of Chad, Thomas Boni Yayi of Benin and Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger look to the Élysée Palace in Paris for solutions about this, and not the AU, is this not another case of Africa’s leaders in colonial chains?

Sure, politicians and the rich, much less the wealthy, might spiritedly protest they remained chained to colonial masters only because they were unable to see the finite nature of their “power”.

But Rousseau’s retort is most apt: “Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they.”

A long time ago, people of this continent were forced off their land into ships in their millions to become slaves in what was termed the Atlantic slave trade.

Today, off the Libyan coast, many wilfully climb aboard, to quote the BBC again, “unseaworthy, overcrowded vessels” of death because they wish not to be on this continent anymore.

Why? What are we doing wrong to force our kith and kin to risk their lives on the high seas? Is Africa that bad? On Monday, the African Development Bank, UN Development Programme and OECD development centre released the African Economics Outlook (AEO), which projected that Africa’s development will accelerate to 4.8 percent this year and possibly reach 6 percent next year.

“In order to sustain the economic growth and ensure it creates opportunities for all, African countries should continue to rebuild shock absorbers and exercise prudent micromanagement,” said Mthuli Ncube, chief economist and vice-president of the African Development Bank.

Last year, AEO stated that Africa’s economic growth was 6.6 percent, owing to “the rebound of oil production in Libya”. Without it, this growth slowed to 4.2. That, clearly, shows how central Libya’s own growth is to Africa.

The irony is that it was in Libya itself that locals and other migrants attempted to flee from Africa. So it is in spite of the growth about which Ncube speaks that about 25 000 other Africans risk life and limb in vessels of death.

Recession-addled politicians in Italy say they have no resources to keep rescuing Africans and are threatening to leave them to “drift for days in the middle of the sea”. While it is correct to say some of these economies that can’t afford to accommodate these Africans were built on the back of millions of Africans enslaved between 1650 and 1900, the bigger question is: Why do some of our own keep searching for better elsewhere? Should we not make Africa better so that Africans in the diaspora may wish to return home to Mother Africa?

The search for better lives away from Africa is incredibly sad to watch. These Africans are tired of the many challenges in their lives: tired of wars in Central African Republic, of famine in South Sudan, of the abuse of the justice system in Egypt, tired of simply not having food to eat and also tired of intermittent bomb blasts sponsored by Boko Haram. Man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains.

Here at home, we are witnessing South Africans tired of exploitation in the platinum belt to the point they insist on remaining on strike for four months. They collapse because of hunger, they queue for food, kill each other, and their hope for a better life is in the R12 500 they are demanding.

Nelson Mandela taught us that those who attain democracy must work to free those without it. We all carry the responsibility to alleviate Africa’s burden, pain and hopelessness that force fellow Africans to face the Mediterranean; pay $1 000 to bands of criminals and hope to make it to a place called Lampedusa.

These Africans may not know how Lampedusa looks or how life is there, but they know they need to leave this place called Africa for something they hope ought to be better. That is a shame, especially for most of us who have it easier, but who aren’t doing much to free up much of our continent.

As our parliamentarians took their seats this week, may they look in the mirror and ask themselves whether their conduct helps Africa in its march forward, or if they contribute towards making people feel they must risk drowning in the Mediterranean rather than proudly proclaim their Africanness, especially this Africa Day.

Man is indeed born free but…

* Makhudu Sefara is editor of The Star. Follow him on Twitter @Sefara_Mak

The Star