/ 22 April 2015

Xenophobia is an assault on our own people

As refugees
As refugees

A few years ago I attended the Nc’wala harvest ceremony in Chipata, eastern Zambia, near the border with Malawi. The Ngoni people celebrate Nc’wala, as do the Swazis. I remember being happy at finding this similarity in a land that was far from home.

As the Ngoni’s paramount chief Mpezeni entered the stadium for the celebration, the crowd began singing Nkosi yamakhosi. Nkosi yamakhosi, which means “king of kings”. The Zulu also sing in this way about their king. It was then that I realised that I was among my people – Zulu people – whose language and ways had slightly changed.

The Ngoni language sounded like a dialect of Zulu, but at times I found it difficult to understand. A woman in the crowd, who lived in Johannesburg, realised this and described events at the ceremony in isiZulu. Later, I chatted to one of the Ngoni chiefs when I gave him a lift back to his house. He told me how Zwangendaba, the Ngoni people’s first leader, led a group out of KwaZulu-Natal in the early 1800s to settle in what is now Zambia and Malawi. This was a revelation to me and I was excited because I had found people in Zambia that I identified as my people and they had accepted me as theirs.

After dropping off the chief I spent some time with the young men in the area, who offered me a sip of their beer, a gesture I accepted even though I don’t drink beer.

Warm hospitality
Even after I crossed the border to Malawi, I still found excitement when I met more Ngoni people because, to me, they were Zulu people. The Ngoni I met were hoping that Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini would visit them because they wanted to belong to the Zulu nation and build relations again.

I later went to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe where I met an Ndebele man who couldn’t contain his joy at meeting a Zulu in his environment. He told me he had sent his daughter to the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) because he wanted her to learn more about her Zulu heritage because this is where Ndebele people originated from. We spent hours chatting and he wanted to find out what it was like growing up in KwaZulu-Natal.

In Mozambique, I met a man selling artwork in the middle of a market in Maputo. Speaking isiZulu, I asked if he had lived in South Africa. He said he was from southern Mozambique where he had learned isiZulu. Here was a man who had never stepped foot in South Africa and who addressed me in my home language.

National shame
At Sussex University in England, one of my friends’ surname is Mabaso and he is from Mozambique. Mabaso is a Zulu name in South Africa. Another friend of mine is called Mokwetsi, which I quickly identified as a Sotho surname, but he has never lived in South Africa and is Zimbabwean.

On Sunday I was disappointed and ashamed by South Africans when I read of the stabbing of Mozambican Emmanuel Sithole for what many think was a xenophobic attack.

I also found it ironic that his surname is Sithole, a very Zulu surname. I wondered why similar surnames have not made many South Africans realise that, as Africans, we are generally a people whose origins are the same. For example, the Ngoni leader Zwangendaba left his brother Somkhanda when he led his group to Zambia and Malawi. Somkhanda’s family in KwaZulu-Natal will always be related to Zwangendaba’s family.

As the recent attacks on foreigners have been concentrated in Durban, I thought about the Zimbabwean man who had sent his daughter to UKZN so she could find out more about her people and wondered how he feels now that many of her people do not want her back. I felt ashamed when I thought about how I have always been accepted with excitement in every single African country I have visited, whether Swaziland in the south, Tanzania in the east or Egypt in the north, and wondered why we cannot do the same when others come to be with us here in South Africa.

  • Siphumelele Zondi is a senior producer and anchor of a technology programme called Network on SABC News. Twitter: @SZondi.