'Today we are all African'

Not in our name: Participants at the march in xenophobia in Johannesburg on Thursday. (Delwyn Varasamy, M&G)

Not in our name: Participants at the march in xenophobia in Johannesburg on Thursday. (Delwyn Varasamy, M&G)

A question: “Who is leading this march?”

“No one,” answers the unionist.

Of course it isn’t true; a wide spectrum of activists, unionists, academics and more have come together to march against xenophobia in Johannesburg on Thursday.

But the answer is instructive: indeed, no one is the clear leader, because the march is led by all its thousands of participants, and not from the front.

Five kilometres of cross-class, cross-nationality, cross-race, foot stomping, through Hillbrow to Newtown, under the banner “People’s March against Xenophobia”.

There are many, many young people. There are many students, but there are many school children, too, grouped together by their school uniforms.

Sweaty construction workers, grey-faced from cement dust, appear on the balcony of a ruined building. One leg on the balcony, one fist in the air, they smile down.

Sello Lerothli from the Democratic Left Front remarks that maybe this will bring happiness to fearful foreigners, “because they can see progress”.

Here comes a cry from a few rows ahead. It echoes back, one hundred, two hundred people away. Antiphonal chanting, from over there, from over here, like a surround sound system and the only chant playing is “Sisonke!” [We are together]

Past the churches, and the healers, and the shops, thousand upon thousand marchers. Schoolgirls holding signs that say “We stand against xenophobia!”; non-governmental organisations, political parties, unions, men in business suits and men in clerical collars; and the unaffiliated but equally outraged.  

A man who says he is from Bangladesh quickly rolls down the metal shutter of his shop, “just in case”. But he needn’t worry; there will be no violence on Jeppe Street today.

All of Hillbrow peers down from the derelict buildings; hundreds of faces appear from the broken windows. They cheer the crowd on. The marchers below look up and cheer back. Together they chant, “We want peace! We want peace!” There are hundreds of hands showing two-fingered peace signs above, and thousands more peace signs below.

It’s a call-and-response ritual, and a quiet acknowledgment between the two parties that many of those on the balconies are foreigners.

“We want peace!”

It builds all through the march, the upward looking marchers and the residents above, until its climax outside the Ethiopian restaurant in Jeppe Street.

There isn’t any space left in the restaurant’s windows for the many more who want a spot to call out to the marchers below.

A number of marchers just below the window stop and the peace signs are exchanged. A roar grows louder and soon there are hundreds looking up at the sea of peace signs.

A question: “Where are you from?”

“Why do you want to know?” is the nervous, defensive answer.

“Sorry.”

There is a man in chains. Quite literally, he is dressed in chains and he walks with a fierce look of defiance. He is noticed, and the photographers draw nearer to see him. An activist, central to the march but irrelevant to this moment, jumps opportunistically in front of the cameras.

The chained man and his comrade don’t linger long. They are from the South African Prisoners Organisation for Human Rights. Miles Golden Bhudu, the project manager, is the chained man’s comrade.

He says, “No mercy for xenophobic criminals.”

At Mary Fitzgerald square, Zwelinzima Vavi joins many others on stage. Irvin Jim, Winnie Madikizela Mandela, religious leaders, activists. They all call for peace.

The MC cries: “Today there is no Nigerian! Today there is no South African! Today we are all African. Mr DJ, can we get something African on the ones and twos?”

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics.  Read more from Sarah Evans

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