When ill-considered street semantics turn into acts of destruction and murder

The editor’s eyes were assaulted by the resolve in mine.

“What do you mean? Why shouldn’t I be considered for president if I’m a citizen and pay taxes, but not black?”

The morning production meeting had turned to Zambia and whether Dr Guy Scott should be allowed to run for president after Michael Sata’s death.

“We want your skills, but not you in a position of power.”

I have no plans to run for the Zambian presidency. But the above exchange did happen. And no one present spoke up because they agreed, or they didn’t, or they did not want to be seen as siding with “the other”. Those who did not stop Mozambican Emmanuel Sithole’s recent murder are not alone.

Look at the abject poverty of the language that we’re mired in. King Goodwill Zwelithini and Edward Zuma insist on using the term “foreigner”. No nuance or distinction, just plain, vanilla foreigner. It’s like one big clump of clay in children’s hands.

The crisis in language continues with the wrangling over what kind of phobia it is. Enough with trying to find the right ribbon for the phobia. It’s hate. It’s bigotry. These racists and bigots have eyes, flush with contempt like Sithole’s murderer, before they’re afraid of “foreigners”. Perhaps not all homophobes fear homosexuals, but all homophobes hate homosexuals.

So these bigots, on the streets and thrones, are given free rein, without recourse, to pontificate about my place in society, with the precision of a dead surgeon.

Out of this crisis emerges the foreigner/local binary. Far from being an accident, this binary pervades media reports about the violence. The country is accustomed to talking about the “other”. If you’re black or white or coloured, there’s always that “other”. The foreigner/local duality is an expression of its awareness, the idea of something called “us” and something called “them”, something called “good” and something called “dangerous”.

What is the legal status of all these “foreign nationals” in media reports? Are they naturalised? Are they all illegal immigrants? Are they all asylum-seekers? Are they permanent residents? Don’t assume anything just because they’re black and live in Jeppestown.

Some discerning outlets have attempted to develop the artificial distinction of “foreign nationals” and “locals”. But it’s still the same binary. These “foreigners” live here. They’re local and share physical space with the racists. Who’s then foreign and who’s local?

I have an ID book. I pay taxes. I have lived and worked here longer than in any other place I’ve lived. Am I then a local resident or a foreign national?

The newsroom exchange wasn’t just about a non-South African in the workplace. It was about my non-ness and my other-ness. I don’t even have the right to pick the colour of my otherness. People such as the Zulu king pick it for me.

I’m not black, so I’m white. I don’t speak like Gareth Cliff, so I’m a foreigner. That’s my otherness. And I’m not “from” here, from South Africa, so that’s my non-ness.

I refuse to believe that the only reason why I am not in the crosshairs is because I’m not black or that I look white. I think I’m just further down the kill list. Perhaps my only protection in Johannesburg is polite urban company and my willingness to contribute to the economy. What happens when these protections lapse because I move to a rural town for work? When all the Mozambicans are dead, will the Chinese in Linksfield be next? They’re “others” too, you know.

The foreigner/local distinction crumbles under the burden of reality when you find a Somali shopkeeper who has an ID book (which he obtained legally) or a Pakistani who doesn’t have a friend at the department of home affairs but, like me, has to stand in the queue for hours.

While nursing a concoction resembling a bagel at a deli-eaterie last week, waving down the waiter was yielding little result. I was faint because of a cortisone shot. So another waiter helped out. She asked her co-worker to help “Saddam Hussein”.

Saddam Hussein. Because of my beard.

Fewer Twitter campaigns and marches, please. And more engagement with the attackers and bigots about how they talk and what they think.

Mina Demian is a freelance journalist who has lived in South Africa for 12 years. His Twitter handle is @minaddotcom

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