Is identity South Africa’s be-all and end-all?

One nation: The issues of race and identity don’t dominate life in Uganda as they do in South Africa. (Giulio Petrocco/AFP)

One nation: The issues of race and identity don’t dominate life in Uganda as they do in South Africa. (Giulio Petrocco/AFP)

  September 17 2015. I flew from my home in Uganda and found myself, for the first time, in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was the start of a two-month work experience programme at the Mail & Guardian newspaper.

Going from one African country to another with a majority population of black people, I didn’t have many expectations in terms of race.
I thought things would definitely be the same regardless of the different demographics.

But I was wrong. South Africa is a different kind of African country. Race and identity seem to be the centre of everything and it dominated most of the discourse I engaged with during my stay.

For the first time in my life I was defined first and foremost as black – especially and interestingly by other black people. From the attendant at the mall to the person seated next to me in the commuter taxi, everyone had preconceived expectations, and anything short of that was received with distrust.

The fact that I could only speak English, yet had a black skin, was one of my sins. It seemed that speaking English for one of my kind definitely did not qualify as knowing how to really “speak”.

Growing up, I have only ever appreciated people as human beings first before considering their colour or race. But this perception was challenged when I arrived here. I was either South African or not and as such I would be treated.

“You have to learn our language,” the security guard at my apartment in Rosebank reminded me every evening after our usual chitchat. It might have been an innocent reminder from my new-found friend but why was the teller at the grocery store always forcing me to speak her language? She would cringe when I looked on blankly while she spoke.

It felt as if black South Africans don’t seem to trust anyone and, from our interactions, they struck me as a disillusioned people. On the other hand, white people acted like everything was absolutely fine.

Even as black South Africans shared the beauty of their country with me, their disappointment was always visible. They believed change was not coming as fast as they had anticipated and everything seemed to have stagnated with time.

“It’s black people in this country that have had to forgive but not the other races. We are tired of being the understanding ones and yet white people do nothing,” said one of the black South African friends I made during my stay.

The freedom with which I used words in Uganda, especially as a journalist, was suddenly complicated. Words I formerly believed to be innocent were interpreted as fuelling apartheid sentiments or being derogatory.

For example, the word “Bantu”: a word I usually considered innocent, which is used to refer to a particular linguistic group.

I begrudgingly began to adapt.

I later found out that it wasn’t just me. Most black foreigners in South Africa have had to devise survival mechanisms and the recent xenophobic attacks did not make matters any better. The few that I met would reveal their origins in low tones lest someone heard them.

The issue of race and identity continued to dominate our discussions, or hovered always at the edge of our thought. This is not normal for me. Unless I am reading a specific book or watching a TV programme on the issue, such topics rarely make it into discussions among my peers back home.

As if to challenge my country and my own presumed innocence with regard to matters of race and hospitality, my South African friends always reminded me of the 1974 Asian expulsion from Uganda by the then president, Idi Amin. But this was just one of the infamous decisions that were taken by the dictator and Asians have since returned to Uganda.

I later found out my new friend the doorman is actually from Zimbabwe. He intimated that he had to learn isiZulu at all costs, a strategy that has helped him to live comfortably in Johannesburg for the past 10 years. Assimilation, it seems, guarantees you acceptance here.

South Africa has been a jarring experience for someone like me who has spent most of my lifetime around people just like myself. There is no such homogeneity in South Africa; it is a country with contrasting ideologies and people in different worlds yet within the same borders.

I found myself appreciating my country more than ever – a place I have grown to call my own, where every citizen feels at home.

Uganda is less developed than South Africa. In Uganda, we have our own share of shortcomings, but our communities are highly cohesive; we are all just Ugandans regardless of our skin colour.

My opinions on South Africa are many and varied. I just can’t seem to understand this unique country in its entirety. It seemed to be closed and yet remarkably honest. Its people, especially the black South Africans with whom I spent most of the time, seem a “work in progress”. Whatever it is that was handed to them after 1994 seems to have been just a shadow of what they actually wanted.

But one thing I definitely carried home is the power of activism. I realised that when people rise up to demand what rightfully belongs to them, the powers that be respond. I was glad to have witnessed the #FeesMustFall protests.

Before I knew it, my two months were up and I was standing before immigration at OR Tambo International Airport. My mind was already lost in thoughts about home and my people. The South African official before me jerked me out of my reverie when he asked when I intend to return to Johannesburg.

I’m not really listening to the question. “I can’t wait to go back home,” I said offhandedly. His reply brought me back to reality. “Everywhere you go in Africa, you should feel at home for it is home,” he said as he ushered me through.

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