I don’t need to bleed for you to see my humanity
Facts don’t change hearts or minds. Once formed, impressions are curiously unyielding. Nigerians are drug dealers, Pakistanis are selfish money-grabbing tight-wads, Zimbabweans are well-educated but not fastidious about their hygiene and Somalis are sleeper cells waiting to be activated into unspeakable violence.
Xenophobia is death by a thousand cuts — the small injustices that add up, one after another. It’s the cruel police official reducing your parents to nothing more than fruit flies disturbing his break, the rude civil servant commenting on your tired and hungry compatriots, the heaping of blame that precedes violence, the praise of how your country dealt with “the whites” until we turn up at your borders. It’s “quiet diplomacy” and the brain-drain that continues to contribute to South Africa as your own country bleeds. It is being so accomplished yet shucking and jiving and shrinking into invisibility at government offices just to be treated with some semblance of respect. It is being terrified to answer your phone in taxis because languages and accents are a dead giveaway to your otherness. It is the constant threat of Lindela.
The darker the skin tone, the more likely it is one will be the subject of abuse. We do this cyclical dance every year without skipping a beat. First we are told to leave. Then, the violence follows. Finally the government steps in with limp-wristed platitudes of brotherhood and unity. Mandela sought refuge in this African country we say, Nigerians tithed their salaries to help the liberation movement. Zimbabwe harboured you. How come you don’t go after the gangsters in Bedfordview who bring in the drugs? Naija boys are small time. What about the white foreigners gaming the system? Who watches the so-called expats and “investors” exploiting locals? Ineffectually, we list our contributions and achievements as the crippling realisation sinks: much like racism sets the bar for humanity impossibly high, nothing we do or say will end the hatred and suspicion.
Did South Africa learn nothing from Emmanuel Sithole’s murder, we ask. Of course not — in order to be moved by Sithole’s murder — one has to recognise his humanity. South Africans and their government are quick to condemn and distance themselves from racism in all its forms. But xenophobia is sanitised and rarely acknowledged. The violence is reduced to criminal acts without a broader context. Very few will acknowledge or accept that though they are privileged because of the way they look, sound and where they live, their challenges lie in their being a certain kind of outsider — the kind that doesn’t have a red passport.
Bigotry in the form of misguided nationalism which manifests as anti-African xenophobia is present in almost every pocket of South African society and a permanent fixture within this mentality is the need for scapegoats. For its anti-African foundation, this Afrophobia is virulent, despite the widespread presence of Asian and European immigrants throughout South Africa, the prime victims in South Africa are black Africans. Europeans are expatriates, desirable immigrants, the remnants of the Aliens Act 1 of 1937 whom it defined in the law as those of ‘European’ heritage (not Jewish) who could seamlessly assimilate in the white population of the country. This law was reworded but not entirely removed in 1991, when the National Party removed the offensive reference to Europeans but kept the rest of apparatus of exclusion intact as The Aliens Control Act of 1991.
There’s not enough to go around, we’re told, so we fight to the death for crumbs. South Africa is the America of Africa. Its beauty and appeal relies heavily on its citizens viewing Africa as a place of dysfunction, turmoil and poverty in order to define itself as orderly and civilised. The relatively large white population of South Africa is framed as the reason why it is so efficient a country. Black South Africans have internalised this making this facet of the apartheid project produce stunning results.
Blaming the impoverished and disenfranchised who in South Africa are more often than not, black, is disingenuous. Poverty or a lack of access to formal education is not a catch-all reason for anti-African xenophobia. Not having a panga or engaging in physical violence doesn’t absolve you. Income is not the be-all, end-all indicator of bigotry or criminality. Xenophobia is a national disease in South Africa; it cuts across class and race and manifests in a variety of ways. Even if xenophobes aren’t personally struggling, they still have reasons to agree with xenophobic messaging. Self-interest trumps everything.
Crime won’t magically evaporate in the absence of foreign nationals. The efficacy of service delivery won’t change. Corruption won’t disappear. Wealth and land won’t suddenly be distributed equally. Xenophobia and nationalism won’t stop because the weeping boil South Africa is yet to lance is that of racism and steep inequality. It does not stop with “these foreigners”. Today it’s me, but believe me, that train will eventually come for you.