Dehumanising the other: The language of black-on-black racism

By Ivan Katsere 9 September 2019

Firefighters work to put out a burning building after violence and looting against foreign nationals in Pretoria, South Africa, 28 August 2019. Violence broke out after a South African was allegedly shot attempting to intervene in a foreigner-run drug deal the previous day. EPA-EFE/Yeshiel Panchia

The wrongfully labelled ‘xenophobic attacks’ have shown the capacity of racism as a structure to be embodied and practiced by black people.

South Africa is designed to effectively keep black people on the fringes of society. The hate and eradication of blackness and any connotations associated with it have been such a “perfected art” that we do it to our own as black people; the idea of blackness is the least appealing to black people.

The wrongfully labelled “xenophobic attacks” have shown the capacity of racism as a structure to be embodied and practiced by black people. The racialisation through attitudes by black people has proven how colonialism was “perfected” and the full circle of the phenomenon represented by black people keeping “other” black people on the fringes of society, and exterminating them, in a fashion that was designed for, and by, colonialism.

Racism in South Africa

Racism is not a new phenomenon in South Africa. The apartheid government laid the foundation for racism and very little to no efforts have been dedicated to readdressing this. Racism as defined by Robert Miles (1989), can be viewed as a system that creates and maintains the segregation of beings by economic means. This has to be viewed as a socio-economic structure which affects economic and social access, or lack thereof, and essentially influences how we perceive, stereotype and categorise people according to the classes prescribed by this structure.

The form racism takes in South Africa is unique because since the end of the apartheid era, “freedom” was granted but the “demarcations” that separated people are still visible throughout the country. Black and coloured people continue to populate the areas they did during apartheid and the economy has not switched hands since this time. Essentially, the template that was created during apartheid still exists in the supposedly independent state.

Black-on-black racism and belonging

The full circle and “perfection” of racism have been noted with language. In South Africa, this can be used as a marker of one’s social status that can either grant or deny you access to various spaces. Black bodies in South Africa have to perform a specific way, in specific spaces, to be granted access by other black bodies. If a black body departs from these specified norms of behaviour, the behaviour is punished by discrimination, dehumanisation, and in some cases even attack. This is not only a marker of who does not belong in these spaces, but also works to create boundaries of “us” versus “them”.

As humans, we all have prejudices and stereotypes. Categorising people using these stereotypes, attributions and prejudices allows us to navigate social spaces and to predict behaviour. Acting on these attitudes, however, is a different conversation and this marks the difference between racialisation and racism, where the former is an attitude and the latter is discrimination marked by an act.

To contextualise this: in South African spaces, English is viewed as the language that possesses economic power. In many places, especially townships, those who adopt English as the main medium of communication are perceived as outsiders, who do not belong to the community (Rudwick, 2008). These black bodies do not conform to the expected norms and therefore they are perceived as not belonging in the space. The use of English comes with the risk that one may be labelled as a “coconut” or “Oreo” (Rudwick, 2008, p. 102). Black South Africans are labelled as the above or discriminated against based on their eloquence in English and/or the perceived attachment they have to “whiteness”. One can imagine that the risk may be extreme or more intense for an immigrant in such a context. This process serves to exclude through its power to promote difference (Davis, 2004).

IsiZulu is frequently used by the police when trying to identify undocumented immigrants or foreigners in general. Some of these instances prompt or require children to translate for their parents, sometimes escalating into the need for them to mediate in conflicts between their parents and other people, including brokering for their relatives in situations where the police are involved (Orellana, 2001).

Dehumanising black bodies and keeping them to the fringes of society

Apart from discriminatory words like “coconuts”, “Oreos” or “banana types” being used to create and maintain the boundaries of belonging in black and coloured communities, language also serves an agent of social exclusion (Hungwe & Gelderblom, 2014) and an othering element used to discriminate against and dehumanise migrants who cannot speak local languages (mainly black Africans by black South Africans). Without the required language and in some cases, the appropriate dialect, migrants are exposed and can be “attacked” in many spaces.

Black bodies that do not perform in a prescribed way are dehumanised and attacked through hate speech targeted at exposing the non-belonging blackness as the bodies which need to be exterminated from the community. One of the participants in my research narrated how he and fellow Zimbabweans are often referred to as “rats” that take the jobs of South Africans. According to the participant, the South Africans said,

This guy is not a South African guy so he is a Zimbabwean. A foreigner, we treat him like a rat. If you leave one rat in the house, it will call out the other rats… we have to fumigate all the rats out… because if you let the rats, they will call the other rats and they will destroy the company, then all of us will run out of work because of them, because they do the work.”

Dehumanising people by reducing them to the level of unwanted animals or vermin in the context of South Africa is not a new phenomenon. According to Neocosmos (2010), amagundwane (rats), is one of the derogatory terms used to refer to African foreigners who are also tagged “rigambas” (dung beetles), “Makwerekwere” and so on. Jacob Dlamini (2009, p. 66) contends that the rat occupies a special place in South African Struggle mythology, Amagundwane, an Nguni word for “rat” is used to refer to scab labourers, a traitor is called a rat and it is not uncommon to hear striking workers call: “Bulalani amagundwane!” (Kill the scabs.) It is also not uncommon to hear people being hacked to death, thrown off trains, doused with petrol and set alight – all for being scabs and crossing the picket line. To be a rat is therefore to be forever marked for a gruesome death.

The term amagundwane with all its negative connotations has been placed on to immigrants who (like scabs) are blamed for stealing jobs and identified through their constant use of English (Katsere, 2016). Calling them amagundwane not only serves to group and identify them, but also justifies inhumane treatment and possible killing of these people as it represents the extermination or fumigation of “harmful” creatures, viewed and represented as non-humans. These names convey the language of “cleansing” the unwanted parts of society through xenophobic attacks and are similar to those used during the Rwanda genocide (Neocosmos, 2010).

The term cockroach is another significant term used both in South Africa, to represent the immigrants, and in Rwanda where it was adopted to represent the Tutsis by the Hutus. Investigating this, Belman (2004) stated that once the other group has been identified as different, and importantly non-human, the lines have been drawn for future battle, ethnic cleansing, or genocide. In Rwanda, where the Tutsis were referred to as cockroaches or inyenza, the new government at the time had no intention of protecting them (a minority group) from the attacks as the mobilisation of these derogatory representations somehow justified their treatment (Yanagizawa-Drott, 2014).

It is important to point out that dehumanisation on the basis of language functions on two different levels. First, it reduces one’s humanity to the level of an animal or lesser species as a means of justifying the ill-treatment of individuals – it essentially detaches the humanness from the person, while attaching connotations of non-humanness, so that one is desensitised to any ill-treatment of an individual.

Second, by dehumanising other individuals, there seems to be the need to lessen their perceived racial superiority and this is mostly embodied in language and the history of the language. Specific to English and South Africa, is the racial arrogance attached to the language and the superiority and dominance it historically holds (Achebe, 2006 and Wa Thing’o, 1986). Dehumanisation with the use of the English language is a reality faced only by black immigrants in South Africa, never Europeans, Asians or Americans (Nixon, 2001). This dehumanisation in many ways detaches the black speakers from the language perceived as the white people’s language and displaces them from a position of perceived superiority and dominance, to a “lesser human” position where they are kept on the fringes of society.

To affirm that migrants are on the societal fringes, categories are assigned to migrants and serve not only to humiliate them, but to categorise them as a non-human species, equating their language to animal-like sounds that are inferior to “the real” speech sounds familiar to humans.

Constructed racial categories” (Tafira, 2011, p. 117) like makwerekwere, amagrigamba, aMaZimbabwe, abantu bakaMugabe and Africa are some of the dehumanising terms used to refer to Zimbabweans (Tafira, 2011). In addition to explicitly dehumanising terms that imply that migrants are like animals, a number of other demeaning terms are used to ostracise and exclude children in schools.

These are labels that carry racial connotations, some being degrading and others jocular but offensive nonetheless” (Tafira, 2011, p. 117).

Narratives of children in my research highlight how some of these terms are used even in primary schools to refer to migrant children. In one case, a pupil named Munashe was constantly called Mugabe by classmates (purely for speaking Shona and not being South African), so much so that eventually the entire school including teachers started referring to him as such.

The label Mugabe, for Zimbabweans, may seem to be relatively neutral or even positive, given that he was the president of the country and seen by many to be a liberation figure. However, for others he is considered a poor leader, responsible for the economic and political destruction of Zimbabwe (Tafira, 2011). For many Zimbabwean migrants, he is the reason that they have left their country to come to South Africa, hence connecting one’s individuality to Mugabe is almost always associated with these negative connotations.

The term amaZimbabwe is also used to explicitly “other” Zimbabweans, connecting them to the economically and politically challenged post-2000 state of the country in comparison to South Africa. In using these terms, local people create racial categories, with all being “value laden; carrying a particular meaning denting the social and cultural origin of the carrier” (Tafira, 2011, p. 117) and also degrading immigrants to lesser humans, challenged economically and to be kept on the fringes. The term “Africa” is another term that is used and has been of discussion lately in the media.

The use of this term, just like calling someone Zimbabwe, does not imply either national or continental pride, rather carrying racist and colonial connotations of places that are backward, challenged, of an inferior nature, backward culture or not fit for human survival. This relegates migrants to an inferior place and detaches South Africans from an African stereotype, but rather to a more advanced place separated from Africa, thereby creating a perceived “superiority”.

Calling someone by the name of a place is symbolic of the value and status attached to that place. When one uses the name of a place to refer to an individual, negative connotations usually attached to the place are also projected on to the person and serve to dehumanise and degrade an individual.

The language (referred to as kwerekwere), place (Zimbabwe or Africa) and people (Mugabe) foreign to South Africa all come together and are used to construct a racial category for black migrants by black South Africans and perceive them as lesser beings who deserve non-human treatment and to be kept out of society. This dehumanisation can be a consistent reality and challenge to migrants on a daily basis in subtle xenophobic encounters.

These encounters are visible particularly when migrants leave the “safe haven” of their homes and particularly during movement between spaces or in the public interface with South Africans. In most of these spaces, local people “dictate” and require that local languages occupy these spaces and in some cases, any use of English is met with consistent resistance.

Contextualising xenophobia

The old adage that states that “black people cannot be racist” is technically correct in a society where black people do not own the resources in that country. South Africa presents a unique context where black people have been kept at the bottom of the socio-economic structure and it seems a perception of competition and a perception of the scarcity of resources in this particular socio-economic class has succeeded in creating another structure, one in which black people fight other black people to be on top of the lower socio-economic class. This is a successful replication of racism as a structure which has been made possible by the inability to dismantle the structure that was created during apartheid. DM

Ivan Katsere is a University of Cape Town Phd student and lecturer in the Psychology Department.



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