You know someone is about to offend you when they start off by saying, “I hope you don’t take this personally, but…” I’m afraid I’m about to add insult to injury, literally, when I tell victims of the recent violent attacks, now branded “xenophobia” and “afrophobia”, that in reality, “it’s not you, it’s us”, another offensive disclaimer I’m afraid.
As far as I can remember, foreign nationals have only come to join our ranks just in the few years leading to and after the birth of democracy.
The first time I met a foreign national of any race was when the Transkei government started hiring teachers from Ghana. The homelands had a dire shortage of skills, and so as we grew up, it was not uncommon to have both a teacher and doctor from Ghana. Actually, they could have been from anywhere in the continent, we just called all of them amaGhana. So ignorant we were, when one of our neighbours had a baby with a Ghanaian man, we were told by adults not to speak Xhosa to the toddler because he spoke Ghanaian – presumably from his father’s blood.
Then another trend came, which was women who came to sell us seat covers and beautifully done doilies and dexterously crafted ornaments such as pink porcelain dogs. For some reason, they didn’t want money, but fabric such as old curtains, and even old clothes. Come to think of it, I never found out why that was the case really.
But these women, in their uniform black and flat sneakers walked the streets in our rural township of Ezibeleni in the former Transkei with such regularity that everyone knew them as amaZimbabwe. Somehow they found their way all the way from Zimbabwe, past Limpopo and Gauteng, all the way to remote townships such as ours carrying rather large bags on their heads.
Then came a new trend, and by this time we lived in Cape Town, and Nelson Mandela was president. I remember this most clearly because these guys sold mirrors and framed art that could be plugged into a power socket, and boom, the piece of art would light up. Sometimes it was an orchid and other times Jesus and his disciples around that dinner table. I remember because my mother would buy mirrors from them on credit, and then time the collection day with one of my weekend visits. I would then be introduced as “my son I told you about”, meaning that I was expected to pay one of the three installments needed to meet the credit terms.
This may seem like a digression, but it really is by way of demonstrating that foreigners and their business interests didn’t always threaten us. They do now. Somehow fear and frustration has gripped South Africans. And fear and frustration is a powerful motive for crime and violence in our country.
I remember the South Africa before the New South Africa. Violence was not rare. Blacks murdered one another in the cruelest ways; the necklacing of informers and tribal killings were part of life. If a man was thought to be a threat to the struggle for freedom, he was beaten up, and at the most extreme, burnt alive. If there was a consumer strike, and a mother went to buy food and household goods at the shops for her children, she would be seized and forced to eat the frozen chicken and soap, and then thrashed for dear life. A woman was raped and had rocks inserted in her vagina because she was said to be an informer.
So violence isn’t new or foreign to foreigners. We’ve been practicing on each other in the name of frustration.
But that was a different kind of fear and frustration. We were in the throes of the struggle for freedom, and thus any threat to this had to be eliminated in the most decisive way.
Then we saw some more scenes of frustration – well into the democratic dispensation. Members of trade unions would beat up those workers who would go to work during a strike. Others were thrown out of moving trains, while property was vandalised.
This was part of the struggle for economic freedom and if you were a threat to this, woe to you.
Violence seemed always to help solve our problems. Not with foreign nationals, but between South Africans. Who can forget the dramatic violence in KwaZulu-Natal, and the recorded killings and mutilations in the mining hostels driven by tribalism. Fear. Frustration. Loathing.
We’ve been doing it. Nothing to do with foreigners.
In the United States, we’ve watched with horror the killings of black men by white police. In this day in America, a black man can be killed by a white man with impunity – leaving behind a sense of intense injustice.
The reason an ordinary white American cannot kill a black man and not expect impunity is that the social mood has changed. Americans – white Americans – have shifted their prejudice to the police.
A policeman is entrusted with the safety of all Americans. The biggest threat to American life is a black man. In parenthesis, it is important to quote writer Toni Morrison when she says, “American means white. Everyone else hyphenates.”
Thus, the fear of African-American men is entrenched in the minds of Americans. When a policeman kills a black man, it is easy for a jury to believe it was in the course of duty. It is easy to insert the fear that would excuse and legalise the killing – moving it from murder to self-defense. The fear is in the narrative.
Fear. Loathing. Frustration.
There are all sorts of stable stereotypes and generalisations about people from Africa. As drug dealers, with a penchant to steal jobs and even “our women”, the fear narrative has gained sympathy and rooted in the minds of many South Africans.
Those who preached peace in the cause for freedom probably never knew how right they were. When the peace narrative was abandoned because faith in the might of the word and the pen waned, few knew how devastating the result would be. We know now.
When the new South Africa was born, it was as if we had defeated bigotry. There, in that “never, and never again” moment, we’d triumphed over “the oppression of one by another”. In no time, we made strides towards a society of laws. We embraced a Constitution that symbolised what it was to be African in the new era.
So who are these people who have committed these crimes? Who are the looters? Where do they come from? Are they foreign savages, unknown to those who express shame and disgust at their actions?
Perhaps this signals a rift between the righteous and the unrighteous. Those who have the conscience to call out the violence and absorb its shame. That there are those of us who can look at the dramatic images of a social crisis, and feel the distance between those who perpetrate it, and those who condemn it. Stuck between throwing our hands in the air and bowing or shaking our heads. Who are these people who are doing these terrible things?
We’ve been doing terrible things to each other for many decades. It worked to earn us the South Africa that is so attractive to foreigners. While we sold our cities and towns as places of opportunity, we forgot to say how that came to be. We didn’t say that our struggle for political freedom was marred with violence. We didn’t mention that when things get tough, we don’t talk, we murder and maim.
So please don’t take this personally. It’s not you, it’s us. DM
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Xhanti Payi is a writer short of a few best selling books and a Nobel Prize. He works as an economist, researcher and advisor to various institutions. A staunch believer in clever blacks and would-be clever blacks short of opportunity. Proper pronunciation of the click is optional.
"We spend the first year of a child's life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down. There's something wrong there." ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson