The violent outbreaks of xenophobia, the riots and the looting that swept through certain parts of Johannesburg and Durban in recent weeks, finally seem to have simmered down - and so has the general furore around this issue. Displaced foreigners are returning to their homes. Their South African neighbours have popped round to offer their condolences. The word ‘xenophobia’ has suddenly disappeared from my news feeds as quickly as it surfaced, almost as if it never really happened at all, as if it was just a bad dream.
But it did happen. And I can’t stop thinking about it, and about how it all makes me feel about my place in a country that I have come to love and call my home. For I too am not from here, though by the sheer virtue of my skin colour and possession of a British passport, I am not considered a ‘foreigner’ in the current South African context. It is strange how this term, ‘foreigner’, with all its negative connotations in tow, has become both so sweeping and yet so exclusive at the same time. It lumps together and condemns a huge range of different nationalities, individual situations and immigration statuses, but excludes all white non-South Africans. We are rather ‘expats’ or, at worst, ‘tourists’. And as such, we are somehow safe, welcome even. This makes me feel incredibly sad, guilty and fortunate all at once.
I grew up in a picturesque rural region of south-west England. It was the sort of place that if you didn’t leave young you’d probably never leave. It was the sort of place where people generally only socialised with, dated or married people from the immediate vicinity, or sometimes only members of their own family. And it was the sort of place where everyone was whiter than the cast of Twilight.
So you can imagine that when I moved to Cape Town at the beginning of 2009, the things that made me fall in love with the place were the diversity, the contrasts, the mélange of cultural and architectural influences, the myriad different languages, colours, hairstyles, smells and sounds. In those heady early days, I used to spend hours just sitting on the train listening to and observing the passengers and jotting down crap poems about it all (oh, to be young again).
I also remember sitting in a history class at UCT and discussing our individual heritages. There were students whose forebears had come to the Cape as slaves from Asia hundreds of years ago, others whose Jewish grandparents had fled persecution in Europe in the early 20th Century, still others whose family had come with the former colonial administration, as sailors, as soldiers, or as mineral pioneers.
And I remember my first trip to Mzoli’s Place in Gugulethu. It was like a revelation. We were all there together – all the different races, colours and creeds (and a whole host of over-excited Germans), all laying our differences aside, united by a love of wood-fired dead animals and a lack of personal space.
And why shouldn’t it have been so? All of us, wherever we were from, had a shared history of sorts: a history of migration. At some point in time, whatever our reasons, all of us had come to South Africa and the Western Cape from ‘elsewhere’. And as someone who had never felt at home in England, I began to feel at home here in this country and this city full of migrants, full of citizens of ‘elsewhere’, old and new. For the first time, I felt like I belonged, I felt as though I was really part of something.
It took me a while to realise that many others didn’t feel this way. As I got to know Patu, the Congolese car guard on my street, he’d tell me stories of how scared he was of black South Africans, of the verbal abuse and general unfriendliness he encountered daily both around his home and at his place of work. Almost every day, he said, someone would tell him to go back home. “I can’t stay here with these people,” he would say to me often, but the instability in his home country didn’t make it seem very likely that he’d be able to return anytime soon. His dream was to get to Canada, though I never found out why there, of all places.
Then there was Charles, the Malawian gardener at a pretty property in Clovelly that I housesat for a while in 2011. Every day after work, Charles would run flat out from the place where the taxi dropped him on the outskirts of Capricorn township to his home about a kilometre away, for fear that if he slowed down for even a second he would be “spotted” as a foreigner and attacked. He had large pink scars across his chest and forehead to support his fears: the one on his forehead was a knife wound and the one on his chest came about when a group of guys pinned him down and burnt him with a log they pulled out of the fire.
For many African immigrants who are still braving it out in South Africa, these kinds of stories are the everyday routine that they will be returning to now that some semblance of ‘normality’ has returned to the areas worst-afflicted by the recent xenophobic attacks. Though now, of course, there’s the added excitement of the army, who are reported to be roughly and indiscriminately harassing and arresting hundreds of (non-white) foreigners, even, in some instances, those with proper documentation. Ask questions later appears to be their motto. This seems an incredibly short-sighted approach to say the least. What will happen to all these (non-white) foreigners? What sort of ‘home’ do the authorities imagine many of them will be sent back to? Why is the South African government still essentially condemning the immigrants rather than its own porous borders and the failure of other African leaders and governments to stop the rot in their countries?
It is worth noting that South Africa is certainly not alone when it comes to these kinds of difficult conversations and questions around xenophobia and immigration. In the run-up to the British general elections this month, a large part of the focus from many parties has been the tightening of the country’s borders against the ‘threat’ of immigration, while largely ill-informed anti-immigrant feeling has been growing amongst the British general public for some time now. Recently, Katie Hopkins, a columnist for the right wing tabloid The Sun, labelled migrants to the UK “a plague of feral humans” and “cockroaches”. As the UN pointed out in an official statement on the matter, the latter word was used in anti-Tutsi propaganda in the run up to the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
Hopkins’ column appeared just days before a boat carrying people seeking asylum capsized off Libya. The boat’s sinking, described as the “worst disaster at sea since WWII”, is believed to have resulted in the deaths of almost 1,000 people. Images of a beach full of body bags have since been the elephant in the room in the ongoing hypocritical anti-immigration rhetoric of the British political parties.
Surely we Brits shouldn’t need to be reminded that we didn’t wait to be granted permission to go set up shop all over Africa? Once installed, we took whatever we wanted, made little or no effort to “integrate” and then buggered off again once we’d had our fill. As Frankie Boyle put it in a recent article for the Guardian: “We fear the arrival of immigrants that we have drawn here with the wealth we stole from them”. I often wonder what the said same anti-immigrant Brits would do if they were in the same boat (excuse the pun).
We should also remember that before we Brits and a handful of other European nations went about our exploitation of Africa, we carved it up on the map as we saw fit, like a bunch of hungry drunks cutting into a birthday cake. In certain places, a single African family or tribe suddenly fell on two sides of a rudimentary but history-defining line. To me this makes the current negative use of the word ‘foreigner’ in South Africa all the more ironic, for the very borders that make someone a foreigner are themselves a foreign construct imposed by colonialists (i.e. foreigners).
Before colonisation, Africa’s history is one that is characterised by great migrations and movements of people, and in some ways that makes this continent the original trendsetter for the current digital era where people and information move more freely and easily than ever, and where the traditional nation-state is, I think, an increasingly redundant marker of identity.
Looking more specifically at South Africa, internal migration has also continued to characterise the country’s post-colonial history. How many people in Joburg today are from Joburg? How many people in Khayelitsha today are from Khayelitsha?
We need to stop and take time to acknowledge these histories, and become more aware that our ‘foreignness’ is perhaps the only thing that really unites most of us in South Africa, and that this certainly makes this country a hell of a lot more interesting, if a little more difficult at times. DM
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Christopher Clark is a British journalist and wanderer based in South Africa. He writes for a range of local and international publications on travel, conservation and international affairs and has twice been featured among South Africas best writers and thought leaders by The Big Issue magazine.
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