The Other Africa

Published : Jul 04, 2008 00:00 IST

South African President Thabo Mbeki made a rare national address to condemn the anti-immigrant violence but faced criticism for doing too little, too late.-GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP

South African President Thabo Mbeki made a rare national address to condemn the anti-immigrant violence but faced criticism for doing too little, too late.-GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP

The recent violence in South Africa was not part of any generalised dislike of foreigners; it was directed against blacks.

THERE is something unreal about the incomprehension, righteous indignation and condemnation expressed virtually across the political and intellectual establishment in South Africa over the recent violence against black, particularly African, foreign nationals, many of them admittedly eking out a living in the country illegally. For this establishment, more than anyone else, knows the South African attitude towards other Africans.

In these attacks that went on almost throughout May, mainly in the black townships, more than 60 people were killed, some quite gruesomely, and over 600 injured. The violence against women included rape. Tens of thousands have had to flee their homes and seek shelter in makeshift camps whose inadequacies, and worse, are admitted by the camp organisers. Many more have returned to their countries, preferring the uncertainties there to the perils of South Africa. Civil society has pitched in, but such initiatives can only mitigate and not erase the fear and misery of the displaced.

One of the points made in the near-universal condemnation of these attacks by the political leaders and the media is that South Africa has a duty to shelter people, in particular African people, fleeing the uncertainties of their countries because virtually the whole continent was a home to those South Africans who, in most cases illegally, left apartheid South Africa to join the liberation struggle. Indeed, the African National Congress (ANC) and its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, had offices, training facilities and camps in several countries in central and southern Africa that supported the liberation struggle in material ways.

Every one of these countries paid a heavy price for sheltering the structures of the liberation movement by being attacked by apartheid South Africa. The earth and soil of Gaborone, Harare, Lubango, Lusaka, Mbabane, Maputo, Maseru, Windhoek and even of distant Paris has received the blood and the remains of numerous fighters for the liberation of South Africa, South Africans and citizens of these countries. Ironically, it is the modern-day citizens of many of these very countries who, forced to flee, mostly illegally, their own countries, devastated by domestic oppression of a different kind, and who have, equally illegally, entered South Africa, seeking shelter as political and economic refugees, that have been maimed, killed and forced to flee their homes.

Such illegal traffic is neither new nor unique. One of the most famous South Africans who left South Africa illegally without a passport and other papers was Nelson Mandela. In January 1962, when he was already on the run evading arrest following his call for a countrywide one-day stay-away of May 29, 1961, he crossed into Lobatse just across the border in the then Bechuanaland, from where he embarked on a long journey crisscrossing the continent. During these travels he visited Tanganyika, Sudan, Ghana, Ethiopia (he wryly recalls his alarm when he found that the aircraft he was flying was piloted by blacks, a telling internalisation of the apartheid mindset that is relevant to the present attacks on foreigners), Egypt, Ethiopia, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia and, finally, London, all without a passport or visas, his name and the organisation he represented being an adequate pass-partout.

Even without this precedent, the people of the continent, like people everywhere, have travelled in search of livelihood, if possible legally, if necessary illegally. The point hardly needs to be made in the context of the situation in the Indian subcontinent.

It is true that the circumstances in which the opponents of apartheid were welcomed in neighbouring African countries were different from those in which the citizens of these countries are facing hostility in South Africa. However, irrespective of these important differences, there is an ingrained antipathy to foreigners of every kind and, in particular, black foreigners, in democratic South Africa that even the most superficial experience of living in the country confirms. It is, therefore, wrong to characterise the violence in May as xenophobic, for these attacks are not part of any generalised dislike of foreigners. The aversion is to a particular kind of foreigner, the black African; no white foreigner has been attacked.

White people from Europe started migrating to South Africa long before apartheid. Jewish migration into South Africa is well documented. The apartheid regime, for obvious reasons, took a special interest in encouraging white immigration. During the dying days of apartheid, there was also substantial migration from Eastern Europe, the disintegrating Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. Migrants from these countries now comprise some of the most reactionary elements in the country; it is not accidental that the killer of Chris Hani turned out to be a Polish emigre. Many of these emigres were poor whites and were engaged in small trade in black areas though they did not live in the townships. It is not as if only Somali and Pakistani informal traders have competed against South African blacks in township trade. In other words, more than the admitted distance and unfamiliarity with the white foreigner, it is the very familiarity and, indeed, similarity with the black foreigner that has led to the violence.

The last sentence requires to be amplified. A foreigner, indeed even a black African, is often surprised how the black South African can spot the Other, that is, an African who is not from South Africa. (In a corresponding situation that sometimes used to prevail between the Assamese and the Bengalis in Assam many years ago, this correspondent was always puzzled at the ability of people who to the alien eye looked very similar, to spot the Other unmistakably, and had to be educated on the points of difference which did not in the least enlighten.) The non-South African blacks are routinely referred to as Amakwerekwere, a pejorative onomatopoeic construction intended to reflect the supposedly unintelligible sounds of the foreign language spoken by non-South African Africans.

However, the term is not used to refer to white foreigners, even Serbs and Poles and suchlike, whose languages should be equally unintelligible.

I looked around me anxiously. I was surrounded by a sea of inscrutable black faces. I touched my forehead and found out, much to my irritation, that I was perspiring profusely. It was winter in South Africa! And to my utter embarrassment, I discovered that I relaxed and felt safer each time white faces appeared in the crowd. Here was I, a black man, looking anxiously for white faces to feel safe from black violence in an African city!

Later, he meets a fellow Nigerian, Professor Harry Garuba of the University of Cape Town, and they both set out to explore the streets of Johannesburg further. After his friend completes his business with the Nigerian Consulate, they decide to take a bus to the residence of the Director of the IFAS.

I still dont know what it was about us that gave us away as foreigners but the other passengers, all blacks, lapsed into an uneasy silence as soon as we entered. I looked at the faces around us and thought I saw hostility. The tension was so thick in the air you could cut it with a knife. Harry confirmed my worst fears when we left the bus. Harry explained to me with the coolness of someone used to it that the black South African passengers on the bus had identified us as Amakwerekwere, hence the naked hostility. To the black South African, Amakwerekwere refers to Black immigrants from the rest of Africa, especially Nigerians. I was confounded by the fact that Black South Africa had begun to manufacture its own kaffirs so soon after apartheid.

Apart from language during the recent violence, the victims were asked to identify their body parts in Zulu, the most widely spoken South African language another apparently instinctive way in which South Africans identify other black Africans is that the latter are as a rule much darker, indeed blacker, than average South Africans. Because of historical factors too obvious to need going into, the average black South African is of a decidedly lighter shade than those of equatorial Africa or even of countries immediately to the north. One has only to look at Nelson Mandela or Thabo Mbeki and contrast their appearance with that of, say, Robert Mugabe, to see the difference.

Indeed, even within South Africa, citizens from the provinces to the north do not always feel comfortable in such a salad of racial genes as Johannesburg, let alone in Cape Town, in its own perception a very Mediterranean city. This internalisation of the apartheid mindset, though not at the conscious level, contributes to the hostility towards a people whose cultural practices are not comprehensible, or whose very appearance makes them stand out as the Other.

As is the case in all such seemingly atavistic hostilities, there are material issues that contribute to such hostility. The failure of democratic South Africa even to improve materially, let alone resolve, the problems faced by the black majority, in particular the blacks in the townships, is widely admitted. Processes put in place never seem to move forward. Position papers are discussed endlessly, to no purpose. Lack of housing, potable water, proper sanitation, regular supply of power and, of late, even availability of food at affordable prices has been a constant. Indeed, some of these problems are now creeping out of the townships and manifesting themselves in the cities as well which will no doubt be rationalised as part of an international phenomenon. Who would have thought at the advent of democracy that South Africa, then so wasteful in its use of electricity, would ever face power shortages!

So, the immediately visible enemy becomes the foreigner, diligent, thrifty, having a sharp business sense, even if the business he is running is a mere spaza shop. Nigerians for being awfully clever, Somalis for their thrift, and Pakistanis for their business acumen and clannishness, neighbours from the north for just being what they are all these fit to a T the assigned role of the despised, and also feared, Other.

Over and above the deeply running class divide that persists despite some officially assisted black economic empowerment, South Africans are also divided internally by race and colour, language and ethnicity. Increased migration from countries near and far has only added a new divisive factor. Like all countries situated at a similar level of economic development, South Africa cannot do without the input from migrants; and precisely because the migrants are necessary, they are also resented.

Above all is the compelling South African sense of entitlement and exceptionalism that constitutes the very essence of the South African character and sensibility. With the attainment of democracy following the justly celebrated liberation struggle under a uniquely sophisticated political and moral leadership, this sense of entitlement and exceptionalism is also now informed by righteous arrogance. The foreigners simply do not fit into this arrangement. Therefore, while this is not the first time that such violence has been let loose upon foreigners, this will also not be the last. The only way to prevent a repetition of such violence is to ensure equitable economic development. But this is easier said than done.

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