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Tall Dark Strangers

Best of 2012 | Tall Dark Strangers

by Nkandu Mwenge / Illustration by Sasan / 31.12.2012

Originally published 16 May 2012

The recession has hit my parents’ finances pretty hard. Attending an Ivy League University in the States or a very old, very prestigious one in Europe is just an illusion now. So I came to Johannesburg two years ago, not out of choice but circumstance. I wasn’t thrilled about attending a university in a country where foreigners were murdered in xenophobic attacks only a few years ago.

South African newspapers attributed xenophobia to the ‘uneducated’ lower classes while university brochures promised international students, I quote, “exotic combinations of landscapes, people, history and culture for a-larger-than life experience.” Avoiding the ‘uneducated’ lower classes from Joburg’s townships seemed like the best way to avoid xenophobia – I was wrong.

The media fashioned my preconceptions, like most foreigners and many South Africans, of Johannesburg and everytime I left my flat I kept telling myself:

– A criminal lurks behind every corner waiting to stab me.

– Never forget your pocketknife.

– Only go to lower income areas with a group of trusted friends.

This media-made view cuts both ways. It feeds immigrant perceptions of the dangers of the country with constant crime reportage while South African xenophobes are treated to stories presenting the immigrant as parasites, hogging all the benefits and opportunities meant for South Africans. When I read stories on immigration here, my impression is of covert ethnocentricity. The argument against xenophobia misses the moral force of cross-cultural acceptance. Instead South Africans are told to ease up on xenophobia because it’s “bad” for foreign trade. Seldom is it suggested that immigration is both inevitable and potentially great, not only for economic growth, but the fertilisation of new ideas and interesting cultural mixes. This kind of contact and intermingling of ideas and culture drives progress. It always has.

Franz Kruger, writing in the Mail & Guardian, once commented on how many South African’s blamed Bafana Bafana’s early 2010 exit on the fact that Carlos Alberto Pairera is foreign. He quoted a study by the Gauteng City Region Observatory that found that 69% of South African residents have xenophobic attitudes irrespective of race, class and other groupings.

I think we foreigners know, deep down, that South Africans don’t like us but comments in response to Kruger’s article were still surprising. One reader wrote to justify the torching of a Pakistani businessman: “When corrupt drug traffickers and human traffickers descend on our country in the name of asylum, who should protect our people? The gvt is playing political messiah at the expense of its citizens.”

My friends and I have a running joke about how the worst place to be as a foreigner in Jozi is at a reception desk manned by security guards. It always goes something like this, a recent encounter of mine:

“Heita,” says the guard, greeting me with a smile.
“I’d like to go inside please,” I’ll say.
The guard will speak to me in Zulu or another local tongue.
“I don’t understand,” I say. “I’m a foreigner.”
He’ll frown.
“What language do you speak?”
“No,” he’s animated now. “What traditional language do you speak, wena?”
“Bemba, Nyanja and bits of Ki-Swahili.”
“So you from Zimbabwe, mfana?”
“Zambia,” I say.
A black woman walks in and she and the guard speak in vernacular. He helps her fill in the entrance forms, pointing where to sign, before letting her in. Then he talks to me in his native tongue, expecting me to follow like magic.
“I don’t understand what you are saying.”
I think he’s speaking Zulu. He ignores me when I ask him to speak English. A whitey walks in and the guard says, “Good Afternoon, Sir. How can I help you?” I notice how he rounds out the vowels. All deferential.
“I’m picking up a friend for lunch.”
“Just fill in this form”, he tells the whitey. “Here and here. Thank you have a good day.”
I’m getting angry and late. When he continues talking to me in the vernacular, I decide to walk past him without filling in the form. He stops me and yells, “Ey! Fill in the form. You can’t leave without this slip signed.” I fill in the form, wondering whether to lodge a complaint. This happens to us in restaurants, at roadside markets and banks. All the time.

I speak a bit of Zulu by now. When I do, black South Africans couldn’t be nicer. But switching to English when the conversation gets beyond me is met with a weird sort of coldness. Like I’ve been messing with them. It makes me want to leave sometimes. That sudden distance between us. I feel like quitting my degree and catching the next flight home. Why do black people here have to speak the vernacular or risk being shunned?

Unemployed black South Africans are understandably looking for an answer to the misery of life here, for someone to blame for their suffering, for the punishing conditions of life under an ANC government more interested in the budget than getting people working and advancing. That scapegoat is me. The stranger not from around here. The media pins unemployment, lack of housing and the poverty of opportunity in this country on me. I’m to blame for it. Because of my accent and my funny cooking. Because of the accident of my birth.

But when a man is set alight in Alexandra for being from Zimbabwe, we need to tell journalists who write articles and leaders who make statements, that to brand foreigners as parasites, as the other, you are responsible. Our blood is on your hands.

*Illustrations © Sasan.

17   2
  1. zo says:

    I was born in Lusaka to a South African Mom and Zimbabwean Father and know very well of what you speak of. Without diminishing South Africans extent of xenophobia, I have to admit to having experienced similar shunning in Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Ghana. There is a palpable resentment from most Africans of an English speaking African. But South Africa has a particular vehemency. I’m always foreign in any African country because i was raised with English as a first language in darkest Africa by a couple whose only method of communication was the colonial tongue they learnt over thousand km’s apartl. I’ve learnt to be extremely thick skinned and equally disparaging to the blacks who feel they are more entitled to the location, title and identity of any part of Africa due to language. They all understand ‘Fuck you’ in any language.

    Dope drawings as usual Sasan.

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  2. ERR says:

    I almost wish Zo had written this instead.

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  3. Daniel says:

    great article – epic illustrations.

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  4. Louis says:

    I can definitely relate to this. It happens to me especially in combis when I need to ask directions. As soon as i speak English everyone is upset with me. fortunately there’s always the one odd passenger who helps with the translation. I think they went through this before they picked up one or two local languages.

    dope article

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  5. Andrew says:

    Great article. completely on point.

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  6. Thato Tsotetsi says:

    I was born here (SA) and was raised in one of those families that thought it a good thing to speak to us in English because they imagined it would confuse us having to speak Sesotho at home and English at school.
    As a result I’m one of those people that might be considered a “coconut” and as such have some issues expressing myself in vernac.

    An incident comes to mind, I was with a friend from lunch trying to enter the boom gates of the office block where I work. Unfortunately we had both forgotten the access cards. What followed was a stand off between us and the security guard who felt the need to “teach us a lesson” for being well spoken and being unable to speak fluent Zulu. Case in point, I’m not even Zulu. All the while whiteys would simply wave and they’d have the boom opened for them…

    My point? Well, South Africans of, dare I say, a particular background seem to have serious issues with fellow black people, South Africans included, that speak English as opposed local languages. It is especailly worse in taxi ranks where the dominant language is Zulu. I don’t know, with 11 official languages in the country I shouldn’t be shunned for speaking a language of my choice, right?

    Dope article by the way!

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  7. Elizabeth says:

    Great article.

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  8. Dawg says:

    Really interesting read. It has always amazed me that discriminating on the basis of race, sex or religion is so frowned upon yet discrimination by nationality is hardly noticed. I am married to an Eastern European woman and…yes…you are all thinking “met her on the internet” and stripper already and 50% of you will be as moronic as to say as much to me. Calling my wife a stripper seems absolutely cool to most people. Provincial swine.

    I hope things change for you and personally I think SA needs more foreigners to give us a wake up call down here. We are morons.

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  9. faek says:

    might sound ignorant but when in rome, you know the rest… i know it has been said one too many times but the french are a classic example, would that be classified as being xenophobic or a case of if you come to my counttry at least make an effort to speak one of the local languages. like louis above says there is always a willing person to help out.

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  10. Yvonne vd Bergh says:

    Great article.

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  11. Tumi says:

    Faek – in that case all the white people should learn a local language then. But they don’t, because it’s their privilege to be treated with a level of respect by the darkies with issues. Blacks generally aren’t treated well by other blacks and it gets marginally worse of you can’t speak a local language. And heaven help you of you’re a shade too dark. So don’t come here with that “if you come to my country learn my language shit”.

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  12. faek says:

    @Tumi go to the eastern cape and see how many white people actually speak isiXhosa and even their kids speak the language.

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  13. Tumi says:

    Yes and those that live or are raised on farms in kzn, limps etc. still an exception – hence it’s a big deal when a white person speaks a black language- anywhere in South Africa. Mind you, I’m also not talking about that fanagalo that’s spoken to communicate with and monitor black labour. With all that said, it doesn’t take away from the fact that there white privilege at play.

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  14. AB says:

    If it is any consolation – I’m one of those whiteys that are viewed as “being waved through” by security guards, and I can attest to the fact that they give EVERYONE a hard time, all the time.

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  15. humph says:

    Kak AB. Im white, and Metro guards don’t ask for my train ticket, I waltz straight past security on my way to job interviews and they barely look up from die Son, and cops drive by me without a second glance.

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  16. blackbabyjesus says:

    If you assholes could see beyond black and white there’d be no need for all this petty bickering. Fucking crybabies.

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  17. Mehluli says:

    Hei nina ngalesilungunyana senu

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  18. Anonymous says:


    so pitiful reading & viewing some of comments made.SA has got long way to go towards FREEDOM.Madiba must shudder @ sight & listening to the mumbo jumbo people hand out to each other daily.Sad that its come to this,makes it seem like a beautiful country but rather sad & depressing to live in for most unless of course you live with your head in the clouds or somewhere else,being in denial of what is really going on.To foreigners,obviously not easy situation you find yourselves in ,truthfully SA can hardly live peacefully with itself let alone others.Such hatred,disrespect for each other,just aweful,no matter what the RACE,somehow always goes back to that…Disgusting really.Then we wonder outside world looks so enticing to many SA,who wouldn’t leave if you have the opportunity to.Agreeably SA probably would benefit from multi culturalism,if they could learn to embrace others.

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  19. Anonymous says:

    I’m one of those Zulu people who’s parents raised them speaking english, model c schools didn’t help me either. My Zulu is bad, its that broken type of Zulu with english words mixed in between and its been that way my whole life….. I only have a few friends as a result of this, and the girl department is not looking great either….. People generally think I’m trying to be white and always ask why don’t I learn the language. My answer is simple, who would I be learning it for? For myself or for you? I’m kwl with the way I was raised. Its amazing to see the effects of apartheid still crippling us black people….. Black on black hatred is forever….. It will take centuries to reverse the damaged mindset of this nation.

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