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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?”
“English.”
“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.

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