You take liberating vents of light where you can from popular culture, owned and leveraged, as it is, by bundled entertainment companies, linked, in lawyer-y ways, to other bigger companies bent on turning the planet into Bladerunner (the rights to which were acquired by Warner Bros last year allowing for – shudder – “prequel and sequel projects”). Illuminations include Louis CK’s stand-up, the films of Ramin Bahrani, Justin Cronin’s knockout vampire thriller The Passage and just about everything Rockstar games publishes. I was reminded of another one reading the Sowetan online recently.
In the best episode from the second season of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, called “The New Cup”, the low energy New Zealand nufolk-duo’s witless manager, Murray, invests the “emergency band fund” in a business scheme that looks a lot like a 419 scam. A Nigerian man called Nigel Seladu promises, via email, the money back plus “a thousand percent interest” and a share of the “family fortune”. The show wrecks our mediated expectations when Nigel Seladu turns out to be legit.
Murray’s trust pays off and it offers an all too rare mainstream corrective to the knee-jerk demonization of Nigerians and foreign nationals. He challenges hostile and suspicious perceptions of migrants by his willingness to deal with a stranger despite the long prejudicial shadow their background casts. Murray takes the offer at face value. He doesn’t dismiss it out of hand through cynical habit. A dose of his inadvertently enlightened attitude could revolutionize immigration issues and cross-cultural tolerance in this country. That’s not to say we ought to send troubled princes all our money or be naïve about the dangerous spaces of South African cities, only that we don’t live out our days isolated in Plato’s cave, seeing only the menacing scapegoat-shapes slander paints on the cave wall.
Cave dwellers soon appeared in a comment thread after a story called “Child sex workers rescued – Parents asked to come fetch them” on sowetanlive.co.za 16 sex-workers were “rescued on Friday from a building in the Point area in Durban”. Half of them were minors “used as drug mules and prostitutes”. They were kept high awaiting passage out of the country to wherever it is captive young women are criminally trafficked. Four people were arrested. Nowhere does the story mention Nigerians.
“I bet Nigetians (sic) were involved in this,” Bizzabo writes. “People say we are xenophobic when we talk about these things. We have no choice, we have to talk about this. Look, the fact here is that these Nigerians are destroying our country. You can just imagine the pain they caused to these kids. I hope government will do something about these Nigerians.” RobinH agrees: “Several people are assuming that they were ‘trafficked’ by Nigerians, and I think it is safe to assume that foreign nationals of some kind were involved.” Is it? Tkay writes: “Nigerians should be banned in our country.” Someone reminds us “most of the buildings in the Point area are occupied by foreign nationals so it’s not justified to accuse South Africans for the crimes committed there.” On it goes. When someone points out that Nigerians aren’t even named in the article, the response switches to attack mode instantly: “Nigerians did this, why are you trying to protect these people? We all know who sells drugs and forced kids to prostitution. Was it necessary for it to be mentioned in the article?” Yes it certainly was because the unsubstantiated ascription of negative qualities to people unlike you is the motor of prejudice. “You don’t have to be a Sangoma to get this right. It’s Nigerians who are behind this criminal and inhumane act. They brought misery, suffering and shame in this country.”
As a Nigerian blogger put it, after hating District 9, a film that did for Nigerians what John Galliano’s drunk Nazi clip did to his career at Dior: “Most Nigerians are just trying to live their lives. Only a small teensy miniscule minority are sending out those annoying 419 scam emails, drug dealing and participating in other forms of corruption.” Yet there have been all too few sustained and intelligent government and media campaigns to educate South Africans about the stresses and heroics of migration. Few cosmopolitan measures to bring people from differing backgrounds closer or genuine attempts to find common ground between African nationals whose lives resemble each other far more than they differ. After all, there is a continent- wide need for the basics of security, housing and education, opportunity and survival. Elementary grounds for unity. For now, the uneasy peace between locals and foreigners in townships, foreigners running street-level businesses whose customers are easily led into believing they’re stealing jobs and hogging opportunities, a perception that caught fire in 2008 and turned our streets murderous, continues unaddressed.