No Black and “other” Africans in the Rainbow: A Nation Divided

I live and work in Pretoria, a bustling cosmopolitan metropolis that is lauded as the biggest city in Africa (at least in breadth). Bustling and cosmopolitan for the moneyed and the non-blacks, not for the masses who shuffle up and down the city’s Jacaranda lined pavements daily. I love Pretoria, the city, but not necessarily her history, or her people whose present seems so deeply intertwined with the city’s history that as a “black” African, I must defend my turf (silently, sometimes loudly). I moved to Pretoria in February 2009 to work. It was a dream come true. To work in the city with the most foreign representation on the continent, touted as cosmopolitan and “modern.”

I shared the news with those with ears. I was living with my sister and her husband at the time and both had their reservations. My sister asked me how I’d “survive” in Pretoria with all the racism and the then recent spates of xenophobia (I don’t know how to say “ear” in Setswana!). I told them that I didn’t think either of these interrelated phenomenon remained in the country’s capital, and if so that they would be extreme. I was wrong, they were right. I would soon learn that there’s little space for “black” in the rainbow, and none at all for black people from other African countries… not yet anyway. In fact, on closer inspection you’ll find that there’s not much brown either!

Fast forward almost 5 years later, I sat in my home in Pretoria, and read with an odd mix of interest, anger, shock and relief, the article by Neo Maditla on “rental racism” in Cape Town. Interest because issues of racism and classism intrigue me and South Africa is riddled with these. Anger because as a black person from outside South Africa, I have experienced similar “rental racism” and “rental xenophobia” 1550km away and in the dorps, towns and cities in-between. In 2007, I struggled to get a digs in little Grahamstown after I left university residence because few “non-liberal” white folk wanted to share with a ‘darkie’ and black South Africans kept querying my nationality! In 2012, after “securing” a lovely duet in a quiet neighbourhood East of Pretoria, the agent’s email tone changed once I indicated that I was Zimbabwean. After initially informing me that the security deposit would be 1.5 months’ rent plus admin costs, he sent me a terse email with a revised “addendum” that now included a curiously out of place addition that foreigners must pay 3 months’ rent as deposit.
I was to learn later on that rental agents were rolling out this “new” requirement. My reading of it was “We don’t want foreigners living in our houses,” considering most people are lucky if they get half their deposits back! I have blacklisted (excuse the unfortunate pun) Trafalgar along with a few other agencies operating in Pretoria.

I read Neo’s article in shock, not at the article itself, but at the writer because she seemed to think this phenomenon was unique to Cape Town and/or out of the South African norm. Further, that the article suggested that the unfair discrimination was just a race issue. It isn’t. Relief (and let me explain here) because FINALLY someone had cared to share the tales of the many who have suffered this fate. And it wasn’t me. You see, whenever I say anything vaguely negative about South Africa (even if it is to say that I hate rugby and that cricket bores me), I am attacked and told that I must “go back to Africa where [I] came from.” So it was refreshing to read an article by a South African calling out other South Africans for their prejudices. And it wasn’t in the dreaded News24 comments section!
While, it would be unfair to over-generalise and say that Pretoria (and Cape Town) is a racist and xenophobic city. Allow me to be unfair at this juncture. The irony of racism and xenophobia in Pretoria and Cape Town (and elsewhere really) is that they are juxtaposed with the internationalisation of the country. It is paradoxical.

Pretoria, as the country’s capital is a hub of international activity, with expats living in secure estates and meeting for Latin cocktails and salsa classes on the regular. Cape Town as the “design” capital of the country, the seat of parliament has its all round “we’re so glamorous, we don’t see colour, creed nor nationality, except if you are poor here” vibe. Ah. Never mind.

I speak of racism and xenophobia in the same breath because these two are inextricably linked in South Africa. I am yet to hear of Greek shop-owners being mistreated and/or violently assaulted by angry “local” mobs. In fact, whenever foreigners are attacked in South Africa, the victims are invariably black. And African. I contend that black Africans are targeted because to their attackers they symbolize something that they are struggling to attain. After decades of a repressive white regime in which black people were regarded and treated as inferior, many still struggle to accept that black people can succeed. That black people can carve a niche for themselves and soldier on despite seemingly insurmountable challenges. So when a black foreign person succeeds where they could not, it is viewed as a greater injustice than when a white foreign person does so. It does not compute. It makes no sense. But xenophobia is nonsensical.

It is clear to me that xenophobia and all other forms of hatred towards people perceived as the “other” are nothing more than external manifestations of one’s own internal self-loathing and/or feelings of inadequacy. As if by killing off those you “fear” are taking away your resources (resources which you claim entitlement to, whether or not you really are entitled to them is another issue altogether) you’ll suddenly become better. That exterminating the other will solve your problems. It is intriguing that whenever people experience racism and xenophobia, it is almost always from (near) strangers.

The racism and xenophobia I have suffered has mostly come from people who don’t know me, people who attempt to measure my successes and failures within a split second at the till at my local supermarket and decide there and then that I am either not worthy of their services or grab hold of their bags because, the flying spaghetti monster forbid, I might just try to snatch their handbag and run home. I have suffered xenophobia from people who decide that because I am Zimbabwean, I must smell a certain way, speak a certain way, walk a certain way and all of this must not be done in South Africa. I must do and be it in Zimbabwe.

In 2008, while getting my hair washed at a side street salon (because high-end, yet reasonably priced beauty parlours for black people are still hard to find in South Africa), my South African hairdresser, who obviously had no idea I was not South African, candidly remarked, “Foreigners steal our jobs.” The ever diligent person that I am, and obviously not wanting her to chop off my ailing mane, I waited until she was done styling my hair to tell her that I was a foreigner and I had no intention of stealing her (or anyone’s job). I added that, as a foreigner, it was harder for me to get work despite being an above average student in university. She hissed at me and accused me of “passing off as South African.” My hair was in an acceptable state and I wasn’t in the mood for more idle chitchat, so I made a quick escape.  She didn’t physically attack me and I doubt she had any plans to. However, it was people just like her who months prior and in the months and years to follow, took to the streets in a widespread attack on foreigners on the basis of her very allegation. That black foreigners were here to steal jobs from black South Africans and must go back from whence they came.

It is sad and terribly disheartening that our world is cluttered with degenerate human beings who, despite millions of years of evolution, still fail to accept that the “other” does not really exist. What cowardice it is to attack someone because of (mis)perceived differences and unfounded stereotypes. The problem of xenophobia is particularly riling because more often than not it manifests in violence. It astounds me that one can discriminate against another because they hail from across an imaginary line. People forget that we are all one and the same despite some differences in external physical appearance, concentrations of melanin, and language.

I struggle to reconcile the on going xenophobia(violent or otherwise) with what I know of South Africa’s battle for liberation. Did South African people not recently celebrate and ululate at the demise (or perceived demise) of apartheid? Did that freedom “just” happen? Was it not through the actions of a vast majority of people – many of whom were foreigners – that South Africa became “free”? Many of South Africa’s heroes sought refuge in neighbouring African countries where they were treated, not as visitors, but as family – brothers in arms. Harbouring exiled freedom “fighters” is but one of many ways through which foreigners aided the South African “revolution.” Were it not for the same foreigners being attacked today, “freedom” might not exist in South Africa (well, not for most people anyway). But I digress…
From newspaper articles, you would think that society agrees that xenophobic violence is appalling, yet little seems to be done to arrest the problem. What are WE really doing about it? By sitting back and doing nothing are we not part of the problem? Issues such as these should be debated in the public domain, protests should be held and those who have, through their xenophobic violence, harmed others (psychologically, physically, emotionally or otherwise) should be brought to book. Something can be done. There needs to be a clear legislative framework that addresses xenophobia and it must be properly implemented.

PS: As I write, xenophobia remains a real and immediate threat for many Africans living in South Africa. The Institute for Security Studies will, on 12 December 2013, host a seminar on why Somali immigrants continue to suffer the brunt of xenophobic attacks in the country.

PPS: I use the South African nomenclature for racial identifiers as a (strange type of) courtesy to the readers. Personally, I struggle with the use of “black” to identify people of African origin, as I am yet to meet a “black” person (shades of brown, yes. Black? No.) Also, white doesn’t sit well.
Ottilia Anna Maunganidze is a researcher and international criminal law expert at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies. She writes in a personal capacity.
This was originally posted on Umuntokanje and uses some content from previous writings by the author. 

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