by Shezane Kirubi
“You do not look Kenyan.”
This statement has been repeated to me in response to where I am from, too many times to count, during my time here in South Africa. Until now, I did not think that I had to fit into some stereotypical view of what a Kenyan should look like. When I first arrived in Johannesburg in July, I was excited at the opportunity to immerse myself in the vibrant cultural activities and events that South Africans frequently speak about, and for which the country is well-known. However, within a few days of my arrival, I personally encountered the expressed displeasure, from some South Africans, at my inability to understand or speak a local language. I very soon came to realize how pervasive and sad the daily phenomenon of xenophobia is in South Africa. It is a huge obstacle to the success of regional migration in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region. During my mini-excursions around the city centre, I can sincerely say that I have never felt more like a foreigner in any other country than like I have here in Johannesburg. I find this absurd, considering that I am black and African!
However, because I am indeed black and African, many local South Africans start with an assumption that I must be a South African and automatically start a conversation in a local dialect. It seems that some use this as a sieve-like tool to identify foreigners of other African countries. Now don’t get me wrong: I think that its amazing that South Africans have been able to hold on to their cultural identity embedded within their local dialects. However, when this is used as a discriminatory tool to exclude other people, it loses its symbolic value. In my view, xenophobic tendencies and attitudes indicate a lack any moral or rational reasoning, especially when one considers that African national borders were created by colonial governments. African foreigners seem to be so frequently harassed, seemingly to ensure that they do not ‘violate’ deeply flawed racial and ethnic purities that were artificially cobbled together under colonialism and apartheid. Therefore, despite the transition from ‘white’ authoritarian and colonial rule to democracy in 1994, prejudice and violence persist in many parts of contemporary South Africa. It seems to me that the shifts in political power that have occurred since 1994 have ushered in a range of new discriminatory practices and victims.
Xenophobia seems to be part-and-parcel of South African technologies of nation-building, and some argue it is part of the country’s ‘culture of violence’. During my internship at the African Centre of Migration and Society (ACMS), I have observed that xenophobia in South Africa is a catchword that pops up in many conversations. It is also featured in profound and intense academic research articles and policy papers exploring the causes and its implications to the country.
Xenophobia combines the Greek words, xenos (foreign) and phobos (fear) to denote a ‘hatred for foreigners’. It is usually characterized by a negative attitude towards foreigners which is frequently typified by dislike and fear. Most often, xenophobia is framed as an attitude; however, this is misleading in South African examples because xenophobia is not restricted to a fear or dislike of foreigners, but it also frequently results in intense tension and violence in many parts of the country. Unfortunately, this type of violence is not only concentrated in ‘xenophobic hotspots’ where localized competition for political and economic power is sometimes a trigger; but it has been found to be more inescapable than many are ready to admit. When one reflects on South Africa’s history, one finds that for centuries nasty and derogatory labels proliferated for different groups of people. During apartheid, the word ‘kaffir’, which is now considered a taboo word, was used by ‘white’ people to describe and address dark-skinned people. Currently, the South African colloquial word ‘makwerekwere’ (plural) is used for foreigners in South Africa, specifically dark-skinned people from other African countries. However, ‘kwerekwere’ (singular) doesn’t simply mean foreigner, but includes pejorative connotations of regarding foreigners as incomprehensible and undesirable. Commentators on the etymology of the word have argued that people who first coined the word were referring to the languages of foreign-born people sounding like a meaningless “kwirikwiri” noise to speakers of the main South African languages.
Anthropologist Francis Nyamjoh, in his recently published book #RhodesMustFall: Nibbling at Resilient Colonialism in South Africa, strongly argues that there is a deadly national game going on in South Africa. This game involves the sport of spotting the ‘kwerekwere’, naming and shaming the Mozambican ‘shangaan’, taming and maiming the Nigerian, stealing and looting from the Somali businessperson, exploiting the Zimbabwean waitress, and abusing the Basotho domestic worker. The purpose of this national hobby, he argues, is to ensure that foreigners do not invade ‘sacred borders’ or violate what he calls the imagined “borders of intimacies”.
In trying to explain such high levels of discrimination, some scholars have attributed South African xenophobia to learned behaviour acquired during the experience of Apartheid. Another frequent explanation uses critiques of the national government’s service delivery record. With regards to this, the rate of socio-economic inequality in the country has been pinpointed as the greatest scourge implicated in xenophobic violence which has frequently occurred in the informal margins of the formal economy. Many locals hold perceptions that foreign nationals compete with the poorest South Africans to eke out menial livelihoods.
Additionally, South Africa’s stringent immigration policies have aggravated the problem. Unfortunately, this has tremendously affected the country’s refugee and asylum system. Research findings have shown that refugees and immigrants often state that they are sometimes prepared to accept very low-paying jobs because they do not have easy access to social protection in South Africa; and because many don’t have the ‘safety net’ of an extended family that they may have in their home countries. Ironically, the Department of Home Affairs frequently institutionalizes xenophobia via discriminatory laws and practices against migrants from other African countries, while at the same time it is frequently stated that the country is stymied by a severe shortfall of skilled workers. Black foreigners in South Africa are often portrayed as parasites sponging off public services for their own selfish survival. Many South Africans seem to indulge in a political rhetoric of panic which likes to spread perceptions that South Africa’s current socio-economic problems have been caused by a so-called ‘influx’ of African migrants.
In a new project, ACMS, and a tech company iAfrikan have collaborated with a number of partners to set up a platform to monitor xenophobic threats and violence. Similar to the Ushahidi crowdsourcing platform which was created after the 2007/08 post-election violence in Kenya, Xenowatch aims to track all forms of xenophobic threats and attacks on people and property in South Africa, and includes a website containing interactive mapping and visualization based on reports received. The platform allows anyone to easily and anonymously report threats of violence, past attacks, or active mobilization using a free SMS (text message), an email, or by entering a report on the website. When I reflect on the efficacy and success of the Kenyan Ushahidi platform to provide timely and detailed information on any possibility of election-related violence in the 2013 General Elections; I think Xenowatch may be a step in the right direction.
The prevalence of the stereotypical views of foreign-born people that many South Africans hold onto is neither innocent nor accidental. Similarly, I find that it is no laughing matter. While there is a popular contemporary emphasis on stabilizing the continent of Africa and bringing peace to its various regions, in my view, xenophobia contradicts the ideals of nationalism and Pan-Africanism, that many argue are the pathway to African progress and socio-economic development. As Africans we need to get ourselves out of this self-hating conundrum by letting go of truncated and static notions of citizenship or belonging. The Africa we have today would not have existed and cannot exist without immigration and emigration.