Thursday, July 22, 2010
Xenophobia and The Day that I Die
There is no strange car with tinted windows tailing my red Toyota. No tall and burly mafioso tracking my movements. My telephone has not been bugged (I hope). None of my three dogs have been slain and hung by my gate. No one, save my few friends and small family, know who I am and where I live. Like most people, I am famous among my friends. I have not arranged with anyone for assistance with my own death. To the best of my knowledge, nothing of significance stands to be gained or inherited from my premature death. My last physical fight — in which I was so thoroughly panel beaten I had to withdraw from society for a week — was when I was at primary school. Since then, the organs most useful for the fights I have been drawn into have all been located above my shoulders. A few times, I have, owing to my very argumentative nature, been threatened with physical harm by people who would be so upset with me they would not care to listen to any more of my explanations. At such times I have always chosen the tried and tested survival strategy of the weak, which is to run. You should see me sprint! Caster would be proud of me.
And yet in recent times I have had more reason to be worried about physical harm to the point of fearing for my life. I read a newspaper column on xenophobia recently by Jacob Dlamini whose fame includes the book Native Nostalgia. His newspaper article “ANC fiddles while xenophobic sentiment swirls” made me realise, once again, how vulnerable I and my offspring are to death by any of the killing methods used to eliminate non-South African Africans. Before you suspect me of strange job-stealing habits, mysterious muti-inspired entrepreneurship abilities or unpalatable bodily odours, let me hasten to say that I am as South African as anyone born in Soweto of parents and great grandparents whose parents hail from no country other than the beloved South Africa.
And yet I have a serious handicap, a grave disadvantage and a “dark secret”. I am Mutsonga — a so-called “Shangaan”. I speak Xitsonga also called “Shangaan” — “Shangaan” having become a dangerous, pejorative term of stigma. Dlamini tells of how he recently witnessed two South Africans verbally abusing a Mozambican and telling him to go back home. Dlamini then warned that these South Africans could face arrest. But his interlocutors assured him not to worry since the police were themselves — and I quote him — “just as fed up with the Shangaans which is an omnibus term for a foreigner in Katlehong regardless of whether a foreigner speaks Shangaan or not” — end of quote.
For obvious reasons, I have been trying hard to understand the logic of South African anti-Shangaanism in particular and South African xenophobia in general. The warped and dangerous logic works like this. If you are “Shangaan” it is assumed that you are a Mozambican. If you are originally from Mozambique, it is assumed that you are “Shangaan”. And yet not all Mozambicans are “Shangaans” and not all “Shangaans” are Mozambican. Yet, if you are “Shangaan” you join the swelling lower ranks of humanity — the ugly, the bad, the dull, the dirty and the suspect — alongside “your like” are the Nigerians, Zimbabweans, Congolese, Somalis and others. For these “lower-ranked humans” there are several collective terms. Sometimes they are all called “Shangaans” collectively. At other times they are called “Makwerekwere” or “Grigambas” — terms probably meant to depict the “noises” these people make instead of speaking “normal” languages.
But how has it come about that being a so-called “Shangaan”, a person of Mozambican, Zimbabwean or Malawian origin (whether you are a naturalised South African or not) is rendered one less than human? As a youngster growing up in Soweto I suffered grave verbal and physical abuse for no other reason than being “Shangaan”. I have suffered even from some of my best and presumably enlightened friends!
To see these sentiments returning with deadly consequences after 1994 has been one of the most depressing and frightful things for me. Of the more than 60 recorded deaths in the 2008 xenophobic attacks, up to a third were South Africans and many of those were so-called “Shangaans”. Clearly this phenomenon is one of the legacies of apartheid’s racial and ethnic classification. For this reason the “Shangaans” and the “Kwerekweres” are identifiable not only by their inability to “speak” but by their “looks” as well — very dark, “primitive” and most unkempt. These sentiments are of course a load of nonsense. But these have become more than nonsensical sentiments. They are dangerous. And the police — as Dlamini warns in his article — are not always helpful. How many times have we heard of police turning a blind eye when a “Grigamba” is attacked? How many times have we heard of the police arresting South Africans and sending them back to Zimbabwe or Mozambique just because they looked too black to be South African?
And so having escaped death in the Soweto unrest of 1976; having survived a particularly bad and brutal beating by apartheid police; having worked long and hard with the banned, the wanted and the “terrorists” of yesteryear — at grave personal risk in Namakgale (Phalaborwa) — and having led and survived the rough ungovernability of Tembisa (in the East Rand) in the 1980s, I could finally meet my death soon.
I will be walking down a street in Zone 4 Meadowlands, Soweto — place of my birth and youth. Or will it be in Ivory Park where my brother lives? It could be in Tembisa where I have many friends and family. It will start with a small group of youngsters standing on a street corner. When they see me coming, they will start chanting. “Shangaan! Shangaan! Shangaan!” That code word will be enough to summon other xenophobes to emerge. And how will they know that I am “Shangaan”? Because of the way I walk? The way I run? The way I smell? The shape of my nose and the tone of my skin? My inability to speak Zulu and Afrikaans properly? But I speak all eleven of South Africa’s languages, I will shout. I will tell them of my wonderful contributions to academia, to the communities. The kids I have put through school, schools I have helped found and school-governing bodies I have chaired. Who will listen to me?
I see the growing crowd encircling me, baying for my blood, buoyed by the chilling soundtrack of “Shangaan” chants in the background. Will I kneel before my killers? Will I plead for my life like the necklace victims of the 1980s? Will I feel the thud of the first brick bumping off my thick “Shangaan” skull? Will I sneeze when the smell of petrol rises up my “Shangaan” nostrils as they pour it over me in preparation for the inevitable? Will I make a last-ditch effort to escape — dashing through the crowd like a mad bull — only to invite a rain of kicks, stabs and beatings? Eventually, engulfed in a vibrant, flaming fire, I will do the Ernesto dance — the death dance of the Mozambican man who was burnt to death in May 2008.
Xenophobia is not a threat against foreigners. It is a threat against me, and you. It threatens the very foundations of our country and our shared humanity.