Recently in South Africa, we have had our media full of talk of the Xenophobic attacks, and as I write this there seems to still be a long way to go before any point of calmness will be reached. Everyone, young and old, educated or not, man or woman, is talking about this current situation. I have for the last few weeks been trying to observe the situation, paying attention to the public discourse , which has been plenty and quite remarkable in its opposition to these attacks. Its interesting that the media is branding these attacks as Xenophobia, which they may be, however it appears to me that although this term is used, it is interesting to see that it seems to have taken or been given an Africa specific identity. By this I mean Xenophobia has been made to come across as an African problem. I am married to a foreigner who is European, even though when we think foreign we think of all people who come from outside this continent, however when I think of Xenophobia at this point, I think African, and not European.
My husband is technically a foreigner in South Africa, however a black foreigner is deemed to be more of a foreigner than a European foreigner. This I have always been aware of on some level, and have never discounted the history of South Africa, and it’s apartheid regime to be on some level, a contributor to the perception that some foreigners are more foreign than others. The colour of one’s skin in South Africa coupled with the accent with which you speak the Queen’s language, are strong determining factors of where one falls in the spectrum of being a foreigner. Needless to say that as soon as I heard in the news that there had been attacks on foreigners, I immediately thought that my husband was in some kind of danger and could even imagine that areas like Camps Bay, where I know for sure that there is a great percentage of foreigners owning homes, would be teeming with police officers to ensure security of the foreigners under attack.
This however, was not the case, after automatically being concerned for my husband’s safety I immediately thought about our brothers and sisters from the neighbouring countries, I knew that this is who they mean by foreigners.
The attacks on men and women from Tanzania, DRC, Somalia to name a few, were rife mainly in areas that are less privileged and areas that historically have been marginalized. Places that don’t have the privilege of having armed response or even bare necessities such as basic amenities.
These attacks were not taking place in Camps Bay, or the so-called up market areas of Cape Town, that makes me wonder whether the word Xenophobia isn’t somewhat too simplistic a word to attach to these attacks. Xenophobia as a phenomena is influencing these attacks, but I cant help think that there must be other underlying issues that need to be addressed. Issues of poverty for one, the prices of food have been steadily rising while the rate of unemployment has not been decreasing, this is bound to add an amount of pressure on an already highly pressured situation. It is possible for people to reach a breaking point if they feel as if things are not destined to improve.
A former MD of a radio station I once worked for, used to say that we are having a low intensity civil war bubbling under, I have to say that perhaps, he was fortuitous in his observation. There is a strong need for everyone to take a deeper look into what we are dealing with here, we need to improve our understanding of the poverty situation in our country.
After having followed the progress of the attacks via the media, for the first time, I had the opportunity to make contact with this ‘phenomenon’.
I happen to live in the city centre, area right behind home affairs, we live close enough to Parliament, and other places of political significance, so often we see a strong police presence in our area as a result of the diplomatic activities that take place around. Today however, there was a high visibility of the police, but no sign of diplomatic vehicles or the like, instead there was a mass of youth demonstrating and marching down Roeland Street, singing struggle songs and carrying a few banners saying ‘no to Xenophobia’. The young people were vibrant and charged as they were moving into Buitenkant Street, the sight of them and the sound of their voices was so powerful that it compelled one to go closer or run away depending on one’s belief about Toyi toyi and struggle songs. Needless to say that my husband and I ceased the opportunity, ran to fetch our equipment and followed the crowd, which completely swallowed us as soon as we caught up with them.
At first I got the impression that the group was made up of South African school going children as most of them were still in their various school uniform, however on close inspection, I noticed that some people were adults who seemed to represent the Non Governmental Sector, also apparently South African. The reason I assumed that the group was South African, was mainly because of the struggle songs that they were singing which were reminiscent of historic times in our country.
We proceeded to record the raised voices in song that were calling for an end to the violence, while capturing the people on camera as well. The energy was exhilarating, one could feel the vibrations that this group was making and for a moment I was filled with a sense of admiration for these young people who were doing something about these injustices.
I continued to walk with the crowd until I noticed that there seemed to be a change in the atmosphere as well as the energy of the crowd, where there had been a harmony of voices in song, suddenly there was a cacophony of sound as the group transformed from being youngsters in song, to loud voices raised in anger by a group of mostly men and some women. The angry voices were shouting ‘we don’t want South Africa’, ‘government has failed us’ ‘we want to go home’.
It took me a moment to get my bearings and as soon as the new voices took over, the atmosphere somewhat changed. Before, I had been aware of a familiar energy, an energy that I recognised from the days of the struggle a kind of inviting energy to stand together against an injustice. Suddenly I realised that there was a change in the voices started to feel a sense of volatility and frustration from around me. Initially there seemed to have been what appeared to be one march, a march against Xenophobic attack, but upon close inspection I noticed that the group was divided into two parts, I was now coming into contact with the disgruntled part of the march. The second group. This group consisted mainly of foreigners, who too, were highly charged and venting out their views, wanting to be heard, asking for the South African government to arrange for them to go back to their home countries. These men sounded, hurt, disappointed angry but not defeated.
They mentioned that they were displeased with the manner in which government has dealt with the situation, they were not satisfied with an apology and empty promises that had been made by government. It was clear that the safety of these individuals had been threatened more and more each day, and the people were fed up of seeing their businesses destroyed, homes vandalised and people killed.
I asked if they saw an end to this at all, a gentleman from Tanzania said no, because he felt that the trust between the attacked foreigners and South Africa had been broken.
I must admit, as I stood in the midst of these angry people, acutely conscious of the mounting anger of the people surrounding me, for a moment I felt what I thought was a hint of fear. I felt like any thing could happen at any moment, this I suppose stemmed from knowing I represented the face of the South Africans, the other.
It took me a moment to shake these thoughts and concentrate on what was taking place before me. I recorded more of the voices, giving opportunity to as many people to speak as possible. The sentiments were all the same, our neighbours were finding the conditions in South Africa unbearable, inhospitable and unpleasant so say the least, thus they were appealing to the government to help them go home.
Dr Mamphela Ramphele, in her talk about laying ghosts of the past to rest, two weeks ago, mentioned that the African continent has many wounds, there are many places that need healing, South Africa is still young after1994, it carries a heavy burden it inherited from our past. I found myself agreeing with her observation.
She also emphasised that the one way to lay ghosts to rest is by calling them by name.
Perhaps there are many things that need to be done to address the pain of the past, and maybe this is an opportunity for us as a nation and for Africa as a continent, to look inward, to find the problem areas, to name them, to face them ,to forgive and deal with them. Our government, private businesses , NGO’s and individuals must make a united stand towards helping raise our country and our continent. These attacks could be drawing our attention to the cry of the people, a cry to show us that a lot still needs to be done to bring healing. Poverty and unemployment have been serious problems in South Africa, perhaps now is the time that they will get another chance to be addressed in a more conscious way . I sincerely, do not believe that attacks on our neighbours will in any way help us solve these issues.
The whole set of photographs can be viewed from this link.