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Xenophobia in South Africa: A discoloured rainbow

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Xenophobia in South Africa: A discoloured rainbow

The violence against ‘foreign’ Africans in South African townships continues unabated. What are the roots of this African hostility towards other Africans? By Kalundi Serumaga 

I have never actually been to South Africa and with the increasingly regular expressions of hostility towards black Africans, perhaps I never will. I do not get the feeling that I will have missed much.

I nearly went, on one occasion, but I was thwarted mainly by my failure to work a way past a most mechanically obtuse South African gentleman in charge of receiving applications for post-graduate study at the University of South Africa (UNISA).

Being very old, my academic records from the last place I ever studied did not exist in digital form, and the UK academic establishment concerned, which had since merged and morphed into a new and bigger one, could not be persuaded to dig up the paper records for just one student from before they were who they now are.

Any and all attempts to explain this situation to this man were met with the same one-sentence reply: “We need to see the original records.” It remained the same even when I suggested they provide me with an official query – or make one directly themselves – that I could use to persuade the new organisation to go into its ancestor’s paper files.

I was transported back to my days as a young refugee in Kenya, another African space blighted by white settler culture. I have long came to the conclusion that there remains a marked but unacknowledged difference between Africans from communities emerging from the experience of direct settler colonial domination, and those that lived under Lugardist ‘indirect rule’ (mostly in West Africa) in which colonial arrogance was still in full force, but there were no white settlers of any significance living there to socialise it.

The former group tend to have suffered mass displacement and alienation from their ancestral spaces, as well as a resultant notion that ‘progress’ must mean acquiring the socio-economic status and ‘standards’ established by the white settlers. This means developing a certain rigid snootiness towards any other African not trying to assimilate, as would the case of the latter group, for whom there really wasn’t any physical white community to aspire to assimilate to.

Violence today, as in the past, seems restricted to the poor areas of a given urban space. This also means that it is against mainly the black non-citizens residing in the country. As Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters (among other, less loud voices) has pointed out, this is not violence against ‘foreigners’ as such; it is violence against black Africans who happen not to be citizens of the country. “Why do you hate yourselves?” he asked at one rally, perhaps unknowingly echoing Malcolm X.

 

Fundamental unviability

This Afrophobia as it is called, is now a periodic feature of poor urban South African life. This time round, we read with increasing frequency, this number or that number of people have been reported killed and a business looted and burned. 

As one Panashe Chigumadzi, a Zimbabwean who spent her childhood in South Africa has noted, this is as much an issue about poverty as race. The violence is basically groups of poor black people attacking other groups of poor black people for ‘stealing’ their jobs, and exploiting them through their small businesses.

It is actually a statement about the fundamental unviability of South African township life.

Some two and a half decades after the end of Apartheid, it has become clear that state-backed anti-African racism was not the sum total of black South Africans’ problems. The promises (modified into the Rainbow Nation ideal) espoused in the very ambitious 1955 Freedom Charter for a non-racialised society, in which there would be homes, jobs, decent education, health care and freedom for all, seem to have bypassed many a township dweller.

It reminds me of a conversation I have mentioned here before that I had with my departed friend and comrade, Professor Dani Nabudere.

Many years back, as a participant in a symposium on urbanisation at one South African university (the same one that put me up against a human robot), he began to question the notions being put forward, that living in a space legally described as ‘urban’ or a municipality meant that one had become urbanised.

The background was a point being made about balancing the ever-rising cost of bringing greater amenities (water, electricity) to the townships, against the cost of having to manage the social unrest when these were not delivered.

The critical catch, of course, was these were the long-expected fruits of South Africa’s delayed independence from white settler colonial rule, formalised in apartheid.

The professor had a different view. He asked why the focus was not on forestalling migration by making sure such amenities were more available in the countryside. After all, he argued, the rich white settler-farmers did have such amenities on their farms, so it was not a physical impossibility. He wondered how the state and economy was expected to keep delivering infrastructure to rapidly growing urban spaces.

As the debate developed, the professor was told almost in the tone of a reprimand that the right of a black African to migrate to an urban space was almost sacrosanct, coming as it did as a repudiation of the now defunct apartheid (and before) era Influx Control Law (1923) that strictly regulated (largely male) African movement to and within the cities.

The Professor persisted: given that South Africa now had tens of thousands of black Africans crowded into cramped settlements without such amenities, while white settlers enjoyed them upcountry, which was the real “urban area”, and which the real “rural backwater”, he asked.

The meeting did not end on a fully cordial note. Echoes of that debate however can be heard in the murders and pogroms against Africans, taking place in the townships again. What I find the most ironic about any black south African calling another African who happens to come from north of the Limpopo a foreigner, is that they too, are also foreigners, in as far as they do not ancestrally originate from the townships in which they live.

Let us be frank: the South African township phenomenon – so celebrated as the bedrock of the African resistance to Apartheid, and so iconised in South African film, television, music and prose – is itself a white imposition.

Townships emerged as the catchment spaces for those Africans evicted from ancestral areas to make way for white settler communities, farms, industries, mines and game parks. In essence, they are really just glorified Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. Their longevity, and absorption into black African cultural iconography does not change this fact. It simply masks it.

 

Levelled the playing field

I once shared a car ride with a deeply spiritual visitor to Uganda from Johannesburg, who, as a black African, could not tell me where his people came from beyond his father’s father, who had grown up in a township near the one he now lived in. He spoke a melding of Xhosa and isiZulu.

We discussed the notion of a ‘suspended’ citizenship, requiring a much more concrete affirmation, in order to become real.

Perhaps Nelson Mandela is not the ‘sell-out’ that rising radical South African activists are revising his legacy to be. He did oversee the dismantling of formal Apartheid, and the removal of Western support to exclusively white South African politics; he also dismantled their nuclear arsenal; he brought his party’s large but scattered army home and ensured it became part of the state armed forces; and he normalised the idea of a black President, of which there have now been four since his retirement.

Maybe his idea was that having strategically levelled the playing field somewhat, enabling the Africans advantages previously well out of their reach, the rest was up to them, as to how to reverse the centuries of dispossession, displacement, and deracination. It would appear that the deracinated black South African foreigners sojourning in ‘their’ IDP-townships, have not yet worked out what the old man was up to, and are blindly attacking other poor Africans instead. NA 

 

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Written by Kalundi Serumaga

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