Everyday xenophobia and the shifting circle of belonging

2015-04-19 15:00

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What’s that on your arm – an immunisation scar?”

“Why is your hair so long – do you have white blood?”

“Why did you guys come here?”

“Do you speak Kenyan?”

These are just some of the thinly veiled, ignorant questions I field daily as a foreigner living in South Africa.

Zimbabwean graphic designer Sindiso Nyoni used his experience as an outsider living in SA to create a series of jolting poster campaigns titled Live (‘Evil’ backwards, he explains) after experiencing the traumatic 2008 xenophobia attacks in Joburg. In this design, done as a school project, he deliberately sets out to provoke the reader. He puts these two offensive terms together to bring the reality of xenophobic violence home. Black South Africans, who know the pain of the word ‘kaffir’ are asked to identify with how painful ‘kwerekwere’ is to foreign nationals. ‘The campaign aims to promote social, political and environmental change,’ says Nyoni.

And despite having a Kenyan mother and Nigerian father, you’d think having a South African ID would stop the flood of questions. But it doesn’t. Every day, I need to validate why I look the way I do, speak the way I do and chose to come down from “up north” to invade the living space of South Africans.

But this is no woe-is-me tale, and I am certainly in a much safer position than my fellow Kenyans and Nigerians who, as we speak, are being beaten, burnt and killed without question or consideration for their personal stories.

And yet, it’s still an uncomfortable space to be in, having to validate my right to be in a country that I have lived in since I was five months old.

Worse still, because I am a “foreign citizen”, there is a quieter, more perverse xenophobia I am exposed to, which makes South Africans conspiratorial when sharing the most ignorant and offensive things with me.

Jokes about Nigerians being coke dealers are delivered with a wink and a nudge. And when service- delivery protests break out, many white South Africans feel the need to remind me that they know I’m not “that kind of black” and know Kenyans are peaceful people. Why don’t I help black South Africans to become more civilised?

Issues of language are perhaps the most cringeworthy. I am often greeted in isiZulu or isiXhosa, and am expected to respond fluently because I am black.

And when I can’t, I am admonished for not having successfully blended into the country. White foreigners are never expected to do the same, even though their families have occupied this space for generations.

There is a strange psychology at work here – a perverse ubuntu that wants black foreigners like me, living in South Africa, to “share” and speak local languages. It at once dissociates me from others on issues of cultural identification, land sharing and the quest for a better life.

But inasmuch as I wince at the endless, awkward identity conversations – and have learnt enough of the local languages to avoid such informal interrogations – those everyday experiences of xenophobia have added to my understanding of what kind of South African citizen I do not want to be.

I do not want to be the type who declares “rainbow nation” in international circles, but shows no charity at home. I do not want to quote the Constitution when it suits my argument – instead of using the sacred document as a compass for my decisions – but throw burning tyres at the first scapegoat.

In being shoved in and out of the circle of belonging, I have learnt that the project of addressing xenophobia relies almost entirely on empathy for others, purely on the basis of their human status. Not because “some foreigners are actually helpful”, or because African countries accommodated struggle heroes during apartheid, or because South Africa is the country known for its capacity for reconciliation.

But because to fight the real war – the one against systematic inequality – a unified voice is required, one that recognises the need and right of all people to be able to self-actualise and achieve the good life in whatever space they occupy.

That’s a right this country has seen, and continues to see, flouted in the most brutal fashion.

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