Wives' club fights SA xenophobia

2015-04-30 08:47
Some of the Unwisa members at the Africa Unite peace march in Johannesburg. (Unwisa, Facebook)

Some of the Unwisa members at the Africa Unite peace march in Johannesburg. (Unwisa, Facebook)

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Johannesburg - It is not a book club, a yoga club or a theatre club, but about 100 South African wives rely on their own social group to meet and share their experience of prejudice for being married to foreigners.

They say that having Nigerian husbands exposes them to daily discrimination, and that they had long predicted the wave of deadly xenophobic violence that has shaken South Africa in recent weeks.

The United Nigerian Wives in South Africa (Unwisa) club was set up two years ago to support wives who tell of being shunned by family and friends for falling in love with Africans from outside South Africa.

The group's existence underscores the deep-rooted tensions that erupted anew in Johannesburg and Durban this month when mobs of South African people hunted down immigrants, attacking them and destroying their homes and businesses.

‘There’s a fire burning slowly’

At least seven people have been killed in the unrest, and thousands of immigrants - mainly from Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Mozambique and elsewhere in Africa - were forced to flee their homes and seek safety in makeshift camps.

"We saw this thing coming and that's why we formed this association," Unwisa chairperson Lindwela Uche, 42, told AFP.

"If only they (the authorities) had listened to us... they would have known that there's a fire burning slowly and they would have seen how to tackle it."

The group has 100 members on its Facebook forum and also organises picnics, family soccer tournaments and demonstrations against the stigma they endure.

"Being married to a foreigner is very challenging," Lufuno Orji, a Johannesburg resources consultant whose husband is a Nigerian medical doctor, told AFP.

"You often spend your time defending yourself and then you defend your foreign husband for being himself."

Attitudes "are negative everywhere we go," said Thelma Okoro, 37, adding that even wearing traditional Nigerian dress on the street can attract barbed comments.

Paying a high price

Daily life for the wives, their husbands and their children includes battling criticism from neighbours, schools, government officials, health workers, taxi drivers and even the police.

Last year Uche's 13-year-old daughter returned from school complaining that her teacher had told her "not to bring that Nigerian mentality here" after she and classmates were noisy in class.

"We need to be protected, we need our children to be protected... and our husbands to be treated with dignity," said Uche, who has been married to her husband Cajethan Dennis for 17 years.

Okoro's 8-year-old daughter gets mocked by schoolmates over her name Ngozi which means "blessing" in Igbo but literally translates to "danger" in Zulu.

For Orji, her decision to marry Ogbonnaya has cost her dearly.

"Just before I got wed to my husband, I lost two very best friends of mine. They thought I was out of my mind," said Orji, who adds that her own family though were "ecstatic" at her choice of husband.

Some of the Unwisa members have kept their maiden names because their husbands' name attract galling remarks.

Okoro, who has been married to Kenneth for 13 years, says she was told off by an official when she tried to apply for free government-issued houses in 2011.

"They told me that I was not entitled because I am married to a foreigner, and that if I wanted a house I must divorce the man first," she said.

Threatened with rape

She also cited taking her sick children to hospital, where "the nurses ask 'why are you giving these people residence papers' - degrading and discrediting our choices".

The wives' club is now looking to widen its reach to South African women married to other foreign nationals after the recent anti-immigrant attacks highlighted many other women going through similar experiences.

One victim, Nokuthula Mabaso, last week told local media she was threatened with rape for dating her Zimbabwean boyfriend Elias Chauke.

"A group of Zulu-speaking men arrived and kicked down the door," she said.

"They asked me why I dated a foreigner when there were many South African men in the squatter camp and I replied that I love Elias. They then assaulted and robbed me.

"One of them threatened to rape us and was stopped by others."

The South African government has vowed to tackle xenophobic attacks, while human rights lawyers say women who are unfairly discriminated against should consider legal action.

"Marriage does not infringe your citizenship as a South African," said Trish Erasmus, of the Pretoria-based Lawyers for Human Rights.

Read more on:    johannesburg  |  xenophobia

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