‘I Am a Kwerekwere’
Life as a foreigner in xenophobic South Africa.
“You don’t look Zimbabwean.”
I was told this, too many times to count, when I first came to South Africa in 2004. Until then, I never thought of myself as fitting or not fitting some stereotypical view of a Zimbabwean. I’m not exactly sure what they had in mind, but over the past decade, people here — strangers and those familiar to me — have constantly reminded me that I do not look like they think I should.
I identify as a Zimbabwean living and working in South Africa. I was born in Zimbabwe; my father is Zimbabwean, as was his father’s father, and thus so am I. My South African identity document boldly labels me “Non-SA Citizen.” It tells you that I have lived here long enough to be allowed to remain, but it reminds you that I am not, at least on paper, a South African. I am a kwerekwere — a derogatory term used to refer to foreigners.
For many in South Africa, “xenophobia” first became a buzzword in May 2008 when violent mobs targeted foreigners across the country. More than 60 were killed, hundreds were injured, and many more forced to flee their homes. This was not the first time foreigners had been targeted, but it was the first time the violence had been so widespread — an explosion of tensions that had been simmering for years. The most recent spate of violence, which began two weeks ago, has so far left seven dead, displaced thousands, and sent other countries rushing to evacuate their citizens. It is just the latest manifestation of one of South Africa’s deepest-seated pathologies.
Xenophobia in South Africa, as in all places, is a multifaceted social ill with deep roots ranging from the economic to the cultural. But in South Africa in particular, the racially segregated past has been a defining factor. As Luvuyo Mandela wrote recently, in a post on his website titled “We Are All Foreigners Somewhere,” that for decades South Africans “were systematically and methodically taught to hate anything that was different to [us].”
On April 11, as mob attacks flared, Songezo Zibi, the editor of influential daily South African newspaper Business Day, tweeted, “I haven’t yet seen xenophobia in South Africa, just a lot of violent and passive aggressive hate of Africans from outside our borders.” It was a baffling statement, one that was roundly criticized on Twitter. But Zibi — however clumsily — did manage to highlight a key characteristic of xenophobia in South Africa: Despite the widespread presence of Asian and European immigrants throughout the country, its primary victims are black Africans. For its uniquely anti-African premise, commentators often refer to this xenophobia as “Afrophobia.”
In 2013, writing on discrimination in South Africa, I noted that racism and xenophobia here are inextricably linked. Post-apartheid South Africa, for all its successes, has not managed to address the underlying racial and ethnic tensions that the system instigated and promoted. The success of black people is still often viewed with suspicion, even by other blacks — greeted with barbs like he “must be related to a political bigwig” or is “probably an unlawful beneficiary of BEE” (the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment program) or is a “tenderpreneur” (a person who abuses his access to political power to secure government tenders and contracts). Black people remain the overwhelming majority of the country’s poor, and black immigrants from other African countries are greeted with suspicion. These immigrants — particularly the successful ones — become targets for those who see them as competition for jobs and opportunities. These same black immigrants are also accused of committing crimes and are often ostracized within the communities in which they live.
South Africans and their government are quick to reject and condemn racism in all its forms. But xenophobia is distilled, parsed, sanitized, and theorized on — yet rarely acknowledged as a reality here. In statements, the government has reduced acts that seem xenophobic on their face — a crowd stoning a Somali man to death in 2013, the death of a Nigerian man at the hands of the police that same year — to simple, decontextualized criminal acts, stripped of their broader context. When telling my story of how difficult it is to rent or buy property in the capital, Pretoria, most here are quick to put it down to racism. I am, after all, “black.” However, few will acknowledge or accept that my challenges also lie in my being a foreigner — even when I was told, in 2012, that if I were South African my security deposit would be 1.5 months’ rent, but as a foreigner I must pay three months’ rent upfront.
Attributing xenophobia to only a few is a reckless refusal to take responsibility. Two weeks prior to Zibi’s remarks, Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu, the head of the Zulu nation, publicly lamented the influx of illegal immigrants who violate and undermine the law. He said foreigners were “dirtying the streets” and asked that they be made to pack their bags and go back to their countries. For these remarks, some have gone so far as to accuse him of inciting violence against foreigners and have argued that he should face charges. The question of whether Zwelithini actually intended to spark violence remains unresolved. But the reality is, if people were inspired to commit violence based on Zwelithini’s words, then the listeners themselves must have borne similar sentiments and perhaps felt vindicated in hearing them spoken by another.
South Africa has a huge task ahead of it. Addressing the scourge of xenophobia cannot be done without responding to the causes, mainly the continuing legacy of apartheid. It will take generations to undo the damage caused by a system that entrenched a culture of hatred and suspicion based on racial and ethnic differences. In condemning the violence, the government must also work to dispel myths about foreigners like me — myths about what we look like, how we behave, and what we bring to society. Different departments must work together to better respond to societal woes, and where crimes are committed, the perpetrators must be brought to justice. Importantly, the role of foreign nationals in sustaining the country’s economic growth should not be ignored.
The task of undoing this damage cannot be left to the government alone. It is a collective responsibility.
When apartheid ended in South Africa 21 years ago, the country adopted a new constitution with one of the world’s most progressive bills of rights — one that was intended to entrench democratic governance, social justice, and fundamental human rights for all. These principles are now being put to the test; South Africa must be better.
Photo credit: Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images