Owen Sichone responds to Pius Adesanmi on the issue of black South Africa's xenophobia towards other Africans
I was quite amazed by Pius Adesanmi's description of South African xenophobia mainly because it was such a non-African perspective. At the end I was left thinking "They've got you my brother, they've got you."
Everyone knows that xenophobia is a problem in South Africa so there is no need to differ with him on that point. However, the Biafran war alone should prove that xenophobia in Nigeria has a presence, even without mentioning the mass expulsion of the Ghanaian teachers and other guest workers once upon a time.
In a paper celebrating the cosmopolitan nationalism of the FRELIMO fighters he had visited in the liberated zones of pre-independence Mozambique, Yoweri Museveni (then a student at the University of Dar es salaam contrasted this revolutionary nationalism with the tribalism of the Ugandan peasants and Makerere intelligentsia:
"The peasants in western region of Uganda, for instance will refer to people from the Northern region of the country as Banyamahanga (foreigners) or as Abadokori (somebody whose language is not intelligible). (Y.T. Museveni 1972. 'Fanon's Theory of Violence: Its Verification in Liberated Mozambique' Department of Political Science, University of Dar es Salaam) so there. It is not only the South Africans who call foreigners babblers or barbaroi. And it is not always an insult either, but that is a topic for another discussion. It does not seem that anyone, either on the street, the taxis or KFC outlet called him Ikwerekwere but he nevertheless describes it quite well:
"… we took a bus and headed back to Georges Hérault's residence. I still don't know what it was about us that gave us away as foreigners but the other passengers, all Blacks, lapsed into an uneasy silence as soon as we entered. I looked at the faces around us and thought I saw hostility." I do not doubt that he saw something that looked like hostility but why didn't he say Sani bonani nonke" and see if anybody would bother to return his greeting? Is that not what we do in Africa?
"The tension was so thick in the air you could cut it with a knife. Harry confirmed my worst fears when we left the bus. I had just experienced, firsthand, South African xenophobia and I was to experience it again and again throughout my three-month sojourn in that country. Harry explained to me – with the coolness of someone used to it - that the Black South African passengers on the bus had identified us as makwerekwere, hence the naked hostility." Yes they have got you. They have got you so bad that you are paranoid. In contrast when Adewale Maja-Pearce came to Johannesburg he was not jumpy and do you know why? Because he was not wearing American blinkers. If he had not been intimidated by Lagos, he reasoned, nothing that Jozi could throw at him would shake him. Oyinbo man needs to look at Africa with the Open Minds that Fela once sang about and not fear his own shadow.
In many accounts of the Rwandan and Burundian genocides, killers have discovered that they killed one of their own would lament: "We thought he was Hutu" or "He looked like a Tutsi" and judging identity by the appearance method is unreliable – to the say the least but so is judging hostility by level of fear felt.
Yes Makwerekwere is the derogatory term used by Black South Africans to describe non-South African blacks but amaXhosa may also call Basotho the same, and vice versa. Yes Black immigrants from the rest of Africa, are called makwerekwere but NOT especially Nigerians who are put both by police and citizens into a special category, one that evokes fear. But judging Nigerians by their appearance (tall and dark) or their favourite activity (419 activities of one sort or another) will invariably yield Cameroonians, Ivorians and Liberians etc.
So why is Pius "confounded by the fact that Black South Africa had begun to manufacture its own kaffirs so soon after apartheid" ? Like the Biafrans, they have been let done by their leaders. Just look at post-elections Kenya and see the petty bourgeois selfishness that Museveni criticised in his own country and you will understand that South African leaders have not just keep silent about the support they received from the Frontline States (including Nigeria) but that they have not shared the national cake equitably. The inherited Brazilian style gap between rich and poor always creates violence in society. There is still apartheid in post apartheid South Africa and it is not just the foreign Africans who suffer. Indeed the Nigerian doctors and other professionals are more likely to be beneficiaries of the end of the apartheid system than the poor workers whose factories closed down because of the flood of cheaper Chinese goods onto a previously protected market and now have no hope of ever earning wages again.
So let us not portray South Africans as ignorant, ungrateful or just bloodthirsty. The only way to reverse xenophobia, whether in Nigeria, Russia or South Africa is by exposing its roots in social inequalities and joining the struggle against social injustice.
* Dr. Owen Sichone is a professor in the Department of Social Anthropology, at the University of Cape Town
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