A Kenyan journalist reflects on exile in Joburg & Xenophobia
One of Kenya’s finest investigative journalists had to flee his home country 15 years ago because of his probing stories. He lived in Johannesburg and recalls that in 2001 aggression towards foreigners was palpable already.
“If you want to survive this city,” the taxi driver advises, “you must learn tsotsi and how to dance pantsula.”
In 2001 I am an asylum seeker in South Africa. My stories about corruption in Kenya have forced me to flee for my life. I arrive in the midst of xenophobic attacks on the Cape Flats and Zandspruit in Johannesburg.
On one of my first taxi rides I inadvertently take the front passenger seat. Everyone soon knows I’m a foreigner. I don’t know that it’s my role to receive the fare from the other passengers and hand them their change. Even when I realise what’s expected I’m not currency wise enough yet to swop notes and coins, deftly and accurately.
Noticing my difficulty the driver warns me to keep to myself because “immigrants are unwelcome”. I am told we are responsible for the escalating crime rate, spreading HIV/Aids infections and stealing jobs as well as their women. Then he dishes out the choice advice about learning slang and a few local dance moves.
Tsoti taal is not an official South African language but in some places it might as well be. It is crafted from many languages. Speakers of the lingo are considered thuggish and uncouth. It is a lingo frowned upon by older citizens.
Yet this “thug” language opens a lot of doors in the streets and townships for me. My first three words in tsotsi are “Ola”, “Heita” for greetings and “Seven” for a pistol named so because of its shape and the James Bond movies with the indestructible agent 007.
I don’t even know why I’m bothering to learn the name of a weapon. For what purpose?
“If you want to be respected as a foreigner,” the taxi driver tells me, “you must always walk with your ‘seven’. Everybody, even the police, have respect for seven. Seven is the only thing that makes one equal in this country, especially for you foreigner.”
Today, as South Africans grapple with the horrors of attacks on foreigners with a renewed intensity, ghastly images in the media and the hashtag #XenophobicSA has gone viral. There are growing calls for a boycott of South African products.
The sadness is that when this kind of violence erupts it leaves those from more distant shores unscathed. We become like families turning in on themselves. Everyone knows internecine warfare is the most intense, most enduring kind. It’s what we resort to when logic fails and ancient darkness resurfaces.
Traditional leader Goodwill Zwelithini is alleged to have ignited the violence when he is quoted saying foreigners should pack up their bags and go.
This is not the first time South Africa has been in the news about xenophobic attacks. In 2008, the worst recorded attacks occur leaving 60 dead and thousands displaced. The country has witnessed waves of xenophobic attacks since attaining independence in 1994.
But South Africa is not alone in grappling with this shameful scourge. Across Europe, including Denmark, Italy, Britain, Germany, Greece, Mexico, France and many other countries, the issue is hotly debated and xenophobic political parties are gaining support.
In the UK landlords have been given the powers to inspect immigration policies of tenants. A move criticised as xenophobic by Movement against Xenophobia.
South Sudan is still at pains to find a solution after foreigners were uprooted from their homes and businesses last year, following a political spat between the president and his deputy.
Here in my country Kenya, reports of the xenophobic attacks are received with jeers or cheers depending on who is being raided. Attacks on the Somali community draw little sympathy and even cheers, sadly. While images of people being attacked provokes viral #hashtags on social and local media.
Kenya, with an estimated population of 44 million suffers one of the highest unemployment rates standing at 40 per cent. The country has had its fair bite of xenophobic attacks towards immigrants. Passions run high today about the place of Somali immigrants in the country following waves of terror-related attacks by Al-Shabab.
The militants threaten more terror until the Kenya Defence Force (KDF) retreats from its 2011 invasion of Somalia.
Politicians employing anti-immigrant populism, led on by deputy president William Ruto, are leading calls for the mass expulsion of Somali refugees and the construction of a 700-kilometre wall between the borders of Kenya and Somalia. Attacks on Somalis, Ethiopians and other African immigrants are usually carried out by members of the armed forces.
So what is the reason for African brothers turning on each other these days in South Africa. From my vantage point in Nairobi a few come to mind…
Gross inequality among South Africans. Problematic political Leadership. Corruption, for instance at the Beitbridge border crossing into Zimbabwe. These are just some of the factors fuelling the fires of xenophobia.
With a population of 54 million according to Statistics South Africa, the country suffers unemployment rates of 26 per cent ranking 8th in highest number of unemployment in the world.
Migration Policy SA reported a “significant proportion of South Africa’s neighbouring states have migrated to South Africa, many to work. According to a recent survey for example, 81 percent of Lesotho’s adult population has been to South Africa. As many as 83 percent of Lesotho’s citizens have parents and 51 percent have grandparents who have worked in South Africa. The equivalent figures for Mozambique are 29 percent, 53 percent, and 32 percent, while for Zimbabwe the corresponding figures are 23 percent, 24 percent, and 23 percent.”
Whilst opening an anti-xenophobia conference in Durban in 2001, then President Thabo Mbeki stated:
“Surely, the impulse of our own time says to all of us that we must do everything we can to free those who to this day suffer from racism, xenophobia and related intolerance because their forebears were enslaved, colonised and racially oppressed.”
After some research and my crash course with the taxi driver after I arrive in South Africa, I feel I’m educated about xenophobia. So, I spend a fair amount of my time in South Africa dancing pantsula, improving my tsotsi and trying to understand this aggression and sometimes outright hatred of foreigners.
Then it happens. I prove that the taxi drivers sweeping accusations about stealing women are not without foundation.
I find myself competing for the affection of a South African woman with a local suitor.
I win her over but the sweet taste of victory does not last too long. She says she has been warned that we “foreigners” soon leave the local women and that I would return to my “wife” back in Kenya. But that’s not the worst of our difficulties.
She insists on an HIV/Aids test and tells me “foreigners” are mainly responsible for the spread of the disease. But all this is still reasonable, things a strong relationship can overcome.
The joy of intimacy is somewhat dulled by her next revelation. She is worried because she has been warned that “foreigners” have the capacity to render a woman barren because of “size matters”.
The knockout blow to our affair is when I insist that I will certainly return to Kenya when it is safe for me to do so. I tell her she is welcome to return with me.
“Africa!” she protests. She has never been to “Africa”. Without hesitation she tells me that she prefers that I settle with her in Johannesburg because in “Africa” we eat with flies crawling around our faces.
Another conversation goes something like this… Because of her deep affection for me, she is ready to organise the marriage papers so that I become a resident.
She is stunned when I refuse the offer. As the script goes, foreigners marry South African women especially so that they can be granted permanent residency. This is an opportunity nobody turns down.
At the time of my exile, labour policies forbid asylum seekers like myself, from work or even study until our application is decided. Like in so many cases my application process drags on and on.
Soon I need a job urgently. After my savings from home run dry, I live off the goodwill of South Africans. But I cannot live on philanthropy indefinitely. My situation seems hopeless. I can’t eat, sleep and survive only on goodwill.
I manage to secure an assurance from the editor at the Mail & Guardian that he will use my stories if it they are good. His only worry is how I am going to find stories in South Africa worth publishing with a support structure and networks all back home in Kenya.
I manage to do a story, one of the most highly commended pieces, delving into corruption in Gauteng. I probe the impact on delivery of emergency services in the province.
Things look up when I gain an opportunity to work with Noah Samara’s World Space Radio. In the interview the editor questions how I am going to overcome hostilities towards foreigners. She wants me to spend time with poor communities especially in the townships.
For our live breakfast show, I am stationed in the Gauteng townships. Every morning I “capture” a diverse group of residents and political officials and organise them into a queue for their comments to be transmitted live worldwide.
One day, together with activists from Earthlife Africa, I find myself standing before a large group of residents of Diepsloot, giving a passionate speech about why they should oppose construction of the nuclear facility at Pelindaba.
Not once does anyone question or challenge me seriously because of my accent or foreign status.
And then when the journalism work is thin on the ground, magic happens. Members of the South African Magic Society welcome me in their fold. I share their gigs at schools, stadiums and other functions where my skills as a children’s magician is required.
Every Sunday you would find me at Rosebank Mall mischievously provoking children against their parents. Until their parents buy them a long balloon twisted in the form of animals and caricatures for five rand each. I was never disappointed whenever I counted my day’s collection.
In between jobs I find myself parking and washing cars in Pretoria streets. One day I am confronted by an immigrant who declares I am working on his spot. After a discussion, we agree to continue parking and washing the cars together.
By the time that it is safe for me to return to Kenya in 2004 – after Moi has been removed from power – I have one small headache: Disposing of a car, fridge, television set and other items I have acquired while in South Africa.
A tsotsi friend inquires: “How have you managed to own all these in two years yet all my 30 years of being born and living here, owning a car is still a dream.”
There is neither hatred nor envy. He genuinely wants to know how. He does not have to worry about papers that will allow him to be employed and a precarious resident’s status.
I can’t recall exactly what I told my friend but I do remember biting my tongue, partly out of politeness and partly out of fear. But perhaps a clue to our appalling behaviour towards each other is buried in this simple exchange. A desperate immigrant, with few resources and a fractured support network, has no choice. We have to survive and work harder to thrive. The tough lessons make us grow strong. When we prosper the local lens sees that we have taken something from them.
I often think of that taxi driver as I encounter my fellow Africans in Nairobi. I would never encourage Somalis and brothers from elsewhere to bear arms. When they ask me for advice about adapting, I think about the fine footwork of the pantsula and I say:
“Just be street smart as you would be in any other city.”
But Joburg and Nairobi are not just any cities. They are potentially places that contain the hope for Africa’s future. I hope we can learn that delicate dance that is going to be required to find a common language, to find common ground as our borders change and our problems can no longer be contained by the old political systems.BACK TO TOP