It is Afrophobia actually

Landscape 6 river 2 (Small)I am fairly lucky to have been around and whenever I travel in a country, I make it my business to interact as much as possible with locals. I went to the World Cup in Brazil but also spent time with locals talking about the glaring absence of blacks from middle and upper class shopping malls and residential areas, except as workers. I have been to Washington, New York and Philadelphia where I spent time with middle class African Americans as well as African Americans from the “hood.” I have been a regular visitor to France and Reunion Island over the years and spent just over a week, based at a Kibbutz in Israel. I have been to Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria and Ghana. Most importantly, for this piece, I was a Zimbabwean growing up in Zambia during our liberation war of independence, then a Zimbabwean in Zimbabwe and now a Zimbabwean in South Africa. So me thinks I know what I am talking about. As Fareed Zakaria likes to say, “let’s begin.”

I agree with South African Home Affairs Minister that it is Afrophobia. As I stated in I have yet to see (and do not wish to see) a white Zimbabwean living in South Africa facing discrimination there and I know quite a few white Zimbabweans.

However, I think the Minister is half right. I think it is Brownphobia: intense dislike towards Africans and Asians of a dark hue. From as far back as I can remember, all brown Asians have been conveniently called Indians by most Africans whether they came from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or Pakistan. I am fairly convinced, without any empirical evidence whatsoever, that people from Djibouti and some Ethiopians are probably called Somalis everywhere. Because they are generally traders whose family traditions of trading go back thousands of years, “Indians” like “Somalis” have mastered the art of arriving in a country, sleeping in the shop, networking and persevering before eventually doing quite well.

Indulge me as I share two quick stories. One brief, the other slightly longer. I was honoured by my close friend from Lady Frere in the Eastern Cape to be invited along with my family to a traditional ceremony in honour of his grandmother last December. Such ceremonies typically involve the early morning slaughtering of a cow, which then must be consumed in its entirety by midday and failing that by end of day. As soon as the business of slaughtering the cow was done, my friend declared that we, as men, had to have our own knives to cut the meat into bite size pieces. So while the rest of the men and women set about “braaing” the meat, we set off to get some good knives fitting of men from the city! Where did we buy the knives? In an Indian shop! In keeping with my tradition of talking to “locals”, I asked the “Indian” where he was from.

  • Bangladesh!
  • Oh…er and how long have you been here?
  • A few months
  • And you already own a shop?
  • It was hard work but we eventually managed

I have summarised a long conversation above but the long and short of it was a tale of a long journey to get to SA, long, very long hours of hard work and now a successful shop at a busy shopping centre with a taxi rank in Queenstown.

Our second story takes us to Zimbabwe. I hope Raj Modi does not mind my telling his story. Rebellious and naughty back home in India, Raj was dispatched off to Zimbabwe with $50 in his pocket to go and work for his uncle Naran. Raj arrived and was set to work in goods receiving, then on to the shop floor, followed by front end and finally as a Manager of sorts. In the meantime, his uncle would give him an hour’s lunch break and he would jump onto his bicycle, ride half an hour to Central Hospital, say hi to his wife and newly born baby, jump back on his bicycle after leaving behind a few bananas, and make it back to work on time because his uncle was that strict. In time, he then opened a shabby little Spar store on the road that leaves Bulawayo leading to the border town of Plumtree. By the time I left the country, Raj Modi owned four very large Spar stores, the largest and most profitable being the original little, shabby store.

It is very normal that there will be locals who will see these two and thousands of other “Indians” and “Somalis” who arrive barefoot or at best in very worn sandals, suddenly after five years driving a fancy car and say to each other, “thief! Smuggler! Drug dealer!”

Let’s change continents for a brief moment. After Rodney King was filmed being beaten up by the cops in the US (what’s new?) the resultant looting did not target white owned businesses, the target was Korean owned shops! What does this tell us? Call it what you wish, violent discrimination against the “other”, aka foreigner, is always triggered by a spark that transforms envy, jealousy and poverty in to an orgy of looting and displacement. In our case, the “other” is African and “Indian” because of where he lives and trades. There are lots of serious shenanigans with security implications in Johannesburg’s East Rand for example, but there are no xenophobic attacks there because the neighbours are fairly comfortable.

In South Africa and anywhere in the world, competition for housing and jobs is most fierce at a high population density level in informal settlements and townships. Of necessity, an immigrant has to work twice as hard to survive because more often than not, they are working for two households; their home away from home and their family back home. Shall we digress? By the same token, women in a patriarchal society from Soshanguve to Seattle have to work twice as hard to prove themselves in a board room. It is the way it is. It will change, but it is what it is.

The extra hard work, borne of necessity not ability, pays off and the rewards follow. The perception that is created, however, is that the “other” is having it easy, benefitting too much from a country that is not theirs and it is not fair! After that, all you need is a spark: a fight over a girl at a public drinking place, a child gone missing in an area where there is a large population of “others” or a significant local or national leader being extremely careless with their off the cuff remarks at a public meeting.

What to do?

There was a remarkable clip on one of the news channels during the Tsunami and Fukushima disaster in Japan. It showed Japanese people, amid widespread devastation, loss of life, food shortages and panic, taking only what they needed from a supermarket. Follow that up with images of Japanese fans staying behind after world cup matches in Brazil to pick up litter and put it away and you have proof that a well-entrenched value system generally works for Japan and Japanese wherever they may be. A friend of mine owns a couple of buses which ply their trade from Lusaka’s long distance park station. Round about 2008, 2009 local police were chasing Zimbabwean street vendors here and there from the pavements as they sold the popular Mazoe orange juice concentrate and other wares because they were facing severe hardships in their own country. The Zambian vendors rose as one to defend them saying, “leave them alone. They also let us sell our wares when we used to go to their country to sell our goods.”

As I said earlier, I was a Zimbabwean in Zambia during the struggle and there is one thing I know for sure. The Zambians embraced us and the South Africans in Kamwala, Kabwata and Woodlands where we lived among them as one, even when the occasional “irritation” of an apartheid or Rhodesian bombing raid rocked their suburbs. The value system of One Zambia, One Nation filtered through to include the idea that “we would cross the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers with one heart” and this is a line directly taken from a song that Kenneth Kaunda would sing at almost every major gathering. The people, at every level of the population, would always join in the singing of Tiyende Pamodzi.

So yes, it is afrophobia, but it does not matter. What matters is that crimes are being committed by civilians. It is not the role of civilians to “hunt and weed out” illegal immigrants. In a modern state, you have the police for that.

Batho Pele and Ubuntu must move from well-articulated slogans to well entrenched value systems; values that embrace the goal and desire for a common and prosperous African destiny. Those values must be driven by the political leadership at all three tiers of government and beyond. Otherwise we will be back here next year. Vukani bantu!

Albert Gumbo

*Africa graphic sourced from the internet. Photograph by Black Diamonds.

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