Here we are, again; armed with anger, blame, and hashtags. Battling a thousand complex questions, defeated by a few pathetically simple answers whose only weapons are the carcass of our own humanity and the importance of the internet.
I struggled with writing this; I honestly do not see the point. The people suffering from xenophobic attacks will not read this. The perpetrators will not read this. So what is the flipping point? The answer was another question; do you remember what happened the last time Africans didn’t write their own history? What is happening now is history; it is the repetition and perpetuation of history. An utterly unnecessary one for we failed to heed it the first time around. But, here we sit, glued to our computers, phones, and tv, riddled with guilt trying to find refuge in a stupid and pyrrhic question; Why?
Marianna is 9yrs old. She walks around heaving sobs while struggling to sound out the words that her little mind is struggling to grasp; “that is my father, they stabbed him”, she says, pointing a decaying body lying amongst the rubble. “That is my mother over there”, she points, whipping tears, to another body a few meters away.
A mother collapses as from exhaustion and utter helplessness. It takes a few people to help her to her feet. After waiting hours to hear if her son is one of those who had been killed in a freakish attack that just didn’t make sense. Her husband came out of the mortuary that they were standing outside and had on him the face of a man who had to say words that no parent should ever have to say about their child.
Ernesto had collected his meager belongings and tried to escape the mob. He didn’t make it very far. They caught him, poured petrol over him and set him alight.
These three stories read like an account of harrowing happening, somewhere. Well, Marianna is a little girl from Rwanda and she was telling her story in the midst of the 1992 Genocide. The woman is a mother of a student who was killed when extremist group Al-Shabaab attacked a college in Kenya in 2015. Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave was a Mozambican would come to be called ‘the burning man’ by media as the image of him, kneeling and engulfed by flames seared its way into our collective conscious and sent the stench of 2008 South African xenophobic attacks into the world.
As we watch a fresh wave of attacks on foreign nationals on the news and internet, we are, again, asking why? But does it matter? These stories could be swapped around geographically or chronologically, would the answer make a difference? In Rwanda, people were killed because of their ethnicity; “it was our neighbours who killed my family”, said Marianna. In Kenya people were killed because of their religion. In South Africa, we burn people because they come from the other side of a fucking fence.
Yet we still want to know why? Well, take another look at those pictures of burning bodies, hacked limbs and wailing mothers. Do you feel that tension around your diaphragm? That lump below your lungs that constrains your breathing? Do you feel that? THAT is your answer. Fear.
At the very core of human neurosis is fear. It is that very sensation, that one that you are feeling right now, that made someone take an empty 2lt bottle, put petrol in it, pour it on another human being and set them alight.
We often think that fear is about running away. On the contrary, fear manifests in utter, all-encompassing rage too. It is fear at the core of racism. The belief that black people are lesser human or ‘animals’ is a subconscious admission of perceived harm that black people can inflict. This fear is only quelled by a belief in a mental superiority that can ‘tame the beast’ but if you cannot conquer that which you do not understand, then you destroy it.
If the fear of a person is not based on who they are then it rests on what they represent. What is happening in Durban is not Xenophobia. The perpetrators are not killing people because they fear them simply because the victims are ‘foreign’. These ‘foreigners’, some of them have been in the country for decades. Some even have families and have lived ‘normal’ lives; if you’ve ever lived in a township you know this.
‘Foreigners’ are being killed for what they represent; the truth. The truth that we are not better than them. The truth that we do not live in the country that we thought we live in. That we’ve been in a euphoric sleep about who we are as a country and what we thought was a nightmare – that they lived – is actually reality. That we failed ourselves. And, to those perpetrating the atrocities, those who live on the very tongue of poverty, ‘foreigners’ represent a deep and visceral economic betrayal born out of the realization that he whom you were willing to die for is not will to lose an ounce of blood for you. That our leaders are rapacious cretins.
As black South Africans, there is a lesson that history is pleading with us to take heed. Apartheid didn’t end simply because white people wanted it to end. By and large, many of them just watched. We know this and while standing around a braai, many white people want to honestly ask their black compadres why black people don’t just get off their lazy arses and get jobs, many black people want to ask white people; why didn’t you stop apartheid? As we hear the news headlines of fresh lootings, as black people, xenophobia turns that question back to us and we catch a glimpse of the answer: It’s not my problem. I didn’t hurt anyone. But now we realize that we are perpetuating that very thing that we were angry at white people about – standing and watching while our people brutalized other human beings.
But having on the receiving end of brutality, as black people we cannot simply dismiss our implicit part in xenophobia the same way many white people dismiss their implicit part in apartheid. We know that it is our problem. We know that white people could have done more about apartheid as much as we know we can do more about xenophobia. I didn’t burn anyone and I’ve never had petrol poured on me but at my very core, I am both these people. I know that this is the economics of frustration. I know that Mohamed came to my country and opened a spaza in my hood and made money while I can’t provide for my family. From his spaza, I could buy a loaf of bread, a small tin of Glenryck and R5 airtime all for R20. But he is benefiting from money that I had to borrow so he must leave. After I burn his spaza, I need R10 to get on a taxi to town to buy bread, fish and no airtime all for R30 then another R10 back home. Now my neighbour is breathing down my neck for R50 that I owe him.
There’s irony in that all the answers we seek for the devastating state of affairs are all in our history. We’ve been here before. We are like a woman who has come out of a decade’s long abusive marriage. The most painful part of our story right now is that we thought we were in the process of healing. We are not. Leaving an abusive relationship does not mean that you are ok. As a country, we still have to go through the stages of grief, the stage is called Depression.
Writer & Illustrator: Vus Ngxande