The lived experience of xenophobia

A new book offers stories from various sides of South Africa’s scourge.

“Our neighbouring countries are taking advantage of the situation in South Africa. Their economies are struggling and they bring their unemployed or people who seek to survive to South Africa. It’s easy to go to South Africa illegally. In other countries you are asked to provide proof that you are able to maintain yourself over a period of time. They say in South Africa it takes R200 a day to survive and if you don’t have that, it’s hard for you.”

South African-born Kopano Lebelo, 55, was one of 13 people interviewed for a collection of stories titled I Want To Go Home Forever.

Lebelo’s story is not unique. He grew up during apartheid in a township near Pretoria before he was recruited by the ANC to recruit others into the struggle. He went into exile where he lived, studied and worked in various African countries and the United States, until his return to South Africa in 2001.

Despite his cosmopolitan experiences, he still holds the views and opinions echoed by many South Africans when it comes to the migration of other Africans to South Africa.

10 January 2018: Kopano Lebelo at his home in Rietvlei, Pretoria. (Photograph by Madelene Cronje)

Lebelo shares views often expressed by grass-roots leaders in South Africa, as well as established political leaders such as Cope’s president Mosiuoa Lekota, who was calling for refugees to be placed in camps earlier this year. Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba has also publicly blamed “illegal foreigners” for crime in the city.

What makes I Want To Go Home Forever so powerful, is that the stories are told in the words used by the interviewees. It is a window into lived experience, and actually existing views.

The media often makes the mistake of treating xenophobic outbreaks and xenophobic attacks as an unexpected and spontaneous event, when the exact opposite is true.

Xenophobic attacks are often covered by the mainstream media in the same way a traffic accident is reported, for example: “A number of foreign-owned stores were attacked and looted by an angry mob. Three people were arrested.”

I Want To Go Home Forever, edited by Loren B. Landau and Tanya Pampalone, records the stories of a range of people. From people like Lebelo, who shares views and opinions about migrants that have become widely popular in South Africa, and the rest of the world, to the heartbreaking story of Nombuyiselo Ntlane, whose 14-year-old son Siphiwe Mahori was shot and killed in Snake Park, Soweto, in 2015. Mahori’s death at the hands of Somali shopkeeper Sheik Yusuf sparked a series of xenophobic attacks.

Ntlane’s story captures the complexity and inextricably intertwined lives of South Africans and migrants. She and her husband are both unemployed, but rent out three shacks in their backyard to a South African family and two Mozambican families. They still buy goods from the shop where their son was killed, although it is now owned by different Somalis.

I Want To Go Home Forever not only looks at the complex lives of South Africans and how their lives intertwine with those of migrants, it shares a variety of stories of migrants now trying to live and rebuild their lives in South Africa.

Estifanos Worku Abeto, 72, is one such person. He fled Ethiopia in 2007 because of political conflict. He managed to open a shop in Tsakane, a township east of Johannesburg, with other Ethiopians, but three months after opening the shop, the worst outbreak of xenophobic violence reached him.

An extract of his story has already appeared in New Frame, in which he detailed the night of the attack:

“The attacks happened on 19 May 2008. The night before, the community people were warning us. They came to the shop and were dancing and singing, saying, ‘You foreigners, you must go back to your country! What are you doing here? This is our money! This isn’t your money!’ They were terrorising us. ‘You kwerekwere! We’ll show you!’”

12 January 2018: Estifanos Worku Abeto in All Things by Him restaurant near his flat in Yeoville. (Photograph by Madelene Cronje)

The book captures the stories of ordinary South Africans and migrants competing for the same opportunities in a country reeling from endemic unemployment, dwindling service delivery and crumbling state infrastructure. Having these 13 characters tell their own stories about “becoming and belonging” in South Africa and Johannesburg is a simple, yet effective means of storytelling, capturing the nuances of everyday ordinary people.

The physical and emotional scars that some of these characters bear is a reminder that xenophobic violence, often encouraged and incited by community and political leaders, impact real people and have serious consequences, sometimes talking lives and destroying livelihoods.

Despite these reminders, South Africa, like the rest of the world, is seeing an increase in right-wing approaches to immigration.

Grassroots activists and political parties are openly calling for attacks against migrant-owned shops in KwaZulu-Natal and government and opposition parties are taking an increasingly hardline approach to migration.

Legislation such as the Border Management Authority Act and the White Paper on International Migration are calling for stricter control of migrants and increased military presence at the borders, while the DA has made immigration one of its key campaign points.

I Want To Go Home Foreveris a compelling reminder that reactionary policies, electoral opportunism, and populist rhetoric by politicians, and other actors, have serious, lasting and often devastating consequences for ordinary people.

Read an edited extract from the book:

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.