Migrants in South Africa are often spoken of as if they inhabit a permanently separate realm from wider society. People with a legal right to live and work in South Africa are routinely described as ‘foreign nationals’ by politicians and journalists. People whose lives are entwined with those of people born in South Africa in various ways, including marriage, the languages they speak, where they live, and the work they do, are often spoken of as if they live in an entirely separate world.
New Frame spoke to three migrants making their lives in South Africa, and with other South Africans.
Sitting behind his sewing machine, clothing designer Solomon “Solly” Owa, 46, says he is all too familiar with people’s perceptions about him as a man of Nigerian descent.
Born in Delta State, Nigeria, Owa has lived in South Africa for almost 20 years. He’s married to a Zulu woman, with whom he has two children. He’s a naturalised South African citizen, a member of the ANC and an active participant at local community policing forum (CPF) meetings.
“Obviously [I’ve been a victim of xenophobia]. Like just last night [12 September] at a CPF meeting, the locals kind of have this perception that Nigerians sell and do drugs. But you can’t speak about all Nigerians like they’re drug dealers. There are doctors, designers, professors, artists, musicians … so you can’t do that,” he says.
“Crime is crime. There is no such thing as crime based on nationality. When you see a criminal, arrest them. It’s not Nigerians. It’s a criminal. That xenophobic attitude is still there.” Owa considers xenophobic attitudes endemic to South Africa.
“I am South African, my wife is South African and my children are South African, but people still look for problems. Integration is slow in this country. I believe my children are the future of integration,” he says, adding that he’s able to speak a bit of isiZulu and Setswana. “In Nigeria, when someone from Ghana comes, you help him first, you feed him first. But here? Here foreigners are burned just because they are different to you.”
In the small bedroom he shares with a close friend, 28-year-old Said Dalel leans back in his chair and confidently narrates some of his favourite Afrikaner history tales.
The Boer prophet Siener van Rensburg, the Boer wars and even the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck have ignited Dalel’s fascination with South African, particularly Afrikaner, history. He’s even trying to learn Afrikaans in his efforts to embrace and get to know the culture.
“I’m doing it because it will help with my work. All the workers, they understand Afrikaans. The bosses, they speak Afrikaans. If we understand each other, we will work better,” he says.
Originally from Mogadishu, Dalel left his native Somalia in 2006, fleeing the conflict and wanting to finish his schooling. He completed high school in Rwanda, but always had his sights set on coming to South Africa, where “the education is better”, to study civil engineering.
Dalel completed his degree at the University of Johannesburg, mostly keeping to himself and a small group of friends to “avoid the political fighting” on campus. After graduating, he found a job at a construction company, working at a site a few blocks from the three-bedroom flat he shared with seven other young Somali men in Mayfair, near the Johannesburg CBD.
Dalel’s boss, a middle-aged man named Jan, regularly invites him to family braais at his house near the Vaal River. “He’s my boss, but we’re also friends,” Dalel says. “He’s very good to me.”
Dalel says he has learned a lot from his boss, and wants to continue learning. “That is why I am here. I’m here to learn – with the civil engineering, but also with languages. It’s important to keep trying to fit in,” he says.
“There are many problems in South Africa … with the xenophobia, you know. So we have to try.” Although he’s never been a victim of xenophobia himself, Dalel is all too familiar with the impact it has on people. He has seen how Somali businessmen rush to save their stock whenever tensions flare up in the townships.
The latest incident came just last month, on 29 August, when community members in Soweto attacked migrant-owned stores. “South Africa is a multicultural country, but people don’t think so when there are problems,” says Dalel.
Supermarket owner Abdul, who was born in Bangladesh and moved to South Africa 20 years ago, lives with his South African wife in Soweto. “We don’t have any problems. What I can say is that the people of Soweto are peaceful. The people are fine, but there are obviously criminal people here. I have never had a problem with the community,” he says.
Abdul, who didn’t want to reveal his surname because of safety concerns, says he and his wife, who converted to Islam after they were married five years ago, are both able to operate successful businesses in Soweto without any harassment from the community.
“I’m trying very hard. But in South Africa, everything is very difficult. With xenophobia, we struggle with the papers. It is still in process and I am waiting, but nothing,” he says. “No one says anything about us being married. There’s no problems, no violence. No one is chasing us.”
Abdul says he loves South Africa and doesn’t intend moving back to Bangladesh. “I love my wife. I love this country. If I didn’t, I would have a wife in Bangladesh,” he says. “My wife has been to Bangladesh with me twice.”