No African is a foreigner in Africa

[BR]OTHER by photojournalists James Oatway and Alon Skuy documents the evolution of xenophobia in South Africa since the violence in 2008.

This is a lightly edited article by Achille Mbembe that was first published in Africa is a Country and now features in [BR]OTHER (Jacana Media, 2020), a photographic book by James Oatway and Alon Skuy.

“Afrophobia”? “Xenophobia”? “Black-on-Black racism”? A “darker” as you can get is hacking a “foreigner” under the pretext that the latter is “too dark” – self-hate par excellence? Of course, all of that at once and much more!

Yesterday I asked a taxi driver: “Why do they need to kill ‘Blacks from elsewhere’ in this manner? Why do they need to set them on fire?” His response: “Because under apartheid, fire was the only weapon we Blacks had … With fire we could make petrol bombs and throw them at the enemy from a safe distance.

“Today there is no need for a safe distance between self and the new enemy. To kill ‘these foreigners’, we [the killers] need to be as close as possible to their body. We can then set in flames or dissect it, each blow opening a huge wound that can never be healed. Or if it is healed … it must leave … the kinds of scars that can never be erased.”

2008: A group armed with weapons on the outskirts of the Ramaphosa shack settlement in Ekurhuleni, shortly before they gave chase to several men who appeared to evade attack by hiding among nearby mine dumps.

I was here during the 2008 outbreak of violence against “foreigners” or, as we prefer to say these days, “foreign nationals”, by which we basically mean “Blacks from elsewhere”. Since then, the cancer has metastasised.

The current hunt for “foreigners” is the result of a complex chain of complicities. The South African government has recently taken a harsh stance on immigration. 

Anti-Blacks-from-elsewhere sentiments are not the preserve of the impoverished among us. They are widely shared through society and the state. New draconian measures have been passed into law, with devastating effects on people already here legally. Work permits not renewed. Visas refused to family members. Children in limbo in schools. A Kafkian situation that extends to “foreign” students or professionals from the rest of Africa who entered the country legally had their visas renewed all those years, but who now find themselves in a legal limbo. Through its new anti-immigration measures, the government is busy turning previously legal migrants into illegal ones.

2016: Chantal Nsunda was born in Angola but later lived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She moved to South Africa in 1997 and runs a successful dressmaking business.

Chains of complicity go further. South African big business is expanding across the continent, at times reproducing in those places the worse forms of racism that were tolerated here under apartheid. While big business is “de-nationalising” and “Africanising”, impoverished Black South Africa and sections of the middle class are being socialised into something we should call “national chauvinism”. National chauvinism is rearing its ugly head in almost every sector of South African society. Typical of national chauvinism is its permanent need of scapegoats. It starts with those who are not our kin, but very quickly turns “ethnic”, fratricidal.

2019: A crowd of hostel dwellers descends outside the Jeppe hostel in Johannesburg before trashing migrant-owned shops and stalls.

I was here during the last “hunting season”. The difference, this time, is the emergence of the rudiments of an “ideology”. We now have a discourse aimed at justifying the atrocities, the creeping pogroms. The discourse starts with the usual stereotypes – they are darker than us; they steal our jobs and our women; they dabble in crime; they do not respect us; they are used by whites who prefer to exploit them as a cheap labour reserve army rather than employing us. Furthermore, South Africa does not owe any moral debt to Africa. Evoke the years of exile? No, there were less than 30 000 South Africans in exile (I have no idea where this figure comes from) and they were scattered throughout Africa – four in Ghana, three in Ethiopia, a few in Zambia, and many more in Russia and Eastern Europe! So we will not be morally blackmailed by “those foreigners”. As any other power in the world of realpolitik, we should simply pursue our “national interests”.

2019: Traders survey the damage and looting of their shop in Malvern, Johannesburg, after an anti-migrant attack.

Well, let’s ask the difficult questions: Why is South Africa turning into a killing field for nonnational Africans – to whom we have to add the Bengalis, Pakistanis and who knows whom next? Why is this country so eager to turn into a “circle of death” for anybody “African”? When we say “South Africa”, what does “Africa” mean? An idea, or simply a geographical accident?

Should we be putting a price tag to everything that was sacrificed by Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and others during the liberation struggle? How much money did the Liberation Committee of the Organisation of African Unity provide to the South African liberation movements? Where did it come from? How many dollars did the Nigerian or Ethiopian states pay for South Africa’s struggle? If we were to put a price tag on the destruction meted out by the apartheid regime on the economy and infrastructure of the frontline states, what would this amount to? And shouldn’t we give the bill to the ANC government and ask the South African state to pay back what was spent on behalf of the Black oppressed in South Africa during those long years? Let’s indeed open the negotiations on reparations and compensation.

2008: A man fights the flames engulfing a shack in Ramaphosa, east of Johannesburg. Tens of thousands of people were displaced, more than 342 shops looted and 213 burned down in the weeks of violence that swept the country in May and June.

Wouldn’t we be entitled to add to these damages and losses the number of people killed by apartheid armies retaliating against our hosting South African combatants? The number of people maimed, the long chain of misery and destitution suffered in the name of our solidarity with South Africa? If Black South Africans do not want to hear about moral debt, maybe it is time to agree with them, give them the bill, and return to the good old days of isolation and boycott.

Of course we all see the absurdity of this logic of insularity that is turning this country into yet another killing field for Blacks in this world. We all see the absurdity of asking South Africa to carry, alone, the weight of our collective failures. Many impoverished Africans are here because they are running away from countries wracked by corruption and tyranny, brutality and disasters. It doesn’t make sense to ask South Africa to atone for our own self-inflicted wounds.

2019: The displaced Bila brothers from Mozambique wear T-shirts bearing the face of President Cyril Ramaphosa.

But it is right to forcefully demand that the government of South Africa protect those who are here legally. South Africa has signed most international conventions, including the convention establishing the International Penal Tribunal in The Hague. Some of the instigators of the hunt against foreigners are known. Some have been making public statements inciting hate. Is there any way we could bring them to account for their actions? Impunity breeds impunity – and atrocities. If these perpetrators cannot be brought to book by the South African state, isn’t it time to get a higher jurisdiction to deal with them?

Finally, one word about the people of this old continent and anyone else who is willing to tie his or her fate with the fate of Africa. No African is a foreigner in Africa! No African is a migrant in Africa! Africa is where we all belong, notwithstanding the absurdity of our official borders. No level of national chauvinism will erase this. No number of deportations will erase this. Instead of spilling Black blood on the streets of South Africa, we should all be making sure that we rebuild this continent and bring to an end a long and painful history – that which, for too long, has dictated that to be Black is a liability.

2019: A group of angry South Africans taunt a man they say is a migrant near Maboneng in Johannesburg.

Disclaimer: James Oatway is a regular contributor to New Frame.

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