“Siyasokola la (We are suffering here),” mourners shouted at the Zimbabwean ambassador to South Africa, David Hamadzipiri, as he stood on stage at the Hillbrow Theatre in Johannesburg. He seemed astonished by the hostility shown towards him by the hundreds of people who had gathered to mourn the death of Mbodazwe Banajo “Elvis” Nyathi, 43, a Zimbabwean migrant who had been killed by a mob in Diepsloot on 6 April.
Alongside Hamadzipiri at the memorial service were speakers representing the National Interfaith Council of South Africa and Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia, a coalition of organisations that campaign against xenophobia. Members of the EFF and the General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (Giwusa) were also present.
Nyathi was brutally beaten and burnt to death by a group of about 30 people who went around Diepsloot asking migrants to provide proof of their documents that permit them to be in South Africa legally. The father of four children in Zimbabwe fled, but he was chased down and beaten in front of his wife Nomsa Tshuma, 38.
At the service held on 14 April, Tshuma sat wrapped in a blue blanket, crying at the sight of her husband’s coffin, which was a few feet away from her on stage. She looked defeated.
“As you can see Elvis’ wife is bereaved,” said Nyathi’s cousin Mphathisi Ndlovu. “She has been eating, drinking and sleeping with tears and grief ever since that day, but we hand that over to God. As a family we have chosen to forgive because we don’t believe in hatred. We believe in living in harmony. That is how we were raised as abantu (people).
“Elvis was a man of peace, just a simple guy who lived a simple life, believing in working hard to provide for his family. We are sad that he was killed because they thought he was a criminal. That hurts us more than anything. He was a gardener.”
Ndlovu added, “We also don’t want to paint all South Africans or people from Diepsloot with the same brush. The blame is solely on those who killed him. We can’t say it was the whole nation.”
Ndlovu thanked the mourners for their support and attendance as well as those from around the world who had sent messages of encouragement.
Blaming the regime
What was apparent during the memorial service is that Zimbabweans are frustrated by the xenophobic sentiment and violence against them in South Africa, but their real fury is aimed at the Zimbabwean government. While the proceedings were peaceful, sad and sometimes joyful as people remembered Nyathi and sang gospel and struggle songs, people expressed anger when the Zimbabwean flag was waved around. When a speaker told them to vote for change in the next Zimbabwean election, there were murmurs of “What good will it do”, “They don’t care about us” and “Things will never change”.
Dumisani Muleya, a member of Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia, echoed the mourners’ sentiments. “And to the Zimbabwean government, don’t act all holy now that we are dead. We are in this country because of that government – we are running away from them. We are warning them: one day the sun will set for that government,” he said to the crowd, who roared in agreement.
When Hamadzipiri went on stage and leaned forward into the microphone, the mourners sang “What you’re doing is not right, we hate what you’re doing”, which is when the ambassador took the hint and left the stage along with his team of officials.
One of the mourners, Sharon Sibanda, 36, said she didn’t want Hamadzipiri to speak because it was too late now and she felt he was there “just for show”. “When Operation Dudula was starting out he had a chance to speak to officials in South Africa and intervene, but he didn’t,” said Sibanda. “When Elvis died he was quiet until other movements spoke out. He should have been the first to say something and do something, but he doesn’t care about Zimbabweans. He does nothing for us, so he shouldn’t show up here and act like he cares.”
Another mourner, Ringo Dube, 56, was equally dismissive of Hamadzipiri. “This ambassador is so passive I don’t even know his name. The one I know is Simon Khaya-Moyo. After that I never heard of any action from this guy,” he said, referring to the late politician who was ambassador to South Africa from 2007 until 2011.
Giwusa president Mametlwe Sebei said Nyathi’s murder marked a low point for South Africa. “Why is it that being a migrant from Zimbabwe or Nigeria has become a reason for being ostracised? The truth is we have entered a period of crisis politically, economically, and the social fabric is beginning to tear apart.”
Sebei explained the long history of migration in Africa and people working alongside each other, calling for unity and action against xenophobia. “We have got to unite and reclaim the streets of South Africa against hatred, against xenophobia and against fear,” he said.
Naledi Sikhakhane is the 2022 Eugene Saldanha Fellow in social justice journalism.
Correction, 24 May 2022: The Eugene Saldanha Memorial fellowship is supported by the SET. It was incorrectly referred to as a fund.