I have quite deliberately avoided writing about the outbreaks in violence in South Africa. They call it by a rather disgusting euphemism, “xenophobia.” It becomes this all-encompassing bit of code that includes everything from ethnic hatred to petty crime to murder. I don’t understand why they always seem to find these buzz words that hide meaning instead of calling the individual act what it is. So instead of writing or saying that “10 people are dead, murdered by marauding gangs bent on robbing people on the pretense of ethnic tensions,” they say “there were 10 victims of xenophobia last night near Cape Town.”
I joke about the fact that I’m a foreigner here. I grabbed a taxi at the airport to get to the guest house where I’m staying in the east rand, just north of the airport. I began asking the driver what had happened while I was gone for those five days in Namibia. I tell him I heard that “foreign devils like me” have something to worry about. The driver laughs, and tells me it’s is calmed down a bit, thanks to the police action.” To really understand what he meant, you must read between the lines: the police cracked down and a number of people have been killed, wounded and arrested. The driver isn’t sure how many.
That’s the pathology of violence here. It began during the 70’s and 80’s, with the student riots, and then the third force and the hostels, necklacing, and more. It’s become a feature of the society here. It is an unwanted but daily occurence. This is reality.
People try to explain why the outbreaks of violence, and why at this time. They talk about desperate people willing to work for much lower than the unionized SA workers, jobbers and companies willing to hire these desperate foreigners and undercut the unions and their collective agreements, the fact that this Somali family has a house while this Xhosa one is on an 8-year waiting list for one, the TV’s and radios that the Ethiopian folks have, the gangs run by the Nigerians, the dope trade pinned on the Zimbabweans, and so on. Of course, all of the above have long been fixtures in South African society too.
We arrive at the guest house, my taxi driver and I. We land in the midst of a mini-refugee camp. There are 28 Malawians sitting in chairs, watching TV, hovering around the rooms. There is one white woman on the phone, desperately trying to arrange safe passage for them across the borders and back to Malawi. It’s a nightmare because of the situation here in South Africa, which is cracking down at its borders, the situation in Zimbabwe, which is a nightmare at the best of times and the crackdown on its borders, similar freezes at the borders of Swaziland and Mozamibique. Who has the money to buy all these folks air tickets so they can jump over this awful mess?
“They can’t stay here forever,” says one white guy in a lawn chair. “I mean, there is a limit to what we can give them.” It’s the truth. It’s also bloody cruel reality. But it comes across as mean and, well, xenophobic. I refuse to use the word “racist” because the question is: What can be done to help – realistically?
Meanwhile, as I write this, four children play on the grass lawn outside the window. They’re singing, holding hands, falling down. I don’t know the game. The big german shepherd, a guard dog, plays fetch with another child. I hope things turn out alright for them.