Coming back to Johannesburg after months of absence feels a little surreal. Not surreal as in dreamlike, but normal, yet simultaneously strange. The city and the people are pretty much the same, the multiple languages I’d hear on my daily commute are still spoken as loudly as before, but Johannesburg feels different. A nagging feeling of expectancy won’t go away, as though right there in the middle of some mundane chore, something’s going to happen to someone.
When I last left SA, the xenophobic attacks were ongoing. Then, Emmanuel Josias (aka Sithole), a Mozambican migrant, had just been brutally murdered in Jeppestown. Stories about violence towards immigrants – hyped, wild and sometimes true – moved at lightening speed from migrant house to migrant house.
On the Zimbabwe hotline, we heard that a group of South Africans had allegedly poured petrol on two Zimbabweans in Alexandra township. The assailants made them lie down as if to set them alight, but as they lay on the tarmac, a police car drove past and the attackers fled, or so we heard. The police stopped and helped the two men who later escaped from Alex to Randburg, where they could hide out with their relatives. I don’t know if the story’s true, but it’s hard to forget the Monday afternoon it made the rounds in our homes.
The steely tone of Mai Karen’s voice made my eyes water a little. It was a curse to be foreign, said my uncle’s housekeeper, but God had intervened. Naturally, her words were of little comfort to paranoid me. I wondered, where were they hiding? Were they safe? And, if it ever came to it, what would happen here?
Walking in the streets I’d hear a few West African men boasting to each other about their manly strength. Somehow they were the lions of the continent and the rest were no match for them.
I was glad I wasn’t the only one who felt a little crazy.
The familiar wailings of evangelist worshippers bring me back to the present. It’s a cold July evening and not much has changed since then. The double-storey building that serves as a church by night, and doubles as a computer shop by day, still stands. The faded stickers are still glued to the doors, beckoning, “Vote for Etienne Tshisekedi”, one of the main presidential candidates in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s 2011 polls. The Chinese and Bangladeshi shopkeepers continue pimping their cheap wares. And the familiar West Africans are as they were then, huddled on the street corner, bragging and dealing while black and white South Africans still go about their business.
And yet, I feel a little ashamed to confess I’m not at ease. I’m not even remotely close to the anti-foreigner hotspots, but it feels like it’ll take some time before I can trust Johannesburg again – not the people, but the city itself. This impressive, untamed metropolis scarred by apartheid’s sins of difference is no place for paranoid heathens and privileged pansies, like me.
Tendai Marima is freelance journalist and researcher. Follow her on Twitter.