How language fuels xenophobia in South Africa

Language matters: words have the power to shape reality and views. In a country currently in the throws of an outpouring of xenophobic sentiment PONTSHO PILANE looks at the everyday words that South Africans use to speak about — and disparage — foreign Africans living within our borders.

Asylum seeker and refugee
According to the Department of Home Affairs, a refugee is “a person who has been granted asylum status and protection in terms of the section 24 of Refugee Act No 130 of 1998”. An asylum seeker, on the other hand, is “a person who has fled his or her country of origin and is seeking recognition and protection as a refugee in the Republic of South Africa, and whose application is still under consideration”.

While these official words carry no prejudice, they are seldom the ones used to describe the majority of the immigrants in South Africa in normal conversation. Instead, many local terms have been adopted to describe immigrants, specifically those from other parts of Africa and sub-continental Asia.

South African author Richard Nixon, writing in 2001, describes “makwerekwere” as a derogatory neologism for “foreigners”. As Nixon points out in his text, the makwerekwere aren’t just any people who are not South African they are specifically African immigrants, and they have been singled out for ridicule and abuse by many black South Africans.

“The word is supposedly onomatopoeic. The Greeks dubbed foreigners ‘barbarians’ because, to Greek ears, they brayed ‘bar, bar’ in unintelligible tongues; South Africans claim to hear ‘kwere, kwere’ when [African] immigrants open their mouths,” writes Nixon.

The word Shangaan originates from Soshangana, a general who was sent by King Shaka Zulu to conquer the VaTsonga in Sofala what is now referred to as Mozambique. VaTsonga people are found in many parts of southern Africa, including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and Swaziland. In South Africa, the use of the word Shangaan instead of VaTsonga is to put emphasis on their possible foreignness a usage that has now made the word derogatory.

This was evident when Economic Freedom Fighters MP Primrose Sonti referred to foreigners as Shangaans during the state of the nation debate earlier this year. Sonti, referring to foreign nationals living in Marikana, said that the toilets built by government for the people of Marikana, were ‘being sold to the Shangaans by ANC members’.

Although this word is not known to many, it is common among some people. In Godfrey Mwakikagile’s book, South Africa and Its People, the writer says what makes the word magrigamba demeaning is the prefixes used. Igrigamba, the singular form of the word, uses the prefix I- and the plural Ma-, which are predominantly used to describe things, not humans.

Similarly, in the Setswana language, where this word is commonly used, the singular form of the word, legrigamba, and the plural, magrigamba, also refer to inhuman things. “It has the undertones which speak of how black Africans are believed to be sub-human,” Mwakikagile writes.

Amazeze is the isiZulu word for bloodsucking lice or fleas. It is this word that King Goodwill Zwelithini used in reference to foreigners, the implication being that foreigners are leeching off South Africans and, therefore, should be driven out, attacked or killed in the same way you would a flea.

Featured image via @LeadSA on Twitter.