Wits international student speaks about “basically living on campus” during xenophobic attacks

Lucinda Kwakembe, 21, an international student at Wits University who hails from Burundi, is living in fear following the recent xenophobic attacks. She spoke to AAISHA DADI PATEL about how the situation has affected her life.

I live in a cottage on the brink of Jeppestown in Johannesburg. When this most recent wave of xenophobia started, there were some attacks that took place on the street where I live. I was really scared by this. One night, I heard gunshots and got really scared. I packed some necessities and for a few days, I just roamed around on campus. At night, I would stay in computer labs or tutorial rooms and just do my work. Anywhere was safer than where I was calling home at that point.

After I had been basically living on campus for four days, I was sitting in one of the computer labs one day when I saw something that really disturbed me. The student next to me was on YouTube, and I noticed that he was watching videos of xenophobic attacks. After a couple of minutes, he called his friend to come over and watch the video with him. They were watching an Ethiopian man get beaten up. The guy’s friend could absolutely not stop laughing. They got to a point in the video where the man had a concrete slab dropped onto his head, and at this point they were laughing so much. It was ridiculous, and I was so disturbed by this.

This was the breaking point for me, to see this happening on campus, when they had been talking about support for international students and condemning xenophobia. At that point, I couldn’t handle it anymore. I just went straight to my mother, who stays in Pretoria. I missed campus for a week because of this, but safety was the most important thing.

In response to the xenophobia, the Students Representative Council (SRC) started a campaign which sought to assist international students with accommodation and transport if they lived off-campus and didn’t feel safe traveling using public transport or in the place where they lived. They sent out an email asking international students if they felt safe on campus. I responded to the email to ask them for help, and that same day, I went back home to my cottage in Jeppestown.

When I went back to my place, I was told that four bodies had been found on my street. I slept there for one night and thankfully one of the SRC members called me the next day to say that a room was available for me to use in a res on campus, so that my safety could be ensured. There was another girl who also got help like this through the SRC.

Things have cooled off in Jeppestown for now, and I’m not sure if anything will flare up again. I really don’t know if I can go back there. But the best thing that I can do is just leave early and return home early too, and use the Metrobus instead of taxis.

The current situation back home in Burundi is really hurtful and shameful. It’s hard to not be able to look at your country and call it home. The war, to me, is completely pointless. I feel that it’s gone beyond politics now and is instead just about cold-blooded murder.

So there’s violence here now, and there’s violence at home. It’s upsetting. It feels like you are not wanted anywhere you go. That sort of message messes with your psyche.

– As told to Aaisha Dadi Patel, featured image by Qiniso Mbili.