Writers grapple with xenophobia: “Be dark and be from Malawi – then you have a problem”

The xenophobic attacks that have gripped the country these past few weeks did not come out of nowhere – anti-foreigner sentiment has been brewing on South African soil for years. Last month*, African authors at the Time of the Writer festival in Durban shared their thoughts on the roots of the violence with THERESA MALLINSON.

Thando_Mgqolozana [Time of the writer]Thando Mgqolozana, writer, Cape Town
I don’t want to sound like someone who’s blaming apartheid, (but) it comes from there. It comes from a situation where South Africans were cut out from the continent. Those who went into exile, had communities there, so they knew the continent; they knew other people on the continent. But those who were here didn’t – they were cut out for many years. The idea was that those [people in other African countries] are foreigners and foreign to us is a black face. The same doesn’t apply to someone who comes from Italy: they are not immigrants; they are not foreigners – they are expats. It comes from a systematic erosion of self-confidence of black people. So they don’t see themselves the same as Zimbabweans, Malawians, Ethiopians, Mozambicans and so on. Before colonial and apartheid times, they descended from there – they come from these people. That interruption with those colonising parties led to a change of perception and understanding of who they are. It really has to do with mental understanding – if they understood those people to be of their own neighbours, they wouldn’t do that [xenophobic attacks]; they would be in solidarity. It’s mad, it’s crazy – it makes absolutely no sense to me.

Futhi_Ntshingila [Time of the Writer]Futhi Ntshingila, writer, Pretoria
It really gets me very, very embarrassed, because before studying I went overseas for a year. Okay, you will get some places where you felt uncomfortable, and you felt you’re not at home. But in some places people were welcoming you – they were curious about your country; it felt good. I really think it’s important for us to have that curiosity about people – in a nice way, not in a way of saying: “Why are you here?” I think what bugs me the most is that this thing is connected to the colour of the skin, because you wouldn’t get some person from England being persecuted because they’re English and they’re here. No one is asking them, “What are you doing here?” But be dark and be from Malawi – then you have a problem. It’s something that makes me very unhappy and ashamed.

Given_Mukwevho [Time of the Writer]Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho, writer, Limpopo
In most cases, the xenophobic attacks are caused by a lack of opportunities, such as work – mainly work, in fact – in South Africa. South Africans normally have a feeling that if I do not have work and I’m hungry and I’m home with my five kids there and two wives, and there’s someone from Somalia or outside South Africa that owns a business and that business is so successful, then that person is the cause of my problem, because I would’ve been owning the spaza shop myself. But the foreign person, the business person, worked very hard to establish that shop. It’s a social issue, but it doesn’t mean they should attack those people.

Dilman_Dila [time of the writer]Dilman Dila, writer and filmmaker, Uganda
I think at some point as a writer I try to rationalise things. I wouldn’t say somebody is racist because he wants to be racist, I would say somebody is racist because of the institutions or the environment. Even with the xenophobia: these are ordinary people – they probably even have friends from other countries. They’re pushed by economics. You see a foreigner with a good job, you see their children in a good school, you begin to question your government: why are you allowing in foreigners who take our jobs? I met this Nigerian guy who was operating a tuk-tuk, he was like: “South Africans are bad people. They are not good.” He has lived here from 2001 – he has to make money. Every cent he makes he sends back to Nigeria, because he lives in constant fear. Uganda at one time hosted ANC forces. Tanzania did; Angola did. There is a feeling in Africa that we contributed to the freedom in South Africa. If you have a good economy and someone can come here to make a good living, why do you stop them? It’s sad that some politicians are making xenophobic statements. They forget the kind of support that other African countries gave the ANC.

Editor’s note: These interviews where conducted before the most recent outbreak of xenophobic attacks in Durban. 

– Voxes have been edited for brevity and clarity.
– All images supplied: by the UKZN Centre for Creative Arts/Time of the Writer.