The xenophobic attacks that have gripped the country these past few weeks did not come out of nowhere â€“ 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, writer, Cape Town
I donâ€™t want to sound like someone whoâ€™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 didnâ€™t â€“ 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 doesnâ€™t apply to someone who comes from Italy: they are not immigrants; they are not foreigners â€“ they are expats. It comes from a systematic erosion of self-confidence of black people. So they donâ€™t see themselves the same as Zimbabweans, Malawians, Ethiopians, Mozambicans and so on. Before colonial and apartheid times, they descended from there â€“ 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 â€“ if they understood those people to be of their own neighbours, they wouldnâ€™t do that [xenophobic attacks]; they would be in solidarity. It’s mad, itâ€™s crazy â€“ it makes absolutely no sense to me.
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 youâ€™re not at home. But in some places people were welcoming you â€“ they were curious about your country; it felt good. I really think itâ€™s important for us to have that curiosity about people â€“ in a nice way, not in a way of saying: â€œWhy are you here?â€ I think what bugs me the most is that this thing is connected to the colour of the skin, because you wouldnâ€™t get some person from England being persecuted because theyâ€™re English and theyâ€™re here. No one is asking them, â€œWhat are you doing here?â€ But be dark and be from Malawi â€“ then you have a problem. Itâ€™s something that makes me very unhappy and ashamed.
Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho, writer, Limpopo
In most cases, the xenophobic attacks are caused by a lack of opportunities, such as work â€“ mainly work, in fact â€“ in South Africa. South Africans normally have a feeling that if I do not have work and Iâ€™m hungry and Iâ€™m home with my five kids there and two wives, and thereâ€™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 wouldâ€™ve been owning the spaza shop myself. But the foreign person, the business person, worked very hard to establish that shop. Itâ€™s a social issue, but it doesnâ€™t mean they should attack those people.
Dilman Dila, writer and filmmaker, Uganda
I think at some point as a writer I try to rationalise things. I wouldnâ€™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 â€“ they probably even have friends from other countries. Theyâ€™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: â€œSouth Africans are bad people. They are not good.â€ He has lived here from 2001 â€“ 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? Itâ€™s sad that some politicians are making xenophobic statements. They forget the kind of support that other African countries gave the ANC.
Editorâ€™s note: These interviews where conducted before the most recent outbreak of xenophobic attacks in Durban.Â