As I approached Joburg’s Park Station nearly three weeks ago, I became nervous after seeing a large police contingent at the entrance.
I was on my way to attend Glasgow’s Aye Write! Literary Festival. I had seen enough of the recent horrific images of fellow Africans being burnt alive, knifed, hacked with machetes and hit with blunt objects during the despicable xenophobia plague.
Joburg’s air had become difficult to breathe – filled with distrust, discontent and suspicion.
After buying a packet of biltong at a kiosk, I pulled on my bag and stopped at the escalators to look at the clock on the wall. It was just after 4pm and the next train to Hatfield Station in Pretoria was departing in 12 minutes. My plane was only departing well after 7pm, but I wanted to be at the airport early to have time to change my rands into pounds.
As I was about to take the escalator to buy the train ticket, I was surrounded by six policemen who demanded I open my bag for them. One asked to see my ID, while the other two started to take my clothes out of my bag. My underwear, biltong and shoes were put on the floor, and everyone passing by had a look. I said nothing. I was afraid they might make me miss my flight.
But fear struck when I heard the voice of a plump-bellied policeman asking if I was indeed a South African.
“Are you sure you’re not Malawian, Mozambican or Zimbabwean?” he asked in English.
“No. I’m South African, from Soweto,” I replied in isiZulu mixed with Tsotsitaal. Looking unconvinced, they scrutinised my passport photo and stared at me without blinking. “Are you sure? Which part of Soweto are you from?”
Before I could answer, another policeman fired questions from all sides.
“Are you going home? Where in Africa are you from? Where did you get the passport? Did you buy it? Are you flying back to your home, or taking a bus? How long does it take to fly to your home? Which airline are you using? May I see your ticket? Where is your South African permit? Can you prove to us you’re indeed a South African?”
He was not interested in my answers. All he wanted was to judge me by the authenticity of my accent. This went on for about 10 minutes.
I missed the train as I was packing my clothes back into my bag. The next one would leave in 15 long minutes.
Later, I started to reflect on the serious hunt for so-called foreigners and illegal immigrants in South Africa. This madness now affects everyone, but especially black people.
I was reminded of influx control and the humiliations under apartheid pass laws. Prior to this incident, I had also been stopped three times by the police in Johannesburg on my way to do my research at Wits University’s library, and each time was asked to produce my ID.
I guess the only reason I manage to pass the ridiculous and forced “South African tests” is that I’m multilingual. I can speak six of the 11 official languages. But my problem, I guess, is that I’m dark in complexion.
Unfortunately, to be an African in South Africa is a curse. It means you are an outsider. The minds of some South Africans, especially xenophobic ones, work in binaries of “us and them”, “insider and outsider”, “South African and African”, “employed and unemployed”, “her and him”, “white and black”.
The “them, Africans, amakwerekwere, outsiders” are, according to our stereotypes, blacker than “us South Africans”. The Shangaan people in particular are the butt of cultural stereotypes and prejudices. They are seen as people without a sense of dress code or colour coordination. Anyone seen wearing red socks, green trousers and a yellow shirt, for example, is called Shangaan.
Some of the methods used to identify the “them” from “us” are deeply rooted in the degrading apartheid logic. During apartheid, the pencil test was used, but police now ask “suspects” to count from one to 10 in Afrikaans. In some cases, learning how to pronounce some isiZulu words, such as indololwane (elbow), may save you from a xenophobic attack.
I think most South Africans’ minds are still trapped within apartheid logic. There is a serious need for our re-education and a proper cleansing ceremony.
Even some educated South Africans still say they are “going to Africa” when flying to countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda or Kenya. More surprising is that a person from Lesotho, Swaziland and Botswana is exempt from being called a foreigner.
In his autobiography Africa My Music, Es’kia Mphahlele recalls the abundance of humanity and generosity of the African continent when he went into exile to escape the brutality of apartheid. He says “the people of Nigeria were generous, so the condition of being an outsider was not burdensome”.
I’m glad that some people here in South Africa are starting to talk about introducing history, geography and African literature as compulsory subjects in schools. I learnt to be a writer and to value being an African through the works of great African writers such as Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Camara Laye and Ferdinand Oyono.
Mhlongo is a journalist and novelist