The Institutionalisation of Xenophobia

I really wasn’t going to say anything about the most recent xenophobic attacks and anti-foreigner marches taking place in South Africa. But, my palms were itching. I am no journalist or political activist of sorts. I am a human being. One with an opinion and a platform to share this.

My initial thought to not get involved was not due to apathy as some might think. No. The thing is, we keep coming to this point over and over again. Every couple of months, there is an outcry against blatant xenophobic attacks where foreign nationals in South Africa are displaced, undergo irrational and inhumane treatment from their fellow African brothers because “they do not belong”.

There have been many hashtags, Tweets, Facebook posts, blogs, articles and the like speaking out against this. Which is all great. But why do we keep coming back to this same place?

Janine Jellars put it so aptly in a string of Tweets where she spoke about this xenophobia, or more precisely, Afrophobia.

She is so accurate about this. These macro and microaggressions seem to only target Africans with a higher dose of melanin as compared to foreign nationals of a fairer skin tone. This is aptly termed ‘Afrophobia’ which “refers to a range of negative attitudes and feelings towards black people or people of African descent around the world” according to the RED Network. This is most certainly the case for many black Africans. We feel it. It is inescapable.

In a conversation with my South African friend who’d messaged to find out how my sister in Johannesburg is doing while I’m on a break back home in Zimbabwe, I couldn’t help but spew all my thoughts about this matter to her.

You see, xenophobia runs deeper than those who are rioting and attacking foreign nationals in Mamelodi or Soshanguve. Yes, what they are doing is unacceptable, but the world needs to understand that they are not the only problem.

How many years have these attacks been going on for? Someone documents the attacks, there is public outcry against it and then things hush for a bit – life goes back to normal, it seems. Afrophobia is removed from the spotlight for a little bit. But the truth is, for foreign nationals like myself, it never really ends. Everyday for some, most days for others, you are reminded that you do not belong. Especially because of the colour of your skin and the country you hail from.

This deep dislike of foreigners has also been institutionalised. In being institutionalised, how exactly do we then expect the average man to understand that Afrophobia is not alright?

My brother was accepted into the LLB course at one of the leading universities in South Africa. A few days into the new year, he was invited into the Dean’s office. It was here that he was advised that the university had been given a quota  to adhere to in which a certain number of South African nationals had to be accepted into the LLB course. As a result, he (a foreigner) no longer had a place and was shifted onto another course. What does this signify? Even university admission is no longer a meritocracy, it’s a numbers’ game rooted in institutionalised Afrophobia.

In the working world, I don’t want to tell you how suffocating it can be. Trying to work legally in South Africa has been made nearly impossible, an expensive exercise which leaves many foreigners, myself included, feeling helpless. At the same time, Home Affairs cracks down harshly on undocumented workers. But more people would pursue legal, documented work if there was a fighting chance for that, but can’t afford to do so from a time, cost and productivity perspective. As a result, most resort to bribery or living life on the run.

The argument here is the high levels of unemployment in South Africa and the South African government wanting to look after its own. I used to think that was fair enough. But I still do not feel it warrants the marginalisation and gross ill-treatment of other Africans.

As you can see, it’s not just about the man on the street who is marching against foreign nationals. No. It’s a whole system that’s at play. And one wonders if there will ever be any winning. At the rate we’re going, I highly doubt it.

And I know that I am one of the lucky ones. The ones with a decent job who is not forced to live below the minimum wage just to survive. But don’t get me wrong,  I will never forget being asked by South African counterparts “why don’t you go back home and fix your country?” I am aware of the high price we pay as foreigners to try get a car loan or bond on a house, if at all we can afford it. I am acutely aware of being spoken down to because you can’t understand a local language. I know all too deeply how it feels to not belong. I never forget that I have to work twice/thrice as hard to be relevant and indispensable at what I do. And the way things are going, I know that even that will no longer be enough.

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