“Bob Marley said how long shall they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look. Little did he know that eventually the enemy would stand aside and look as we slaughter our own brothers”
– Lucky Dube
The letters came within two days of each other. The first was an invitation from Professor Georges Hérault, Director of the French Institute of South Africa (IFAS). Three years after my last visit to South Africa to assess the perception of Francophone African literatures in that country’s Universities, IFAS was again inviting me as visiting scholar. The second was from Chris Dunton, the well-known British Professor of African literatures who is now Chair of the English Department of the National University of Lesotho at Roma. Like Hérault, Dunton was inviting me to Lesotho as visiting scholar to present a Faculty of Arts Guest Lecture. I arranged a few other engagements and braced up for a very engaging psychic reconnection with the African continent.
I needed the return to Africa badly. I had been away from that continent for an uncomfortable stretch, carrying out my scholarly labor in the minefield of North American academe, writing Africa “from a rift”, as Achille Mbembe would put it. I also needed the trip for other reasons. I needed a reprieve from the oppression of the image: the North American media image of Africa. The African living here is in constant danger of accepting whatever image of Africa s/he is presented by the media as gospel truth. In North America, I have been consistently assailed, assaulted, and oppressed with images of Africa traceable to the colonial library: Africa-as-AIDS, Africa-as-hunger, Africa-as-civil war, Africa-as-corruption, Africa-as-the-antithesis-of-democracy, Africa-as-everything-we-are-glad-not-to-be. You get tired of the ritual of explaining to charmingly ignorant interlocutors that there is a fundamental distinction between the Africa they see on CNN and the real Africa.
I also wanted a break from Occidentalism. Fernando Coronil, the scholar who coined this term takes great pains to explain that it is not the reverse of Edward Said’s Orientalism. Coronil uses the newer concept to account for those discursive, usually innocuous processes through which the West turns difference into hierarchy and reproduces existing asymmetrical power relations. Occidentalism covers all the mundane quotidian events through which the West constantly reminds the immigrant of his otherness, strangeness, and difference:
“Oh, I love your accent. It’s awesome. Where is that from?”
“Nigeria? You mean Nicaragua?”
This often-repeated, seemingly innocent “compliment” is usually the beginning of encounters that inevitably remind the immigrant that he does not belong. Departure date finally came around. “Be careful. Urban violence is rife in South Africa”, the Nigerian friends who drove me to the airport warned. I shrugged and dismissed their anxiety. There may be violence in South Africa; I certainly was not going to be scared of returning to Africa. I wasn’t going to be afraid of Black people in Africa. I arrived Johannesburg on a cold winter morning. A delighted Georges Hérault was on hand at the airport to welcome me. We drove straight to the offices of IFAS located in the downtown area of Johannesburg. After signing my research contract papers and meeting some of the new members of the IFAS Research team, I announced to Hérault that I was going to take a stroll in the busy streets around IFAS. I was eager to get a feel of the same streets I had seen two years earlier. Hérault’s countenance changed. “Be careful. Don’t go out there with your wallet. You could get mugged.” I assured Hérault I would be all right but took the precaution of leaving my valuables in his office.
I started my walk, my reconnection with African soil, on the busy Bree street. For someone who had walked the same street three years earlier, I could not help but observe the heavy Black presence. Like the Hillbrow area, Blacks have taken over downtown Johannesburg. The official principle of separate development through which racial segregation was enforced under Apartheid seems to have been replaced by what one may call an unofficial principle of voluntary separation. While separate development instituted an order in which Blacks had to move out whenever Whites moved in, as was the case in Sophiatown, voluntary separation now induces Whites to move out quietly whenever and wherever Blacks move in. Downtown Johannesburg is a vivid example of a space in which this new South African drama is being played out. This space, which was still predominantly white during my earlier visit, has been taken over by Blacks. In large office complexes and shopping malls, one does not fail to notice the ubiquitous “To Let” signs, evidence of white retreat to other “safe” areas of the city like Rosebank or back “home” to Britain, Holland, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
I stopped for a light lunch at a KFC outlet, my mind busy taking in the new realities. I finished my lunch and went back into the street. I was about to cross a busy intersection when a street sign told me I was on Fox street. Fox street! I had heard a lot of terrifying things about that street since my last trip to South Africa. It is said to be one of the most violent streets in Johannesburg. One could get mugged or killed for as little as a hundred South African rands. I looked around me anxiously. I was surrounded by a sea of inscrutable Black faces. I touched my forehead and found out, much to my irritation, that I was perspiring profusely. It was winter in South Africa! And to my utter embarrassment, I discovered that I relaxed and felt safer each time white faces appeared in the crowd. Here was I, a Black man, looking anxiously for white faces to feel safe from Black violence in an African city! And to think that back in Canada, I had dismissed insinuations that I could be scared of “Black violence” in South Africa! I reluctantly came to the realization that I was far more affected by the oppression of the image than I had been willing to admit. The image of the post-apartheid Black condition in South Africa is constantly constructed in the Western media around the problem of violence. Such stereotypical and prejudicial narrativizations of Black South Africa always have two constantly-repeated, over-sensationalized buzzwords: mugging, robbery. That image had quietly slipped into my subconscious and was responsible for my feeling so uneasy amidst my own kind in a busy street in Johannesburg. I hurried back to IFAS.
On hearing that I had arrived in Johannesburg, Professor Harry Garuba came from his base in the University of Cape Town to spend a weekend with me. As Harry and I hadn’t seen each other since 1996, we had a riotously joyful reunion. The following day, we hit town. Harry wanted to see downtown Johannesburg. He also needed to go to the Consulate-General of Nigeria in Rosebank. As we meandered our way through the ever busy Bree street, Harry could not help observing how filthy downtown Johannesburg had become. I had made the same disturbing observation myself the day I arrived but had been reluctant to accept the disturbing fact that decay of public infrastructure seems to be the story in areas of the city inhabited by Blacks. Predominantly Black areas have become an eyesore. The beautiful lawns and flowerbeds I noticed in some areas three years earlier now tell sad stories of degradation. Some of them have become open-air urinals. Harry and I were worried. We tried to place ourselves in the shoes of White South Africans discussing the now filthy streets of Hillbrow and downtown Johannesburg. What would be going on in their minds? Probably something like: “Ah, the good old days of Apartheid!”
When Harry concluded his business at the Nigerian consulate, we took a bus and headed back to Georges Hérault’s residence. I still don’t know what it was about us that gave us away as foreigners but the other passengers, all Blacks, lapsed into an uneasy silence as soon as we entered. I looked at the faces around us and thought I saw hostility. The tension was so thick in the air you could cut it with a knife. Harry confirmed my worst fears when we left the bus. I had just experienced, firsthand, South African xenophobia and I was to experience it again and again throughout my three-month sojourn in that country. Harry explained to me – with the coolness of someone used to it – that the Black South African passengers on the bus had identified us as makwerekwere, hence the naked hostility. Makwerekwere is the derogatory term used by Black South Africans to describe non-South African blacks. It reminds one of how the ancient Greeks referred to foreigners whose language they did not understand as the Barbaroi. To the Black South African, makwerekwere refers to Black immigrants from the rest of Africa, especially Nigerians. I was confounded by the fact that Black South Africa had begun to manufacture its own kaffirs so soon after apartheid.
As I later discovered after a series of encounters, Black South Africans have found an easy explanation for the myriad problems of poverty, housing, transportation, unemployment, crime, violence, decay of public and social infrastructure. “Ah, the makwerekwere! These Nigerians are all criminals! When they are not busy trafficking drugs, they are taking over our jobs, our houses and, worse, our women. All foreigners must leave this country!” What Salman Rushdie refers to as a “demonizing process” of the Other is at work here and the consequences are predictably disastrous. There is so much anger and frustration among the Nigerians I met in South Africa. Most of them have become paranoid, living permanently in fear. In a discussion with some Nigerian medical doctors in Pretoria, I observed that their anger is directed more at Black South African leaders. “Imagine these South Africans treating us like this. They think Apartheid came to an end because they fought in Sharpeville and Soweto. It means Mandela never told them the truth. Mbeki never told them the truth.”
The doctors were referring to Nigeria’s heavy moral, political, and financial investment in the anti-Apartheid struggle. Nigeria’s financial and political commitment to that cause was total and unflinching. In the 1970s-80s, the South African freedom struggle was completely woven into Nigeria’s national imaginary, so much so that a Nigerian leader, Olusegun Obasanjo, suggested we mobilized “African juju” and other maraboutic forces of African sorcery to attack Pieter Botha and free our black brothers in South Africa. And he wasn’t joking. Every Nigerian musician, from reggae singers to fuji musicians in the Yoruba tradition, waxed radical anti-Apartheid lyrics to energize the 1970s – 1980s. “Who owns the land, who owns the land? We want to know who owns Papa’s land”, crooned Sonny Okosuns. Majek Fashek, the reggae man replied: “Now, now, now, Margaret Thatcher, free Mandela”! Victor Eshiet of The Mandators screamed: “Truth is our right, Jah is our might, we must free South Africa”.
Everywhere you turned in the Nigeria of those heady decades, freedom for Black South Africans was the dominant national agenda. Black South Africans, including President Thabo Mbeki and Ezekiel Mpahlele, found warmth, hospitality, and friendship during their years of exile in Nigeria. Many of Black South Africans attended Nigerian Universities on Nigerian scholarships. When it became clear that South African whites, like their European and American kinsmen, were determined to make peaceful change impossible and make violent change inevitable, Nigerians donated money to the armed struggle. Personally, I recall donating money during special anti-Apartheid fundraisers as a high school student in Nigeria. In view of this, the Nigerians I met in South Africa had only two words to describe the attitude of Black South Africans to them: collective amnesia.
Prejudice has been the force majeure of so much of human history. Our pantheon of small-minded hate is formidable: Christian prejudice manufactured the unbeliever; Islamic prejudice manufactured the infidel; heterosexual prejudice manufactured the faggot; patriarchal prejudice manufactured the hysteric; European prejudice manufactured the native; American prejudice manufactured the nigger; German prejudice manufactured the Jew; Israeli prejudice manufactured the Araboushim; Afrikaner prejudice manufactured the kaffir. Not to be outdone, Black South Africa has manufactured the makwerekwere as her unique post-Apartheid contribution to this gory pantheon. The joy of your instant-mix coffee (Nescafé) or your instant-mix powdered milk is the considerable labor and hassle it saves you. Just pour water, add sugar to taste, and your drink is ready. The makwerekwere is Black South Africa’s instant-mix kaffir, very easily produced with minimum labor.
* Previously published by The Cape Town Argus and Pambazuka News