Call Me Clever: Facing our middle class complicity in Afrophobia

By Thato Magano (@ThatoMagano)

After feeling a paralyzing and silencing sense of shame over the recent killings of foreign nationals in South Africa, Thato realises that his shame had to do with the how we as black middle class South Africans have responded to the attacks through the kind of non-perfomative clicktivist condemning campaigns such as #NotInMyName and #JeSuisAfricaine whilst being unable to examine our own complicity in perpetuating hatred towards our fellow Africans.

I don’t need to preface this article with an anecdote of a personal experience about the intimidation and killing of foreign nationals because it is happening right now. The experience is pungent. For the past three weeks, South Africa has bewildered the continent and the rest of the world’s imagination as they have witnessed some of the cruellest acts of violence that humanity has the capacity to subject unto itself given the right conditions.

But what has gotten me writing is a conversation I had with a friend who is a foreign national with South African citizenship and upper middle class distance to the CBD of Durban or previously, Alexandra in 2008. Our conversation snapped me out of my ‘shame’ and silence at what I considered our inappropriate response as middle class Black people and the non-performativity of the #JeSuisAfricaine or #NotInOurName social media campaign and the use of the limited construct of ‘xeno-phobia’ to describe the events unfolding in our country.

During our chat, my friend wondered if she was having an ‘apologist’ response to the systemic unravelling of violence in Durban and not wanting to be sanctimonious as the rest of middle class South Africa about accusing the perpetrators of this violence as being ‘xeno-phobic’. We explored how the issues of class, income, colour and history have intersected to create the perfect storm, as it were, for what we are now witnessing. We questioned whether the violence can be classified as xenophobic or does it need to be re-categorised with a focus on WHO the victims are and not on WHAT the act is.

As we chatted and we finally got to understanding why I’ve been feeling the shame I was carrying around, I realised it was for how we as black middle class South Africans have responded as the people who have the power to voice and name because that would mean that we could deal with the root of the issue. I told her that I am first and foremost opposed to the notion that this violence is ‘xeno-phobic’ is so far as the victims of this violence are black. I argued that it cannot be ‘xeno’ as the dictionary definition of the word references any foreigner or stranger. So I cannot accept the blanket use of the word because the victims of this violence in 2015, in 2013, and in 2008 and in our everyday lives, look like me and they live in the same communities that I grew up in, that I still have relatives in – they wear black skin.

It is the Pakistani, the Somali, the Nigerian and the Zimbabwean national that has come to this country to eke out a future that would not necessarily be realised if they were to remain in the countries of their birth due to various political and socio-economic realities. It is not the Chinese foreign nationals who are also running the small businesses in these very same townships. It is not the European foreign national that can be found in townships or villages in the expanse of the rural landscape of this country on a skills development or capacity building exchange programme. It is not the American foreign national that lives and works in Africa’s richest square kilometre and only ventures into Soweto as part of their weekend excursion for a real ‘township experience’. The construct ‘xeno-phobia’ is limited in the context of what Africans are doing to each other. In our laziness to use the right English word to define the symptoms, we conveniently leave out the fact that it is only Africans or blacks that are being intimidated and killed.

If we weren’t so quick to accept this limited construct of ‘xeno-phobia’ as the phenomena we are dealing with, we would take the time to unpack why the majority of South Africans feel disempowered in their own communities and the only way they can feel in control is through the violation of other human beings. We would talk about how class privilege has made the 6 million of us in the middle class bystanders. We would talk about how our history circumstance has created this future where we live in a country where we are at war with ourselves.

In our non-performative outrage aided by our class privilege, we accuse the perpetrators of being uneducated and uncivilised and we forgot how our history as South Africans, particularly the painful colonial part of that history that continues to seep through the most basic of conversations about foreign nationals and thus continues to dictate how we relate to each other. We have forgotten how, within the borders of this country, WE WERE TAUGHT to hate each other and to further hate those that look like us on the rest of the continent.

We forget that the perpetrators are the same parents, siblings and neighbours who in their everyday language, when talking to us, perpetuate this violence by calling foreign nationals ‘makwerekwere’ or any of the many pejoratives that exist to refer to African born foreign nationals.

No foreign national deserves to lose their life because we as a country have failed to empower each and every citizen of this country. And no frustrated citizen has the right to take away another human’s dignity to express their frustration. However, when a history of institutionalised self hatred, limited resources and class intersect, I refuse to believe that we can want to talk about the symptoms and not address the issues at play in order for us to find sustained solutions.

What we are witnessing is an irrational hatred of fellow African and black skin as we have been taught to respond to it for years and middle class-ness does not absolve us from it. We are complicit in this hatred of self through our every day actions and language. There is a system that exists to ensure that we continue to view foreign nationals who do not have the same economic privilege as suspect and this cascade to the eventual violence that has gripped the country over the past three weeks.

We hate each other and this violence is a manifestation of that hatred because the American, the European or the Chinese foreign nationals are going about their normal daily routines in the suburban enclaves of South Africa without fearing for their lives. So our continued blanketing of this phenomena as ‘xeno-phobia’ needs to stop. We must call it what it is. It is ‘Afro-phobia’. Or are we afraid of what it will reveal about ourselves if we start getting to the heart of the matter?

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