Guest Opinion: An ‘African’ in South Africa

By Vimbai Gwata (@VimfromZim)

 I’ve learnt not to become too upset at this notion that “Zimbabweans can’t be light”, because I’ve come to see that it comes from an innate need to place me into a familiar grouping, Vimbai, our home girl from eKapa, rather than explore the great unknown that is me, Vimbai, the girl from our neighbouring country.

For as long as I’ve known, there’s been this rather unimaginative idea that the concept of home is ultimately linked to the place of your birth and/or heritage. This idea that home is one set place is baffling and makes defining it quite tricky, especially in my case. I grew up in Zimbabwe and I’ve spent over a decade in South Africa, most of my adult life in fact. That experience has led me to redefine my concept of home.

I no longer believe in the all compassing concept of having one home and in the same breadth don’t believe in attributing it to an indefinite number of places.  For me, home has come to mean a mixed blend of locations and people. I grew up in Zimbabwe raised on a staple diet of sunshine (Harare is not called the ‘Sunshine City’ for nothing) and Mazoe (a more sublime version of Oros). It is where I made most of my closest friends and where the majority of my family lives. Nevertheless, South Africa is where I became an adult – I did my first load of washing here (sans the fabric softener *cringe*), it’s where I learnt to drive on the highway and perfect my parallel parking. I lived alone in my very first apartment and learnt what it means to be independent here.  That is why referring to Johannesburg as my home holds just as much weight in my heart as it does referring to Harare as home. Both these locations are not only very familiar to me and hold some of my favourite people, but they have ultimately shaped me, for better and worse, into the person I have become today.

The pervading history, laws and ideals that define citizenship, belonging and identity will not have it both ways. My newer home, South Africa, is very quick to remind me that this is not my natural place of residence. No amount of time spent in this beautiful land will have me progress in status beyond that of a “foreign national” – a term attributed to non-South Africans that simultaneously includes me and discounts me.

Learning about my adopted nation’s history has given me more insight into this exclusivist attitude. Learning of the various laws passed during apartheid such as the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, Bantu Authorities Act and Bantu Homelands Citizens Act has helped me understand this nation’s innate need to reaffirm one’s ‘belonging’, after having being systematically taught how to exclude, be wary of outsiders and protect their identity.

Indeed this need to place people into a specific grouping has become quite amusing for me because I am a light skinned Zimbabwean and so people here often insist that I can’t possibly be from Bob’s land but must have people from the Eastern Cape (Queenstown I’ve been informed, to be exact). I’ve learnt not to become too upset at this notion that “Zimbabweans can’t be light”, because I’ve come to see that it comes from an innate need to place me into a familiar grouping, Vimbai, our home girl from eKapa,  rather than explore the great unknown that is me, Vimbai, the girl from our neighbouring country.

This need to familiarize me is often juxtaposed by a need to “other” me. Being labelled “African” in South Africa is often shorthand for “comes from North of the Limpopo”. It is part of that ill-conceived notion that South Africa is not part of Africa.

Us Zimbabweans make up the largest portion of foreign migrants living in South Africa.The comfort that hearing the sound of my home language, Shona, being spoken in the most unlikely areas like a group of people walking down the street, a couple shopping in Clicks, standing in line for tickets at NuMetro or seated at the next table from me at a restaurant brings me so much joy. Inwardly, I cringe at the harsh and unfair portrayal of my fellow countrymen in the news, general conversation and as the butt of many a joke.  This experience is by no means unique to any African living outside of their home country, which is why a friend and I decided to launch a website titled Diasporan Darlings to shed light and share insights on this culture perspective. Whether it was a Zimbabwean speaking of their time spent living in South Africa or a Ghanaian recounting the challenges and opportunities of living in the United Kingdom, these shared experiences would touch on confusion regarding one’s cultural identity and an appreciation of what it means to be someone who comes from 2 or more different worlds.

What has my overall experience in South Africa been thus far? It’s been a varied collection of experiences that have in one way challenged the typical South African stereotype and in other ways confirmed it. Have I ever experienced racist and xenophobic attitudes? Most definitely, from inferred utterances to straight up hostile, confrontational episodes. However, I have experienced acceptance, tolerance and belonging many more times than the negative experiences I have encountered..

From my adopted Muslim family who make a conscious effort to expose me to the brilliant culinary delights, to my tight-knit crew of Zulu girlfriends who school me on the cultural nuances that I would otherwise miss and my Capetonian friends whom ensured that I was exposed to more of the city than the usual tourist delights.  Each step of my journey here has been blessed by these individuals who have proved that friendship and love can ultimately overcome some of the deepest perceived cultural divides.

Some of the things that still stand out for me despite having lived here 65 (dog years) are the  interchangeable use of “borrow” to mean both borrow and lend (’m still a bit confused!); the size of this country – there is so much to do and see, the opportunities to travel and explore are endless; thee wide-ranging cuisine that is a testament to the diverse heritage of this country (life was never the same after I had my first bunny chow!) and enjoying the freedom of speech and personal expression that many African states have not adopted.

Yes indeed, it has been an interesting ride being an African transplant living in South Africa. If Zimbabwe is the country of ‘my childhood & youth’ then South Africa is definitely the country of ‘my coming of age’ & ‘passage into adulthood’.

FURTHER READING:

Vimbai Gwata is the Public Relations and Communications for enke: Make Your Mark. She is also the former Editor-in-Chief and Founder of Diasporan Darlings, an online magazine which aimed to create a social community and network that engages all Africans, especially those largely based in the Diaspora.

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