As news reports of anti-immigrant violence begin to surface in the international media, my family and friends back home have been writing to me to ensure that I am safe. I am, I tell them. They ask me if I feel threatened and if conditions “in my immediate neighbourhood” are stable. I don’t; they are.
So much so that, if I chose to, I could ignore the ethnic cleansing that has purged whole townships of foreigners, killing dozens of them and displacing tens of thousands. I have that option because I’m not That Kind of Foreigner; I don’t live in Those Neighbourhoods. I am an American intern living a few steps from Cape Town’s central business district. I am white.
Of course, I do not choose to ignore this crisis. I identify with the dreadlocked man on the front page of the Cape Argus who wore a bumper sticker proclaiming that “We are all Zimbabweans”. Along with the many South Africans who abhor this thuggery, I swam through waves of shock and mourning before arriving at a place of action. As emergency calls reached our offices Friday morning, I saw myself reflected in the dejected faces of my colleagues, who had hoped to prevent the violence from spreading to their neighbourhoods. That afternoon, I listened to a Somali woman shout over the radio, “I came here to get away from the problem in Somalia. Now, they make these problems. Where am I supposed to go now?” Her voice did not sound dejected or timid, as the majority of the news outlets had consistently portrayed the displaced. It sounded angry. Even though I am not That Kind of Foreigner, I am still A Foreigner. I came to South Africa to earn something, to better myself, just like the Somali woman. Morally, I cannot separate my plight from hers.
Yet it strikes me how easy that would be. Whatever pressures drove the mobs in Khayelitsha or Alex to loot and burn are comfortably separate from my life. Pap is not a staple for me; I could not tell you how much it costs today and how that price has increased. The power is always on in my house – no load shedding here. I have clean water, sewage, trash removal, and quiet nights. If there are killings in Khayelitsha, I read about them in the news (if anyone bothers to print a story). I don’t bother the townships with my relatively petty problems; they don’t bring their problems to me, either. Like good neighbours.
I guarantee you that Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma, and Helen Zille also have such considerate neighbours; they also can choose how much to care. In fact, concern was shown for some of the foreigners who the mobs have threatened: amidst the reports of 20,000 African immigrants displaced, there were several attempts to reassure international tourists that South Africa is still safe for a rainbow vacation. Certain Foreigners must never, ever be offended.
And while tourists were shuffled up and down Table Mountain, a train to Jo’burg was packed to the gills with migrants returning to Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe; six extra coaches were added to accommodate their numbers and armed guards accompanied them the whole way. No government ministers were deployed to encourage them to stay – it was the most successful deportation scheme the city has ever seen. For the government, it was a solution to a problem; soon, it will be as if those people never existed. But I wonder, what songs were sung on that train? What did strangers say to each other when their eyes met? What stories were rolled up into bundles and packed out? As they watched the landscape open out before them, did they see their arrivals rewound, or was it all a terrible, unstoppable march forward?
Mbeki has done a brilliant job of fostering “good neighbourliness” not only between the cities and the townships, but also between South Africa and Zimbabwe. I have long said that he would pay for his friendliness with Mugabe. I was wrong. He hasn’t paid. He has sacrificed others. While he props up a dictator’s decrepit regime, Zimbabwe doesn’t eat. Zimbabwe is detained and tortured, dragged from the back of a bakkie. Zimbabwean Foreigners (for that is what they become when they cross into South Africa in order to buy bread) are unceremoniously repatriated from Lindela. Township tsotsis are not the only ones to blame for brutalising Zimbabweans, when even the President believes that they, unlike other Africans who take refuge here, should be left to starve or be persecuted for their political beliefs. Zimbabweans must be a completely Different Kind of Foreigner.
Whilst the government wrings its hands about how close to keep its neighbours, thousands of South Africans and foreign nationals have taken action. Over the weekend, my office at Sonke Gender Justice was converted into a relief hub, with hundreds of people streaming in and out, offering what services they could and being dispatched to safe havens around the province. Desks were pushed to the walls, and the floor became a processing center for the donations that flowed in as fast as we could sort and deploy them. On Sunday evening, I wound up at a church in Somerset West, where sandwich-making and clothes-sorting teams stepped gingerly around children’s Bible study classes. I didn’t even learn the names of the people working alongside me, mostly Afrikaner women and girls, and they didn’t learn mine. I am told that in some communities in Khayelitsha, South Africans refused to allow their immigrant neighbours to be evacuated, ensuring police that they would protect each other. I know that for every story of forced removal, there are two stories of those who mobilised to shelter the affected; for every marauding criminal who attacked his neighbour, there are twenty who resisted.
If anything is to rise from these ashes, it will have to come from the ones who resisted. We all have a responsibility to ask what happened, to walk down the alleyways and notice the spaces left behind, like missing teeth. We have a responsibility to ask why there is so much anger in the first place, and what each of us can do to address the ongoing tragedies in the townships: substandard public education that under-develops minds, soaring HIV rates that lay waste to bodies, and dehumanising living conditions in which only the hardiest souls can thrive. And we have a responsibility to support neighbouring countries as they struggle for democracy, just as they supported South Africa. Good neighbours don’t watch complacently while the house next door burns.There are many thousands of us who showed this weekend that we are ready to rise to the task. Now, when I ensure my parents that I feel safe, it’s not only because of the privileged status that my particular passport holds. It’s certainly not because the government is capable of protecting me or even has the will to do so. It’s a statement of faith that for the many who were jolted into action, this is only the beginning. I feel safe because I’ve seen thousands of ordinary South Africans put substance behind the slogan: We are all Zimbabweans.