Is black SA turning old friends into foes?
By Pius Adesarmi
The letters came within two days of each other. The first was an invitation from Professor Georges Harault, 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 universities, IFAS was again inviting me as visiting scholar.
The second was from Chris Dunton, the chairperson of the English Department of the National University of Lesotho at Roma. Like Harault, Dunton was inviting me to Lesotho as visiting scholar.
I arranged a few other engagements and braced up for a very engaging psychic reconnection with the African continent.
'Ah, the good old days of apartheid!'
I needed the return to Africa badly. I had been away from the continent for an uncomfortable stretch, carrying out my scholarly labour in the minefield of North American academe, writing Africa "from a rift", as Achille Mbembe would put it. I also needed a reprieve from the oppression of the North American media image of Africa.
The African living here is in constant danger of accepting whatever image of Africa he or she 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, uses the 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.
'Truth is our right, Jah is our might, we must free South Africa'
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 in Johannesburg on a cold July morning. A delighted Harault was on hand at the airport to welcome me. We drove straight to the offices of IFAS located in downtown Johannesburg.
Later I announced to Harault that I was going to take a stroll. I was eager to get a feel of the same streets I had seen three years earlier.
Harault's countenance changed. "Be careful. Don't go out there with your wallet. You could get mugged." I assured Harault I would be all right but took the precaution of leaving my valuables in his office.
I started my walk 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 apart-heid 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.
In office complexes and shopping malls, one does not fail to notice the ubiquitous "To Let" signs, evidence of white retreat to "safe" areas of the city like Rosebank or back "home" to Britain, Holland, Canada and Australia.
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 R100. 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!
I reluctantly came to the realisation that I was far more affected by the oppression of the image of "black violence" in South Africa than I had been willing to admit.
The image of the post-apartheid black condition in South Africa always have two constantly-repeated, over-sensationalised 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 at the University of Cape Town to spend a weekend with me. After a joyful reunion 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: "Ah, the good old days of apartheid!"
When Harry concluded his business at the Nigerian consulate, we took a bus and headed back to Hrault'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 in the air was so thick 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 ***** 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 k*****s 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 "demonising 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 and 1980s, the South African freedom struggle was completely woven into Nigeria's national imagery, so much so that a Nigerian leader, Olusegun Obasanjo, suggested we mobilised "African juju" and other maraboutic forces of African sorcery to attack PW 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 energise the 1970s to 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, found warmth, hospitality, and friendship during their years of exile in Nigeria. Many 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.
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; hetero****** prejudice manufactured the faggot; patriarchal prejudice manufactured the hysteric; European prejudice Truth is our right, Jah is our might, we must free South Africa manufactured the native; American prejudice manufactured the n****r; German prejudice manufactured the Jew; Israeli prejudice manufactured the Araboushim; Afrikaner prejudice manufactured the k****r.
Not to be outdone, black South Africa has manufactured the ma-kwerekwere as her unique post-apartheid contribution to this gory pantheon.
The joy of your instant-mix coffee or your instant-mix powdered milk is the considerable labour and hassle it saves you.
Just pour water, add sugar to taste, and your drink is ready. The makwere-kwere is black South Africa's instant-mix k****r, very easily produced with minimum labour.
Pius Adesanmi is Associate Professor of English and director, Project on New African Literatures (www.projectponal.com
) at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.