Thursday, June 18, 2009

Cape Town and xenophobia

I arrived in Cairp Tahn almost two years ago from Johannesburg. I had been in this so called "Mother" City a very short while, when the violence against foreigners erupted all over the country. One day, somewhere, some nameless, reckless, inhuman people decided that “foreigners” are the enemy. “Foreigners”, it rapidly became clear, meant Zimbabweans. And Mozambiqans. And Nigerians. Oh, and Shangaans. Did I mention Venda? No? Well, them too!

Then, it was anyone who is too dark. Anyone who "we" decide to deal with. Anyone "we" don’t like. Anyone – anywhere. And soon, the world was staring dumbfounded at full colour pictures of a man, burning to death before the cameras, because he was “too something”, too “foreign”. And the crowd around the pyre, watching him burn to death and smelling his burning flesh, was laughing on camera.

The press dubbed this horror “xenophobia”. And somehow, that term seemed to give it all some kind of sociological, academic credence. Some kind of stature. Yes, negative stature, certainly, but stature nonetheless. I saw an article in one of the Sunday newspapers where there was some deliberation on whether it may be better termed “racism”, or whether racism was something whites invented.

Cairptahnians all smiled smugly to each other and said, "It won't happen here". I actually heard people saying that. Black people and white people. I had my doubts and in the end, the violence in Cairp Tahn was more savage, more brutal and more sustained than anywhere else.

Susan Mann makes an interesting point in her novel One Tongue Singing, (Secker and Warburg, London, 2004). She writes that, yes, Cape Town is a beautiful City. It is achingly beautiful. But there is a price to be paid for that beauty. To enjoy its beauty, you have to live in it - amongst its profoundly decimated and disfigured people.

Racial divisions remain intact, sublimely unchallenged and with no expectation of change on the part of anyone. And it is not that there is any one political party which can be blamed for this. It is a long, long history we are living with, with deep, deep consequences. And none of the political parties have dealt in any constructive way with the issues.

So, once again, we face the consequences. Once again xenophobia, in all its ugliness, is here as part of the price one pays for living here.

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