Advise of a Kenyan living in South Africa

Pastors and imams visit the Isipingo transit camp in KwaZulu-Natal every day to provide emotional and spiritual support to foreigners. The writer outlines the difficulties of surviving in a hostile community far from home. Picture: Jacques Naude

Kenyan journalist Argwings Odera fled his home country 15 years ago because his investigative work irked some in the government. He landed up in Joburg and recalls that, even in 2001, aggression towards foreigners was palpable.

Nairobi – ‘If you want to survive this city,” the taxi driver advises, “you must learn tsotsi taal and how to dance pantsula.” In 2001, I am an asylum seeker in South Africa. My stories about corruption in Kenya have forced me to flee for my life. I arrive in the midst of xenophobic attacks in Cape Town and Joburg.

On one of my first taxi rides, I inadvertently take the front passenger seat. Everyone soon knows I’m a foreigner. I don’t know that it’s my role to receive fares from the other passengers and hand them their change. Even when I realise what’s expected, I’m not currency-wise enough yet to swop notes and coins deftly and accurately.

Noticing my difficulty, the driver warns me to keep to myself because “immigrants are unwelcome”. I am told we are responsible for the escalating crime rate, spreading HIV/Aids and stealing locals’ jobs as well as their women. Then he dishes out the choice advice about learning slang and a dance moves.

Tsotsi taal is not an official South African language but in some places it might as well be. It is crafted from many languages. Speakers of the lingo are considered thuggish and uncouth. It is frowned upon by older people.

Yet this “thug” language opens a lot of doors in the streets and townships for me. My first three words in tsotsi are “ola” and “heita” as greetings and “seven” for a pistol, so-named because of its shape and the James Bond movies with the indestructible agent 007.

I don’t even know why I’m bothering to learn the name of a weapon. For what purpose?

“If you want to be respected as a foreigner,” the taxi driver tells me, “you must always walk with your ‘seven’. Everybody, even the police, have respect for seven. Seven is the only thing that makes one equal in this country, especially for you foreigners.”

Today, as South Africans grapple with the horrors of attacks launched on foreigners with a renewed intensity, there are ghastly images in the media and the hashtag #XenophobicSA has gone viral. There are growing calls for a boycott of South African products.

This is not the first time South Africa has been in the news for xenophobic attacks. In 2008, the worst attacks recorded took place, leaving 60 dead and thousands displaced. The country has witnessed waves of xenophobic attacks since attaining independence in 1994.

But South Africa is not alone in grappling with this shameful scourge. Across Europe, countries that include Denmark, Italy, Britain, Germany, Greece and France are dealing with it. In Mexico, and many other countries, the issue is hotly debated and xenophobic political parties are gaining support.

In the UK, landlords have been given the power to inspect the immigration papers of tenants, a practice criticised by the Movement against Xenophobia.

South Sudan has been striving to find a solution since foreigners were uprooted from their homes and businesses last year following a political spat between the president and his deputy.

Here in my country, Kenya, reports of xenophobic attacks are received with jeers or cheers, depending on who is being targeted. Attacks on the Somali community draw little sympathy and even support, sadly, while images of people being attacked go viral on social and local media.

Kenya, with an estimated population of 44 million, has one of the highest unemployment rates, 40 percent. The country has had its fair bite of xenophobic attacks. Today, passion runs high about the place of Somali immigrants in the country following the waves of terror attacks by al-Shabaab militants.

The militants have threatened to intensify terror until the Kenya Defence Force retreats from Somalia, which it entered in 2011.

Politicians employing anti-immigrant populism, led by Deputy President William Ruto, are spearheading calls for the mass expulsion of Somali refugees and the construction of a 700km wall between Kenya and Somalia. Attacks on Somalis, Ethiopians and other African immigrants are carried out by members of the armed forces.

What are the reasons for African brothers turning on each other these days in South Africa? From my vantage point in Nairobi, a few come to mind.

Gross inequality among South Africans. Problematic political leadership. Corruption, for instance at the Beit Bridge border crossing into Zimbabwe.

These are just some of the factors fuelling the fires of xenophobia.

Migration Policy SA reported that a “significant proportion of South Africa’s neighbouring states have migrated to South Africa, many to work”.

“According to a recent survey, for example, 81 percent of Lesotho’s adult population has been to South Africa. As many as 83 percent of Lesotho’s citizens have parents and 51 percent have grandparents who have worked in South Africa.

“The equivalent figures for Mozambique are 29 percent, 53 percent, and 32 percent, while for Zimbabwe the corresponding figures are 23 percent, 24 percent, and 23 percent.”

In opening an anti-xenophobia conference in Durban in 2001, then-president Thabo Mbeki stated: “Surely, the impulse of our own time says to all of us that we must do everything we can to free those who, to this day, suffer from racism, xenophobia and related intolerance because their forebears were enslaved, colonised and racially oppressed.”

After some research, and my crash course with the taxi driver after my arrival in South Africa, I feel I’m educated about xenophobia. I spend a fair amount of my time in the country dancing pantsula, improving my tsotsi taal and trying to understand this aggression towards, and sometimes outright hatred of, foreigners.

Then it happens. I prove that the taxi driver’s sweeping accusations about stealing women are not without foundation.

I find myself competing with a local suitor for the affections of a South African woman.

I win her over, but the sweet taste of victory does not last long. She says she has been warned that we “foreigners” soon leave local women and that I will return to my “wife” back in Kenya. But that’s not the worst of our difficulties.

She insists on an HIV/Aids test and tells me “foreigners” are mainly responsible for the spread of the disease. But all this is still reasonable, things a strong relationship can overcome.

The joy of intimacy is somewhat dulled by her next revelation. She is worried because she has been warned “foreigners” have the capacity to render a woman barren because of “size matters”.

The knockout blow for our affair is when I insist that I will return to Kenya when it is safe for me to do so. I tell her she is welcome to return with me.

“Africa!” she protests. She has never been to “Africa”. Without hesitation, she tells me she would prefer that I settle down with her in Joburg because in “Africa” we eat with “flies crawling around our faces”.

Another conversation goes something like this… Because of her deep affection for me, she is ready to organise the marriage papers, so that I become a resident.

She is stunned when I refuse the offer. As the script goes, foreigners marry South African women so they can be granted permanent residency. This is an opportunity nobody turns down.

At the time of my exile, labour policies forbad asylum seekers like myself from working or even studying until our applications had been approved. As with so many other cases, my application process drags on and on.

Soon I need a job urgently. After my savings from home run dry, I live off the goodwill of South Africans. But I cannot live on philanthropy indefinitely. My situation seems hopeless. I can’t eat or sleep.

I manage to secure an assurance from the editor of the Mail & Guardian that he will use my stories, if they are good.

His only worry is how I am going to find stories in South Africa worth publishing with my support structure and networks all back home in Kenya.

I manage to do a story – a highly commended piece – delving into corruption in Gauteng. I probe the effect on the delivery of emergency services in the province.

Things look up when I gain an opportunity to work with Noah Samara’s WorldSpace Radio. In the interview, the editor questions how I am going to overcome local hostility towards foreigners. She wants me to spend time with poor communities, especially in the townships.

For our live breakfast show, I am stationed in the Gauteng townships. Every morning I “capture” a diverse group of residents and political officials and organise them into a queue for their comments to be transmitted live, worldwide.

One day, with activists from Earthlife Africa, I find myself standing before a large group of Diepsloot residents, giving a passionate speech about why they should oppose the construction of the nuclear facility at Pelindaba.

Not once does anyone question or challenge me seriously because of my accent or foreign status.

And then, when the journalism work is thin on the ground, magic happens. Members of the South African Magic Society welcome me into their fold. I share their gigs at schools, stadiums and other functions where my skills as a children’s magician are required.

Every Sunday you would find me at the Rosebank Mall, mischievously tantalising children until their parents bought them a long balloon twisted into the form of an animal or caricature for R5. I was never disappointed when I counted my day’s takings.

In between jobs, I find myself parking and washing cars on Pretoria’s streets. One day I am confronted by an immigrant who declares I am working in his spot. After a discussion, we agree to continue parking and washing the cars together.

By the time it is safe for me to return to Kenya in 2004 – after Daniel arap Moi has been removed from power – I have one small headache – disposing of the car, fridge, television set and other items I have acquired in South Africa.

A tsotsi friend inquires: “How have you managed to own all these in two years, yet in all my 30 years of being born and living here, owning a car is still a dream?”

There is neither hatred nor envy in his query. He genuinely wants to know. He does not have to worry about papers that will allow him employment and precarious residence status.

I can’t recall exactly what I told my friend, but I do remember biting my tongue, partly out of politeness and partly out of fear.

But perhaps a clue to our appalling behaviour towards each other is buried in this simple exchange. A desperate immigrant, with few resources and a fractured support network, has no choice. We have to survive and work harder to thrive. The tough lessons make us grow strong. When we prosper, the local lens sees that we have taken something from them.

I often think of that taxi driver as I encounter my fellow Africans in Nairobi. I would never encourage Somalis and brothers from elsewhere to bear arms.

When they ask me for advice about adapting, I think about the fine footwork of the pantsula and I say: “Just be street smart as you would be in any other city.”

But Joburg and Nairobi are not just any cities. They are places that contain hope for Africa’s future.

I hope we can learn that delicate dance that is going to be required to find a common language, to find common ground, as our borders change and our problems can no longer be contained by the old political systems.

* Odera, one of Kenya’s finest investigative journalists, lived in Joburg until 2004.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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