Saturday, June 14, 2008

Xenophobia (backdated to 24 May)

24 May 2008, Saturday
While the rest of the South Africans are next door at Barney’s watching the much anticipated Shark’s game, I am meant to be resting but instead sit in the warm dining room table behind my laptop needing to write because my brain is fizzing over with, well… stuff. (Been back in the UK for two weeks now, after a 2 year spell back in South Africa.)
I could launch into the idea of fragments and their piecing together – how my very life and creative approach always seem to be based, quite unconsciously, on this premise and M.O – but instead I shall launch straight into my first fragment. Xenophobia. More particularly, xenophobia in South Africa.

Xenophobia, South Africa – May 2008.
Sitting in my warm, snug lounge, my mom called me (a big surprise) all the way from South Africa – costing her more than an arm and a leg, I am sure! Phoning her straight back via my 3p a minute line, we engaged in our usual Mommy/Daughter chattiness – until she asked if I’d heard about these ‘xenophobia attacks’ in South Africa. My mind rattled around a little to remember exactly what xenophobia is – and, I suppose, my very South Africanness made immediate sense of the word as something racial. But, quite surprisingly, it is not a black and white thing at all, but the African people of South Africa lashing out against the African people of other African countries. It appears that the main motivation behind this hectically violent backlash is the matter of jobs. And jobs mean money. And money makes the world go round, they say. Though this seems like a pretty rational motivation, it is merely a symptom of the deeper, darker side of xenophobia – if there could be a darker side to this already pitch-black phenomenon?! (Re-reading this, I HONESTLY didn’t intend that as a pun…)
How to define “xenophobia”? The Thesaurus on my laptop gave me these synonyms – in bold, while I looked up their meanings (in italics) in the almost too Concise Dictionary & Thesaurus I bought at the Pound Shop this morning --- because “xenophobia” didn’t even feature!

Chauvinism: damn – not even “chauvinism’ is an entry!! You get what you pay for, I suppose!
Well, here follow the other synonyms: Racism, Dislike of foreigners, Discrimination, bigotry, intolerance, prejudice, small-mindedness…

Xenophobia pretends to be about jobs. Xenophobia is merely racism dressed up in Latin. Xenophobia is everywhere – Africa, Europe, classrooms and cocktail parties. It is the fear of those who are different. It is fear of the unknown. The irony, which I am sure has missed no-one – including Tokyo Sexwhale and the Reverend Tutu -- is that the very people who struggled as victims of xenophobia under the apartheid regime are now themselves operating as perpetrators of the very thing they fought and hated and feared. Both Sexwhale and Desmond Tutu have said, in the last week, how ashamed they are to be Africans amidst this spreading fire of what has been dubbed by the media as “xenophobia attacks”. (I wonder what Nelson is thinking and feeling?)
Having recently arrived a fortnight ago in the rural village of Walgrave in the county of Northamptonshire, with no TV or internet, I’ve had no news of this till that phonecall with my mom. Quite a shock… Devastating, actually. Especially because I’ve always been so very ‘pro’ our incredible “Rainbow Nation”… One is often asked, when living abroad, why one is living so far from home. Even when I lived in the UK before, I always made it very, VERY clear that it was for reasons OTHER than the South African stereotypes of ‘crime and violence’. But suddenly, I am beginning to wonder where the future of our country REALLY lies, optimism aside. Never having being a cynic or pessimist, I am shocked by my wandering, worried thoughts about my future, my family’s safety, my roots. For the first time, I am contemplating a future in this famously grey and drizzly country where I will never really belong, where my blood will always be the hot colour of Africa, where my heart will always yearn for home. I found myself begging my mother to continue to be optimistic – but to be more realistic than ever before. The prognosis from political and social analysts is that these purgative attacks will reach beyond the tribe versus tribe line into the white zone. (Gosh – did I just write that?? I want to erase those lines – but like Zimbabwe, it is a complete reality which probably doesn’t deserve to be dressed up in politically correct niceties…)
Even here, in this apparently almost-perfect “centre of the universe” (did you pick up the sarcasm?) xenophobia is an umbrella against the rain of Polish, Russian, South African, Kiwi etc. Just the other day, there was a television programme about a sports-shoe warehouse/factory which was being accused and scrutinised for its use of Polish for cheaper labour – ‘apparently’ causing job loss/ “job absence” for English workers. Craig worked with many Russians and Polish on the apple farms in England between 2001 and 2004 – and his opinion is worth it’s weight in gold (or apples?!) : he says these are a hardworking and humble people – proud to be given this opportunity, and physically and emotionally very able to do the jobs the English won’t do. The emaciated drug addict/ alcoholic Big Issue sellers on the High Streets of England are a prime example of this latent laziness in the English job-attitude: they have every opportunity and financial support given them, but what do they do with it? **** ALL – that’s what! It reminds me of a couple of years ago, walking out the underground in London, I passed the first Big Issue seller I’d encountered in the UK – and how bloody pissed off I was at seeing his self-pity and obvious evidence of addiction. I went straight up to him and unleashed upon him a probably very self-righteous little high-horse sermon which no doubt had any sort of impact – telling him the story of my young Xhosa friend who sold the Big Issue in Cape Town, always smiling, ‘shoulders-back’ proud, clean – selling the magazine in a bid to educate and improve himself, but who was murdered for his paltry end-of-day takings right there on the busy main road. And this pathetic addict stood there, leaning against the brick exit, sniffing and whining, with no such threat at all to his survival…
As a South African living in the UK, I’ve even experienced xenophobia for myself – being ignored, sneered at and downright insulted. I think of all the times I’ve just wanted to fit in – to belong. To not be picked out or treated differently simply because of my accent gave me away – and yet, not wanted to disguise my identity I’m so proud of! Hmmm…. A complicated matter. (Our broadband – via Virgin – will be set up by Thursday, so keeping up to date with the news will be easier at least…)

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