My experience as a foreigner writing in South Africa

By Kudakwashe Magezi

The violent Zimbabwean general elections of 2008 caused a sizable part of the population to migrate to neighboring countries, with the politically stable South Africa attracting the highest number of those fleeing the dangers of state collapse. I was one of those who decided to take the painful path out of my country of birth. That year was the peak of an unprecedented demise of the formal economy of Zimbabwe. In the heat of this hell it was extremely difficult for Zimbabwean citizens to stay in Zimbabwe.

I packed my bag for a comparatively stable South Africa. This was in September, 2008, when the Zimbabwean economic collapse was producing a trillion zeros and nothing seemed to function. Hyperinflation hit, setting an alarming world record of 89.7 sextillion percent inflation, in which five US dollars required 175 quadrillion Zimbabwean dollars in exchange. A loaf of bread cost 10 billion Zim dollars and could only be found on the black market. I stared starvation and hopelessness in the eye and didn’t think twice before leaving Zimbabwe.

Full of hope and ambition, I arrived in South Africa at age 25. A great relief. Blinded by the comfort of what I considered to be the most progressive society in Africa, I couldn’t see the deep fractures and inequality that it harbored. Everything became clearer as I settled.

On arrival I stayed in Sandton, a wealthy northern suburb of greater Johannesburg. What divides this affluent suburb from the tin-house township of Alexandra, one of the poorest Black townships in South Africa, is a single street. In one of the upmarket restaurants close to where I lived, I got a job as a waiter. One evening while I was serving tables, a Black South African middle-aged man asked loudly why all the waiters on the floor were Zimbabwean: “Where are my people?” he bellowed with a glass of beer in hand. This was my first encounter with a South African who felt that Black African immigrants were not welcome in his country.

I never imagined that South Africa would birth groups of nationalistic bigots who would unleash a series of violent attacks on Black African immigrants. The sword of vigilantism and anti-immigrant protests was sharpened, and the charge led by blood thirsty locals who proved that they were ready to kill for a South Africa that was free of people like me. Online hashtags sprang up—#OperationDudula—following offline confrontations and attacks on Black African immigrants. More confrontations and provocative demonstrations would follow.

By 2013 police brutality and the humiliation of African immigrants would spread throughout the community of Black Afican immigrants, reminding us that we are too alien to deserve state protection. A video of Mido Macia, a Mozambican Black African immigrant who worked as a minibus taxi driver, was captured by a concerned onlooker. He was tied and leashed to the bumper of a police van by uniformed South African police officers then dragged for hundreds of meters as they sadistically drove away. He died of head injuries and internal bleeding. Not only another statistic but a reminder of how easy it is for any Black African immigrant to die at the hands of rowdy mobs or in the custody of state police in South Africa.

My heart could not rest in bewilderment. “Why so much hate? What makes it easy for people to take somebody’s life away and what positive gains can be achieved from all this?” The answers were drowned out by continued and indiscriminate attacks on Black African foreigners. From being called a “Kwerekwere” (derogatory slang said by Black South Africans whose perception of the other African languages is that we speak nothing but gibberish) to a series of horrifying events that would keep on topping each other for cruelty. In 2015, another Mozambican foreign national, Emmanuel Sithole, lost his life to anti-immigrant vigilantes in Alexandra township, in Johannesburg. His brutal murder exposed an insatiable appetite for the blood of Black African foreigners in this otherwise peaceful country. The gruesome murder was captured live on camera by James Oatway, a South African Sunday Times Newspaper photo journalist. Emmanuel was stabbed to death. His crime? That he was too Black to be South African, I can only guess.

There was nothing I could do to change the unwelcoming attitude of these South African citizens. For them, an anti-Black immigrant stance is both justifiable and even a sort of patriotic duty. To limit my exposure to their wrath I tried, under extremely difficult conditions, to blend in more with the local South African Black community. I learned a little bit of the main languages, from Zulu to Sesotho, and made friends with others in my neighborhood. I tried my level best to be a law abiding migrant, always acknowledging the fact that I am a Zimbabwean. To keep myself out of harm’s way I chose the safety of living in quiet neighborhoods that are less accessible and less likely to be visited by anti-Black African immigrant violence. It is extremely dangerous for a Black immigrant to live in South Africa’s townships.

By the late teens, the call for forced removal of all Black African immigrants in South Africa was amplified by a legion of online trolls whose emboldened presence on Twitter, would mark the beginning of toxic hashtags like #putsouthafricafirst. The power and influence of these anti-immigrant movements cannot be overstated. Local news website the Daily Maverick reported that the hastag #putsouthafricafirst, gained great online influence, appearing in 393 000 tweets and generating a billion impressions in 2020. These online anti-immigrant sentiments were like burning matchsticks in the hands of wreckless individuals and would cause irreparable damage when thrown onto the highly flammable ground of strife-torn South Africa. South Africa remains on the precipice of explosive violence. Politicians, for the sake of their self serving interests, are dragging Black African immigrants down as they seek to prop up their populist numbers.

In early 2022, Elvis Nyathi, a Zimbabwean foreign national living in Diepsloot, a poor township north of Johannesburg, was attacked and burned alive by a group of local men who accused him of some criminality that was unproven to date. Nyathi was a father, a brother, and an uncle who was murdered in cold blood, and his murder was praised by a faceless multitude of online trolls who attached their hateful hashtags to the deed. I could not keep quiet anymore. I had to respond—for the sake of the preservation of humanity, I had to. I chose to do so online.

“You do not belong here and you must go back to Zimbabwe,” a faceless Twitter account Tweets back at my Twitter post. I am now a very active Twitter-writer in South Africa, trying to calm the unrest and hate-mongering of hashtags like #OperationDudula, which are advocating deportations and violent attacks. “Operation Dudula” simply means that all Black African immigrants must be pressured to depart South Africa.

As a writer on Twitter, I’m the target of men and women who have adopted this ridiculous but dangerous stance on immigration. To them it is no longer a case of whether one is in South Africa legally or otherwise. As online trolls they amplify this divisive political distraction, hiding behind social media accounts that target Zimbabwean foreign nationals like me, an army of tens of thousands of fanatic trolls. Like corpses on which the vultures gather, my online postings about their hateful narrative earns me their constant attention and hungry disdain.

On Twitter I’m called all sorts of names: “leech;” “foreigner;” “invader;” and “illegal immigrant.” I have made it an immovable principle that I do not write what these trolls want me to write. Like Steve Biko, the renowned Black South African anti-apartheid activist who was murdered by colonialists in the 1970s, I will speak my mind and write what I believe. My experience in a South African society that is increasingly a living hell for Black African immigrants, is that of having to constantly respond to attacks on social media, be it Twitter or Facebook. The South African media space has become a theater of vitriolic commentary and slander that is targeting scapegoated foreign nationals for whatever the state has failed to provide.

With relentless and prolific vigor, I confront their deliberate misinformation and disinformation through my writing. As the South African economy fails to create jobs for most of its citizens (with the official figures of unemployment hovering around the 45 percent mark), immigrants are blamed for stealing jobs from locals. Every crime that happens is blamed on a Black African immigrant. In the eyes of hateful “patriots,” immigration is an act of criminality, committed by a criminal who is Black and foreign in South Africa.

It’s almost 14 years now since I moved to South Africa. Very little, in terms of politics and economics, has changed in Zimbabwe, and so my fate is sandwiched between my longing to return to my country of birth and the lack of any guarantee that I’d be able to survive the mess that Zimbabwe has become. Caught between a rock and a hard place, I have found that I have less space to maneuver and must choose between staying in the frying pan or jumping into the blazing fire.

The South African economy continues to tank. As economic opportunities fade the country will become a playground for political opportunists for whom the Black African immigrant in South Africa is the easiest target of blame. The “us versus them” narrative will be driven deep into the ears of divisive groups as politicians throw Black African foreigners into the hands of their disgruntled and angry citizens. If influential persons continue to be reckless with handling Black African immigrants on South African soil we may be headed for years, if not decades, more of blood and suffering.

19 October, 2022