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Understanding South Africa’s Violent Inferiority Complex

Afrophobia and a culture of violence are costing us the Pan-African vision.

Three years ago, I frequented an African braiding salon in Brooklyn owned by a pair of savvy women from Guinea. I had moved to New York City a year prior to pursue a Master's degree, and with the knowledge that African hair salons anywhere in the world have the same lively atmosphere, I went looking for home. From the beginning, they were excited to meet a fellow African, and told me about the many family members who lived in my native South Africa. Their love for my country was clear. Our relationship became familial over time, and I came to view them as mother figures, le mamzo. They never charged me full price for my frequently-changing hairstyles, instead accepting whatever I could afford. They were proud of me as a young African woman pursuing her graduate studies abroad, and would ask about my grades and progress. There was always a sense that I was one of them, a fellow child of Africa.


Read: Sho Madjozi Accuses Organizers of 'Africans Unite' of Using Xenophobia as a 'Marketing Ploy'

One day in the winter of 2016, I entered the salon and was met with an unfamiliar hostility. "You South Africans are no good," they began, "you are killing us for nothing!" One of the owners' brother had been beaten to near-death in a xenophobic attack in Johannesburg that week, and was hospitalized in critical condition. My heart sank. Over the hours-long course of getting my braids done, I was chastised and questioned about the causes of South Africa's violent hatred of African migrants. They wanted to know why South Africans harassed people trying to make an honest living in the country. They asked why South Africans felt superior, despite being celebrated across the continent. "We are all African," they said in chorus, "What is your problem?" In that moment, I represented all South Africans to them, the only person that they could confront and hold accountable for their distress. I apologized profusely, but I could hear the hurt in their voices and feel the anger in their hands. I wanted them to know that I understood their pain, while trying hard not to wince at my own as they pulled and twisted. Eventually, a deep sense of shame overwhelmed me. I sat in that styling chair and cried, and cried.


Recently, Nigeria's Vice President Yemi Osinbajo withdrew his attendance at the World Economic Forum held in South Africa this week. Zambia has cancelled a friendly soccer match with South Africa that was scheduled for this Saturday. South African businesses are being boycotted in eruptions of retaliative protest across the continent. Nigerian singer Burna Boy and South African rapper AKA engaged in a war of words on Twitter, dulling the shine of their iconic and border-shattering collaborative hit.

"The Pan-African vision is in jeopardy and still, I cry."

This week has seen the latest in a string of deadly and destructive xenophobic riots that have erupted in and around South Africa's major townships. Businesses have been looted, homes have been destroyed, and people have been brutalized. Officers of the South African Police Services have been present but mostly inactive, as if handed a front row seat to an action film with looted popcorn in hand. This is nothing new; waves of xenophobic violence have occurred since the dawn of democracy in 1994, displacing thousands of migrants and intensifying in deadliness over the past decade. The biggest eruptions of mob-led attacks happened in 2008, 2015 and now in 2019, with instances of random, isolated attacks occurring frequently in-between.

I call it Afrophobia because the main targets of violence are migrants from Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, Somalia, and more, who have sought political and economic refuge among the poor in South Africa's urban townships. The perpetrators are largely local mobs of young, unemployed Black men with seemingly nothing better to do.

Violence and looting in Johannesburg Gallo Images/Getty Images

Popular explanations for the rampant Afrophobic violence at the hands of South Africans is that they see African migrants, who tend to set up shop as small business owners in the country's most impoverished urban communities, as competition for scarce resources. This is the sentiment expressed by angry mobs, along with accusations that African foreigners bring drugs and crime into their communities. South Africa is a highly racialized country still fighting for equitable freedom 25 years after it was promised exactly that. While it's true that socioeconomic disillusionment is a catalyst for the violent attacks, the reason why African foreigners are the only targets of xenophobia—and not the wealth-monopolizing European immigrants who are the real threat to economic freedom—is the horizontal culture of identity-based violence deeply woven into the country's social fabric.

African immigrants are the victims of Black South Africans' perpetual inferiority complex. South Africa has a long and twisted history of using violence as a tool for maintaining socioeconomic inequalities. The colonial and Apartheid experience normalized state-sanctioned violence during a decades-long liberation struggle, creating an enduring social psychology of civil warfare. While Black South Africans were fighting against their White oppressors, they were internalizing the self-hatred that the Apartheid project was designed to create. Today, South African society is still a structural hierarchy where people can only understand and express their identities through the oppression of a lesser "other". Afrophobic violence is just the latest in a pattern of identity-based dominance that South Africans have learned to value, and brutal force is still socially sanctioned as the only recognizable method of producing superiority in post-Apartheid life.

"Victims have become perpetrators, and Black South Africans are trapped in a psychological hell with poverty igniting the flames."

It doesn't help that the South African government has fueled the disdain of African migrants in public rhetoric. At a pre-election ANC rally in March this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa incited Afrophobia. "Everyone just arrives in our townships and rural areas and sets up businesses without licenses and permits," he said to a cheering crowd. "We are going to bring this to an end." This is pure scapegoating to mask the government's inability to deliver social services, alleviate poverty, bring back the land, and address the dismal unemployment rate. Now, the President has made a dry statement of condemnation and a worryingly vague commitment to "keep a close eye on these acts of wanton violence and find ways of stopping them.'' I can only hope that Trump-style tactics of stoking resentment is no longer one of his solutions.

After all, the South African government has long attempted to model itself as the leader of the continent, prioritizing the cultivation of strong relationships with other African countries as a top foreign policy agenda. Social media has amplified the current Afrophobic attacks, albeit with a few sensationalist fake news stories, and South Africa is being publicly disgraced and dragged for the rest of Africa and the world to see. In a time where Pan-African solidarity is being celebrated across industries and fields, the consequences of the latest wave of violence are painfully damaging to the inter-country relations, community partnerships and interpersonal relationships that have been blossoming across the continent.

I do my own braids now. The memory of the confrontation still conjures up pangs of guilt and shame. I'm wary of facing the women that once provided me a sense of community, knowing that they see only the atrocities of my countrymen in my eyes.

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Collage by Ta'Ron Joyner

I Would Rather Breathe Than Think Outside the Box

South African artists were already working for little to no pay, but the pandemic has unleashed a flood of exploitative work requests right when we need money the most.

This essay is part of OkayAfrica's SA Reframed series, featuring personal writing from some of South Africa's best young writers edited by Verashni Pillay.

On the radio the other day, I heard a small business owner of a costume design company being interviewed and asked how they have managed to:

a. Reinvent themselves during this period, and

b. Think outside the box while doing so.

Their conversation made me think about how I have not managed to wrap my head around any sort of future, or reinvention outside any kind of box—beyond the one that wraps itself around my immediate reality. When the lockdown was announced, three friends and I withdrew to a remote area where internet access was dubious and, most times, simply not available. I would need to walk a bit of a distance to locate a spot under a tree or up a mountain to be connected for thirty minutes, or so.

Then I would do a basic comb through my emails and respond to work or requests that were already underway pre-lockdown. I only responded to new requests that either afforded me the opportunity to earn an income or those that allowed me to be productive on my own terms.

I was tired, lowkey grateful for the global pause, and no longer interested in the overly productive, overloaded nature of my previous normal. Something about the forced halt made me realise that I was on the edge of everything—myself included. I turned down anything that required me to join the endless online festivals, zoom panel discussions, Instagram takeovers and live readings. I refused all opportunities that needed me to grapple with any sort of forced normalcy. The ones that offered data or airtime or solidarity as compensation or assumed that I had gone pro bono. I needed a moment. I needed the space and time to re-bargain with the point of it all.

The pause was both useful and scary. It brought to the surface fears and revelations about the shortfalls of our industry and how creatives are positioned within the productivity machinery and economy of South Africa, or rather all the ways we fall outside of it.

As Minister of employment and labour Thulas Nxesi mentioned in a briefing two months ago, "On the issue of freelance workers—unfortunately with the current legislation they fall outside. Maybe what we are going to do is that after this we will have to re-look at it in terms of our legislative amendments and start a debate about that." Why are there laws that have gone unchallenged? Who should be challenging them? Why are artists hearing, out loud for the first time, of convenient loopholes that render us outside of an economy that taxes us like everyone else, and consumes us and our work. Yet, in times of crisis, this same economy engages with our art and our productivity and our products, but still deems us on the margin, outside, and non-essential. If we are not assisted financially, how can we be productive, how can we acquire the resources to produce? How can we apply our minds to anything else outside of survival and scrambling to stay afloat.

Pandemics do not mean that artists have gone pro bono

When you approach an artist with the assumption that they have gone pro bono during this time, when you draft an email to request a collaboration, a commission, a participation, a productivity of any kind, please bear in mind that artists are up against an unconcerned and corrupt government that has failed to provide aid and assistance to their sector during this time.

Theatre critic Sara Holdren says "Art is hard and most of it fails—either in small ways or catastrophic ones." In South Africa, the process of making art is hard, sure, but more than that, the conditions and the context in which we make work fails us in catastrophic ways that will require more than a debate and amended legislation. It will need, for starters, a minister who cares about the arts and understands its soul and mechanisms. This pause has brought about more questions and concerns for me than inspiration to reinvent or think outside the box. I have questions about the box itself and why I feel asphyxiated and trapped by its design.

I would rather breathe than think outside of the box

This pandemic has made me question what my career, livelihood and stability have been built on; what has been propping them up all this time, and what has been allowing me to appear valued and valuable in this economy? What does and will the spectrum of value look like in a normal that has been disrupted and now sits in a near distant future that may or may not be near?

Then I find myself vacillating between hope and concern. My hope is that when the pandemic is no longer with us, artists can have a come-to-jesus conversation about what has contributed and exacerbated this attitude and disrespect toward our practice and industry, I hope we can challenge the legislations that we have been dared to challenge, I hope we can be productive in ways that serve us and make sense for our well-being, that we will be paid our worth and that our society will realize that without the artist producing, there will be no art, or music, or films, or books and things that have kept people entertained and creatively nourished during this time.

My concern is that the "free"content artists are currently creating and the free access to art or performances, will not make this realisation possible, and that this kind of access, that was already undervalued and exploited, will be irreversible. The exploitation dialogue is tiring. Being treated as non-essential is tiring and terrifying too, and while most of the world can slowly start going back to work, most artists will probably have to hang tight until 2021, maybe even 2022.

While artists deal with a hoax of an arts and culture department that is dead to us and a minister who tweets more than he does his job, in an ideal world, I wish that artists could afford to indulge uncertainty, and fear, and pause, in ways that allow them to heed the call made by Nicholas Berger in his piece The Forgotten Art of Assembly [Or, Why Theatre Makers Should Stop Making] "We must lean into this pain. We must feel the grief. We must mourn. Mourn the loss of work, the loss of jobs, the loss of money, the loss of life. Mourn the temporary loss of an art form that demands assembly. Lean into the grief. Lean in. Lean in. Lean in. We must remind ourselves that mourning is a human act, not a digital one."

Koleka Putuma is an award-winning poet, playwright and theatre director. Her bestselling debut collection of poems Collective Amnesia is in its 10th print run and her play No Easter Sunday for Queers Sunday for Queers won several awards.

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