Popular

Dear South Africa, Nigerians Aren't the Problem, Criminals Are

Dangerous stereotypes make Nigerians the perfect scapegoats for South Africa's crime problem.

My family lives in a small, white Afrikaans-dominated town called Krugersdorp—just forty minutes outside of Johannesburg. As one might guess, I hate it there. But that's a story for another day. Anyway, as you drive from the tree-lined streets of the suburbs towards the center of the town, the scenes quickly switch to that of dilapidated houses (you know, the ones with broken windows and old paint) where sex workers stand on every corner and their pimps are not too far away.

Last year, a woman was abducted in Krugersdorp. Everyone was understandably up-in-arms and the police went into overdrive trying to find her. The woman was thankfully found about a week later after she managed to escape from her abductors. In retaliation, however, members of the community went to the town center and burned down every one of those ugly houses in an attempt to rid the area of the Nigerians they believed were behind the abductions, sex trafficking and drug dealing in the town. Soon afterwards, however, the woman who'd been abducted was found to have made the whole thing up.


Last week, Hillbrow was trending on social media. Let me just say that the suppressed xenophobes jumped right out from many people claiming "concern for the country". One Twitter user spoke about how she was putting aside her "political correctness" and voicing out how she felt Nigerians were a huge problem in South Africa with regards to crime and said that they all needed to go. "Ghana and Cameroon deported hundreds of thousands of Nigerians for the same reasons," she added. Many South Africans agreed with her sentiments despite her latter statement being factually untrue.

READ: Burna Boy to Donate Proceeds from Upcoming Show In South Africa to Victims of Xenophobic Violence

Firstly, it's important to note that South Africa has the highest level of inequality in the world. Just two weeks ago, the government finally declared unemployment a national emergency. One only has to see the presence of several beggars at every traffic light to understand the deep scourge of poverty in the country. Beggars whose desperation often leads to aggressive engagements when you don't have any spare change to give them.

The country also has some of the highest rates of domestic violence and five times the average global femicide rate. What I'm trying to show here is that way before South Africa was dealing with a migrant community of Africans from all over the continent, things have been pretty bad already and for a long time. And when the government is more preoccupied with looting state coffers than they are with changing the plight of their people, the only people who then bear the brunt of the frustrations that South Africans have are foreign nationals and more specifically, Nigerians.

Am I saying that no Nigerian has ever sold drugs, been involved in human and sex trafficking or run a syndicate in South Africa? No. I know of many Nigerian criminals who have been involved in shady activities. I know Nigerian criminals who've scammed fellow students and even family members.

"But the key here is that they are criminals first before they are Nigerian and that difference is crucial."

South Africans are justifiably concerned about the high levels of crime in the country but their insistence on it being a "Nigerian" problem and not a problem with criminals is extremely xenophobic. Instead, we choose to perpetuate archaic stereotypes about Nigerians: they're scammers, pimps, drug-dealers and thieves, without considering how dangerous these stereotypes are particularly to the greater number of Nigerians that aren't any of these things..

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a brilliant Nigerian author, once spoke about stereotypes in her TED talk titled "The Danger of a Single Story". Adichie said something incredibly powerful and that was that the problem with stereotypes is not that they are entirely untrue but that they are not complete. In as much as there are Nigerians and other foreign nationals who do engage in criminal activities, I can bet that there are so many more contributing positively to the country. We forget the students, the young professionals and the teachers who want to build the country with the same ferocity as they would their own. What sense is there in smearing them with the same brush?

South Africans conveniently forget that the migrant community (documented and undocumented) only accounts for a very small percentage of the population of 52 million. As South Africans, we seem to be sitting on a precariously high horse where we attribute none of the crime that occurs to our own people. How many countries abroad are ignorantly saying the exact same thing about South Africans in general?

Let's also not forget that everything is political. The best way for the ANC government to detract from the fact that they have failed to deliver many of the promises they made post-1994 is to shift the blame to this so-called "other". The other that left their home in search of better for themselves and their families. The other that would probably condemn the same behavior we've accused them of.

Xenophobic utterances by South African politicians such as Cyril Ramaphosa, Herman Mashaba and even Jacob Zuma's son as well as manifestos and policies which shun immigrants as a whole, have always sparked violent attacks on foreign nationals.

"South Africans have injured, displaced and even murdered other Africans with impunity and not a damn thing has happened."

And in a global environment that is becoming more and more hostile towards immigrants, nothing will happen.

I will never forget the xenophobic attacks that happened in 2008. I was in my first year of high school and the "burning man" was on the front page of the newspaper. A Mozambican, he had been wrapped in a blanket, fuel poured over him and set alight till he burned to death. Eleven years later, that image has not left my mind.

Now you tell me, where is the justice there?

It's easy to blame Nigerians for everything that's wrong in South Africa. I mean, if not them then who, right? It's convenient to do so. However, like another great Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe, once said, "You cannot be a part of the system you are fighting against."

The valid injustices that South Africans are facing, in no way justify the injustices they carry out against Nigerians and other foreign nationals.

Featured
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.

get okayafrica in your inbox

popular.

Interview: Omah Lay Is Nigeria's New Young Act to W​atch

We sit down with the rising Port Harcourt-born musician to talk about his latest EP, Get Layd.