Sunday Read: For us, Zimbabweans, South Africa is home

Image of Johannesburg’s skyline by Babak Fakhamzadeh. Via Flickr.com

“Zimbabwe” is fodder for all kinds of rhetoric, whether populist or conservative, that now swirls among South African political and economic elites. You just have to declare someone a Zimbabwean or use Zimbabwe as some kind apocalyptic future. It has become a potent political takedown. Take for instance, the allegation by Vytjie Mentor, a former MP of the ruling ANC party, that new finance minister Malusi Gigaba is a “Zimbabwean.” In another case, the discredited general secretary of the powerful South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (SATAWU) and ANC branch member, Zenzo Mahlangu, faced the same fate. Mahlangu suffered a worst fate: His political enemies made sure he was deported.

Even President Jacob Zuma is measured by how much he is leading South Africa to emulate Zimbabwe. Since coming into office in 2009, his government has careered from one corruption scandal to another. In the latest scandal to grip his administration, Zuma is accused of allowing financial and political dealings between the state, his sons and the shady Gupta family. To some, this is a stark reminder of the rampant patronage politics in neighboring Zimbabwe that contributed in turning the country into a corruption-filled cesspool.

“Zimbabwe” is also a bogeyman. It’s an uncomfortable reminder that, if not addressed with the urgency they deserve, or if left in the hands of opportunistic politicians, morally imperative questions like the struggle for land and its redistribution, can go terribly wrong. Again, some populist outfits, often with undefined agendas, are quick to take “Zimbabwe” as a launch-pad for their incendiary and racially charged rhetoric. For example, Andile Mngxitama of the “Black First Land First” movement delights in posturing as a champion of black people who will “follow Zimbabwe” and take land from whites “by force.”

Yet, when “Zimbabwe” is not used as a synonym for insults, contempt, and scapegoating, we, from the lands north of the Limpopo river, have always braved the bone-jolting tracks of the savanna to Johannesburg, Durban, Kimberly, and Cape Town to leave marks that are not easy to ignore on the social and political landscapes of those places. We have pursued education, sport, religion, and various forms of activism – in short, we have actively engaged ourselves in all markers of civic life. For us, South Africa is just across the river. We consider ourselves an indispensable and integral part of its national life, because it is our home.

Clement Kadalie, the godfather of black trade unionism in South Africa, born in Malawi, honed his skills in Zimbabwe and arrived in Cape Town an accomplished proletarian. The celebrated ANC stalwart, and first black African Nobel laureate, Chief Albert Luthuli, gazed at the sun for the first time in Bulawayo. In song, poetry, stories, and other genres of popular culture, we leave indelible spoors. Men and women, black and white, from Johannesburg to New York, were dazzled by August Musarugwa’s saxophone as he churned out hits like “Skokiaan” (or when it was covered by musicians like Louis Armstrong – Ed.). Dorothy Masuka’s perfect vocals took her from singing in the eating-houses of Bulawayo to being one of the most formidable anti-Apartheid voices. Born to a Zimbabwean father, Dj Oskido’s influence in the emergence of the popular “kwaito” music genre can’t be overlooked. The same can be said about Anesu “Appleseed” Mupemhi, who made his name as a chanter in the kwaito trio Bongo-Muffin. These artists built a religious following among music-loving southern Africans during careers spanning more than two decades. Others wedged themselves into television and film studios. Alyce Chavhunduka, Peter Ndoro, Leeroy Gopal, Simba Mhere, Tendai Chirisa and Luthuli Dhlamini are easily remembered and much-loved faces of South Africa’s prime-time television.

The raw physical strength of Tendai Mtawarira made him a household name in South African rugby. Popularly known as “Beast”, Mtawarira will be remembered for as one of the few black players to honorably don the green and gold colors of the South African national team, in a sport that is notoriously allergic to racial transformation. From the mid-1990s, Zimbabwean-born football players also captured the imagination of sport-crazed South Africans. We can count on the list, Ian Gorowa, Wilfred and William Mugeyi, Cleopas Dlodlo, Robson Mtshitshwa, Alois Bunjira, Adam Ndlovu, Benjamin Mwaruwaru, Tinashe Nengomasha, Khama Billiart and Knowledge Musona, among others.

Many of us, however, never made it onto the front pages of newspapers and magazines. “Shosholoza, Shosholoza kulezo ntaba” (“go forward to those mountains”) sang our migrant workers, in awe of the train that that took them through the forbidding mountains and across the Limpopo River, to labor on the mines of Johannesburg. We crossed, and continue to do so, the crocodile-infested river and the unpredictable Kruger National Park. We brave the guma-guma highway men who patrol the bushes of Musina, the unceasing road accidents, the pesky police and boarder officials. We sustain transnational households on both sides of the river, ignoring those geopolitical lines scribbled in Berlin of 1884. Even when vulnerability mars our movements, we calculate all that before crossing to either side of the river. We turn the tragic into the jocular. It is home after all.

“Xenophobic pogroms” must be a “rude reminder” that one had to visit the other side, someone once joked, and the gumbakumba deportation trucks from South African police are the “free transport”. Clamp downing down on us in Hillbrow, under the pretext of “managing immigration” just sends us under the radar. We render ourselves invisible or present fake chidhuura documents. For us, that Berlin line is “fake” and deserves “fake” legitimation.

We won’t quit, because for us, Zimbabweans, South Africa is home. We’ll jump that apartheid era fence, with or without the dompas.

Melusi Nkomo

Melusi Nkomo is a doctoral candidate at IHEID in Geneva and formerly a fellow at the Center for African Studies at Harvard University.

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