In the time of Xenophobia

Music fans at Harare International Festival of the Arts.

The sky is just catching its first glimpses of daylight when I hand the cab driver most of the US dollar notes I have left. The notes are a stained, worn and flimsy mess that I am glad to be rid of. I take stock of my shabbiness before entering the Harare International Airport building, and realize that I look no better than the notes I just palmed off to the cab driver.

My sneakers have gathered considerable mileage and dust in the last few days that I’ve been at the Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA), my face is still caked with a sleep I hadn’t had the night before, and my breathe smells like the whiskey that kept me up.

While the uniformed man at the Air Zimbabwe check-in desk captures my details, I mumble something about the shame I feel at handing over a South African passport. I spare him the direct brunt of my breathe for this banter, but I make it clear that I do feel the almost necessary shame.

My shame at being South African in Zimbabwe is something that I had grappled with at first and then become comfortable with towards the end of my journey. Two weeks prior to my departure for Zimbabwe, South Africans had attacked foreigners living in South Africa and looted the shops that some of them owned. Like its predecessor in 2008, this second outbreak of violence had caused a number of fatalities and injuries. On fatality had even been bandied on the front page of a widely read newspaper. Some of the victims had inevitably been Zimbabwean.

At first I had not been sure how to take the banter from young Zimbabweans at the festival when they referred to what my country folk had done to theirs. It had been an uncomfortable topic for me to speak openly about, in a country where I as the South African was the minority instead of the other way around. Perhaps because of the exclusive nature of arts festivals, I had come across Zimbabweans who understood the problem at a sophisticated level and did not blame every South African for the attacks. But most did agree with my sentiment that it was the responsibility of every South African to make sure that this kind of thing never happened again on South African soil.

What was most saddening is the fact that even with the situation as it was, many of the Zimbabwean people I spoke to accepted the situation as it was: many Zimbabweans had no choice but to live and work in South Africa and they would have to continue this existence with or without the welcome and hospitality of all South Africans.

Once the man at check-in has captured my details and tagged my bag, he points me to counter where I needed to pay an additional $50 for my trip. He points with a smile on his face. I panic at not having that kind of money at hand after a festival that had already stripped my bank account to its skimpy under garments. I forget my breathe and try to explain my situation. “There is nothing I can do” he says.

I rehash the same explanation at the counter he has directed me to. The bored-looking clerk behind a glass panel says “If you don’t have the money, you are not getting on that flight.” I curse Air Zimbabwe out loud and continue to curse them for the next few days for not telling me and other passengers about the additional fees put in place after their disagreement with the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe (CAAZ).

Realising the futility of my vitriol, I search the lobby for someone I might recognize. Two poets from Botswana say that they too are cash strapped and hope that their South African Airways flight doesn’t carry this levy. I approach a Black woman in a striped black and white dress and sandals. I explain my situation, by now forgetting that my breathe smells like hades on garbage collection day. “Ask my husband, he is sitting there” she points to a stock man in a striped green white and khaki shirt sitting opposite a young man in track pants and a hoodie.

I don’t get a chance to finish my explanation before Mr. Maramwidze instructs his son to give me the $100 that he has, and tells me to bring back the change. I pay the departure fee with tears in my eyes and struggle to compose myself when I return to thank the him, his family and his country. Later his Mrs. Maramwidze, who had been standing in a queue for him, brushes away my offer to send the money back to him. “Be kind to somebody else” she says, and walks out of the airport building.

Images from the Harare International Festival of the Arts courtesy of the author:

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