The Assassins of Memory

Boubacar Boris Diop
Bhakti Shringarpure

The South African question is far too important to accommodate an explanation that is simplistic and childish.

HelenSTB, via Flickr CC.

Given its crude quality, xenophobic violence in South Africa incites a Manichean, or even a caricatured, reading: in an African country, blacks are perceived as the only foreigners and are hunted down and massacred under the derisive gaze of their fellow citizens, who were once blamed for all the evils. The latter, delighted, chuckle away, but their silence does not prevent anyone from hearing, loud and clear, the words that are running through their heads: “We told you, they only know the stick!” “They are good kids,” and so on.

On social media, millions of Africans have unleashed their fury and have found in these unfortunate events evidence of some unknown ancient curse. And in the flood of comments, there have sometimes been suggestions (softly or between the lines) that instead of attacking their “brothers,” the rioters should be cutting up the whites with machetes and vandalizing their luxurious properties.

The South Africa question is far too important to accommodate an explanation that is as simplistic and childish. We cannot tell the criminals in the townships of Alexandra and Isipingo: “You’re quite right to destroy everything in your path, but you just have the wrong target.”

In the world that we live in, no one has the right to use their difficulties as a pretext to loot, rob, rape and kill, often with unspeakable cruelty. The is called the law of the jungle, and to support it would mean to believe that these idle youth are – if we dare say – a breed apart. The least we can say is that their behavior is at odds with the teaching of Mandela. However, one must hasten to add that, contrary to appearances, millions of others excluded from South African society – “the most unequal in the world,” according to experts – have invested relentlessly for two decades in civilized and intelligent struggles to improve their living conditions. Like everywhere else….

This means that the wielders of the drunken machetes of hate are, as underlined by many observers, a tiny minority.

This fact, however, does not prevent us from wondering why their singular mode of social protest has systematized itself only in South Africa, and why it has been at work for so long.

Perhaps we do not know this well enough, but the rejection of black Africans did not start in South Africa at the end of apartheid. The ANC leaders who came into power in 1994 with thanks, in particular, to the help of Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique, are well aware that the citizens of those neighboring countries – and more widely all black foreigners – are looked at very badly in the townships, where they are called Makwerekwere. This word, the etymology of which is fairly controversial, appears to mean something rather neutral at first. Simply, migrants from the continent. But it has gradually become deeply contentious and, according to a 2008 article in The Mail and Guardian, a reputed newspaper in Johannesburg, it has come to mean that these Africans, whose skin is very dark, also smell bad. Its hard to believe, but this is unfortunately what it has become.

Three centuries of apartheid cannot be erased with the stroke of a pen and, as we were taught in the history of man, it is believed that the hatred of the Other is almost always the hatred of the self.

One would have hoped that, once they regained their freedom, South Africans would have looked at dark-skinned foreigners differently. In fact, the hard economic realities have weighed in far more than the ethical scruples. As disillusionment and social tensions have become clearer, the makwerekwere have become convenient scapegoats. There are traces of that hatred in Jerusalema, an ambitious film by Ralph Ziman, which paints a very unflattering portrait of Nigerians at the center of organized crime in Johannesburg.

The black ruling elite, glad to make others responsible for their own bankruptcy, have looked away, and in some cases have theorized this primary form of xenophobia with many mental contortions. Here, too, we should avoid excessive generalizations since political figures such as Thabo Mbeki or the legendary Ahmed Kathrada, to name a few, have never wanted to eat that bread.

There remains the nagging question, beyond the issue of the incapacity of the ANC to raise itself as high as the crucial historic stakes, about whether we should avoid judging the whole South African population for their almost friendly passivity towards the xenophobic gangs. After all, the killings in April were not the first. They have simply been accelerated since 1994, and if the two Senegalese were thrown from a moving train in September 2008, we should remember that the 62 dead in May 2008 comprised its bloody apotheosis. The torment of Mozambican Ernesto Nhamuave, burned alive on the street, remains an iconic image.

If these crimes have never really perturbed the South African opinion, it is also because the makwerekwere stigma has its corollary in a terribly isolationist mentality, the result of a very particular history that has spared no social class. I have often personally had the experience of this typically South African sense of being either outside the continent or being a grand exception to it. For example, I remember asking the person sitting next to me at a dinner in Kensington, Johannesburg, if she had ever visited Senegal. “No,” she replied immediately, “I have not yet had the opportunity. In fact I’ve never been to Africa.” Seeing my stupefied expression, she realized her blunder and we had a good laugh. I then wondered, deep down in my heart, if a Black person could have had the same reaction. I believe yes, even though a slip this unambiguous was quite exceptional.

Then, a few days later, I heard a somewhat nervous gentleman call in on an interactive radio show to make a small clarification: “Lets stop saying that Africa has had a successful World Cup. The only reason its worked out brilliantly is because it was organized by South Africa!”
While he was at it, this ardent patriot even rattled off some African countries where, according to him, it would have been a total disaster. These remarks confirmed something a disillusioned Mozambican filmmaker once told me: that “for the South Africans, everything north of Limpopo virtually belongs to another planet…” He added with a smile: “This strange and unknown world…well, it starts at my home in Maputo, a few short hours drive from Johannesburg.”

We can only expect the worst when these daily miseries and frustrations are grafted onto this truly national autism. We are talking about a country where the official unemployment rate, though largely underestimated, according to experts, is between 25- and 30 percent. And the fact that it reaches over 50 percent among black youth obviously cannot be without consequences for social peace. The number of asylum seekers makes for an even more surprising figure: around 220,000 in 2009 – that is to say the highest in the world, ahead of United States and Germany – although it fell to 62,500 three years later. These statistics were provided by UNHCR, which has seen a new surge in requests since January 2015, when the number was already at 246,000.

With five million foreigners – mostly African, and exactly one tenth of its total population – South Africa has quickly pronounced the pressure of migration to be intolerable. Those excluded from the post-apartheid system have had it particularly bad considering that they cannot count on the welfare state at all, and the newcomers, being more skilled or more enterprising, have literally snatched the bread from their mouths.

All the ingredients for an explosive situation were somehow in place, and everyone has been more or less resigned to cyclical pogroms perpetrated with an air of tranquility.

Yet it seems that something exceptional has taken place in the land of Nelson Mandela in the wake of the killings in these past days.

Signs suggest that. for the xenophobic criminal gangs, the end of impunity is near. The really good news is that the seven dead from Durban and Johannesburg have aroused more anger than the 62 victims of 2008. In truth, the world has come to the conclusion that “enough is enough.” We cannot offer hunger as the pretext for those stocking up on loaves of bread and crates of beer from other people’s stores with weapons in hand. Frankly, an embarrassing bestiality hurts us humans, and in the end, we have been resolutely condemned, this time even in South Africa.

Fortunately, it is not enough to level mere invective against the regime of Jacob Zuma. Nigeria, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique have reacted vigorously to these incidents. Some governments have started to repatriate their nationals, and South Africans working in these countries have felt unsafe for the first time. They have also been reminded of the very simple notions of interdependence and reciprocity, apparently never taken into account by Pretoria.

The South African economy owes a lot to the migrants upon whom so much misery has been heaped. Terry Bell noted recently on the BBC that if the Zimbabweans went away, the country’s banking sector would be unlikely to sustain its current level. It is true that we complain that Somali and Ethiopian small businesses should cut prices. Is that a reason to raze their shops and make them suffer the torment of the necklace?

It is also important to know that when we blame migrants for taking away South African jobs, it is they who often create jobs, however modest they may be. One of our compatriots, S. Sall, a native of Thies, is one of them. In the small town of Simonstown – less than an hour from Cape Town, where penguins attract thousands of tourists a year – his business of handicrafts did so well in 2010 that he employed six or seven young South African women, who are rather happy to work with him.

In the end, those who dreamed of a splendid South African isolation have realized with dread that it has yielded, in all respects, the worst scenarios. The setbacks are a measure of the impact. First the King of the Zulus, Goodwill Zwelithini, shamelessly took back his irresponsible remarks and improvised a press conference to call for calm. Then Jacob Zuma canceled a state visit to Indonesia and visited the Chatsworth camp with some of the thousands displaced. For once, the political class unanimously condemns the violence, and within this context, the media and civil society have had much less trouble being heard than in the past.

On a modest South African scale, all off this amounts to a “Never again,” the main merit of which will be that the xenophobia that tended to become routine will be seen as a moral deviance rejected with disgust by well-meaning women and men of an entire country. While not having the innocence to believe that the black foreigners in South Africa will now live in the best of worlds, we can assume that the gangs of hooligans, now less assured of the tacit complicity of much of the public, will not dare to attack them as openly.

Evil, however, runs deep, and it may well be that ordinary criminality will target foreigners more than before, and according to new patterns, the migrants be will just as vulnerable. What makes this situation even more messy is that many among these are in an irregular situation. In his response to Mozambican writer Mia Couto’s “Open Letter,” President Zuma stressed this point, pointing out that he must also take into account the legitimate complaints of South Africans themselves. Jacob Zuma is not alone in this: many of his fairly reasonable countrymen who do not even know what it means to be xenophobic are of this opinion. It is a perspective that should be heard. The counterpart to the hospitality and security that is expected of a host country is the scrupulous respect for its laws.

Despite all fears, there are still serious reasons to hope. In the end, these events have forced the silent majority to give voice and project another image – a less repulsive one – of South Africa. The symbol of this moral jolt was the march against xenophobia on April 23rd in Johannesburg, where a huge crowd gathered under the slogan “We are all South Africans.” And on this occasion, the moral debt of the “Rainbow Nation” with respect to the rest of the continent was often mentioned. Never has a reminder been so timely. The victory against apartheid was one of the few, perhaps even the only, success stories of independent Africa. Countries on the “frontlines” paid a high price for their support of Mandela’s comrades, and here in Senegal, generations of schoolchildren have seen written on the blackboard the famous phrase: “Apartheid is a crime against humanity.” Moreover, throughout the continent, artists, and especially musicians, have played their part effectively.

That is why the xenophobic violence in South Africa is as much a crime against memory as it is against body and property. We Africans often complain about the indifference of the world to our tragedies. If we would learn to remind ourselves a little more often of the tremendous outpouring of solidarity which eventually brought down the powerful South African racist regime, we would not be begging for the compassion of others in all circumstances.

The march planned in Dakar on April 17th in honor of the 147 victims of the carnage among students in Garissa was, in a sense, praiseworthy in its desire to reactivate this memory. To everyone’s surprise, the Senegalese people were forbidden to show solidarity with the Kenyan people. No matter what we say, it was not just the administration in Dakar that was opposed to the March, but the government of the Republic of Senegal. The same government that, while silent on the possible fate of our compatriots in the Mediterranean and in South Africa, is about to send 2,000 of our soldiers to serve as cannon fodder in distant Arabian lands. Almost no one agrees with the presence of Senegalese troops in Yemen. If this were to happen, it would be particularly damaging to our self-esteem. This would especially be the most mysterious and most foolish decision ever made in this country, and it will hasten to make us forget the mistakes, crimes and errors of the three forerunners of Macky Sall in the presidential palace.

About the Author

Boubacar Boris Diop is a Senegalese novelist, journalist and screenwriter. Diop’s career to date includes six novels in French and one in Wolof.

About the Translator

Bhakti Shringarpure is an associate professor of English at University of Connecticut, editor-in-chief of Warscapes and author of Cold War Assemblages (Routledge, 2019).

Further Reading