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By Cano Ssemakalu

It can be tough being a foreigner in South Africa, even if you are here legally. I have lived here for seven years now, during which I’ve been treated like a South African by the very generous government and its people. But my grievance is with the corporations in the private sector that discriminate against foreigners.

I find it very annoying that if you’re not South African then you’ve no right to various services offered by companies. The first incident happened four years ago. It was the start of a new semester and I was walking with my friend to campus. Suddenly we were stopped by a person who happened to be a sales representative for a bank. He told us about all the services the bank could offer us as students. We were so captivated we followed the salesman to his stall to give him our information.

After my friends had registered it was my turn. He asked for my name, address and identification, which I presented. As I waited in anticipation to sign a document that would enable me obtain the account of my choice, the face and mood of the salesman changed. I asked if everything was fine. He looked me in the eye and told me “I am sorry bra you do not qualify for this service”. I smiled and asked him why. He replied “eish you are not South African”.

If they needed a referee or some indication that I am employed I would understand. But there was nothing financially different between me and my South African friends. Later on I decided to go to one of the bank branches. Guess what, he was right. For a moment there I was so angry I wanted to take all my business elsewhere. In an attempt to do so I realised that all the banks share the same policy, which unfairly discriminates against foreigners.

Being in South Africa you get to learn a lot about insurance company advertisements, especially those screened on television. One thing I always wanted to insure was my gadgets. One Saturday morning I happened to be watching a TV show when it was interrupted by a commercial. The insurance company alerted viewers that they could take out an insurance policy (I don’t remember what for) at a ridiculously low premium of about R60 a month. The commercial ended with “SMS us on xyz and we will call you back”.

Without wasting any time I sent them an SMS. Two days later I received a call. After a lengthy chat about the services came the questions, of which the first two regarded my name and address. The third question was to read my identification number. I told the saleswoman that I had a passport and that I was going to read out my passport number. In a very sad tone she said she was very sorry and that the service was only for South Africans. I told her that it was OK and that I understood. The fact is, I was trying to be understanding.

About two months ago I received a call from my cellphone service provider. The person on the other end took the time to inform me that my number was forwarded to them by their head office based on the fact that I was a great customer. The criteria for a great customer here is based on how much airtime you load a month. She told me that if I paid a small amount of money (R50) a month I would receive a lot of free minutes as well as SMSs. Man, was I excited to hear that until I was asked for my ID.

At times I ask myself what the main object of any given business is.

Cano Ssemakalu is involved in the initiation of an innovative food security project aimed at township dwellers.


  • Mandela Rhodes Scholars who feature on this page are all recipients of The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, awarded by The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, and are members of The Mandela Rhodes Community. The Mandela Rhodes Community was started by recipients of the scholarship, and is a growing network of young African leaders in different sectors. The Mandela Rhodes Community is comprised of students and professionals from various backgrounds, fields of study and areas of interest. Their commonality is the set of guiding principles instilled through The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship program: education, leadership, reconciliation, and social entrepreneurship. All members of The Mandela Rhodes Community have displayed some form of involvement in each of these domains. The Community has the purpose of mobilising its members and partners to collaborate in establishing a growing network of engaged and active leaders through dialogue and project support [The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship is open to all African students and allows for postgraduate studies at any institution in South Africa. See The Mandela Rhodes Foundation for further details.]


Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Mandela Rhodes Scholars who feature on this page are all recipients of The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, awarded by The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, and are members...

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