Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

On makwerekwere…

Submitted by Boitumelo Magolego

The inside cover of my Oxford English dictionary features a word with which I have become all too familiar: the word is kwerekwere.
(It may be more familiar to you with one of its vernacular language–dependant prefixes prepended — the Sotho singular being le– and plural ma–, the Nguni singular being i– and plural ama–). This word is used to refer to black (in the morphological sense) Africans who are not South Africans — South African being defined as Sotho, Nguni, Venda and Tsonga ethnic groups (by that measure the Swazis, Batswana, etc. would be South African?). This word has a very negative sting to it and is often used with contempt. From what I gather it has undertones which speak of how black Africans are believed to be sub–human, too dark and have a pungent smell. Two other words also used in this regard are grigamba and kom–ver (as in the Afrikaans kom van ver) — each prepended with the relevant prefix.

Even though these words seem new to some people, I have been hearing them as far back as I can remember. My grandparents also say that these words have been in use for as long as they can remember. What’s my point? The contempt with which South Africans regard black African foreigners is not a post–democracy phenomenon. The question which everyone has been asking since the May 12 Alexandra killings is: What has made South Africans behave like this? What has brought about all this anger and rage? To me a more relevant question is: What was the trigger event which resulted in the outpouring of all this pent–up contempt?

In order to understand what may have been the trigger, we need to delve into how (in my view) a lot of black South Africans view black African foreigners. Before I deal with how these kwerekwere purging mobs are assembled and the possible motivations for these purges, I would like to address the premise of these purges, that is, the ability to identify makwerekwere from a group of people.

Primarily makwerekwere are believed to have a black (as in coal black) skin complexion. They are believed to have a pungent smell. It is said to be such a strong smell that I have heard a number of girls say that when walking by in a mall and it hits you, you cannot mistake it for anything but. I have been in a taxi where the passengers refused what was a Mozambican national entry into the taxi, retorting “driver re na re ka se kgone” (driver the assault on our nostrils is just too much to bear). Lastly, there is language and accent. Are these descriptions true?

I have conversed on multiple occasions with people from Ghana, Benin, Nigeria, DRC, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Namibia, and I did not think nor notice that all those individuals had a particular smell. I have been to Kenya and I did not think nor notice the people there to have had a particular smell (excuse the arrogance in proclaiming myself arbiter of who smells and who not). Have I encountered this spoken of smell? Yes, I have (on multiple occasions). Do I think that all people from Africa are dark? No, I know many individuals from these countries which have a fair complexion. The Kenyan population, in general, I feel could pass off as “South African” — that is in terms of complexion. Do I agree that there are some black foreigners which are a tad dark? Yes, but the same could be said for some South Africans.

So now that there are supposed traits whereby the foreigners can be identified, what would motivate such an identification and possible subsequent purge? On television, it has been reported that certain officials believe these not to be purges but criminally motivated acts, so that the criminals may rape and loot the victims. Absolute rubbish. The generally accepted official reasons given are that the foreigners are taking people’s jobs and committing crime. Other more pertinent factors which I think are being overlooked, are as follows.

Firstly, the issue of black South African on black South African prejudice which has found a home in South Africa. For an example of this you merely need go to a mall and notice the contemptuous manner in which some black staff treat black customers versus the Caucasian customers. I think this is part of the legacy of black people’s subjugation, the fact that on a subliminal level we are prejudicial towards our own.

Another example of this is the lingering tribal supremacist attitudes which we encounter in our homes and communities. A more high profile example of this I read in Cyril Ramaphosa’s biography, wherein account is given of how when he was lobbying for the presidency of the ruling party, some individuals reportedly retorted that they would not be “ruled by a Venda dog”. I for one cannot struggle to see how such a prejudice could be easily extended to black Africans.

Secondly, I think there is a sense of disillusionment regarding the ANC–led government and its purported non–delivery. This, I feel, creates a continual sense of frustration among indigent South Africans. This frustration, if not vented out via protests and tyre burning, I feel could find release by pinning it on a scapegoat — black foreigners in this case.

Thirdly, the reportedly burgeoning black middle–class (or so–called black-diamond class) is resulting in the stratification of the South African income profile. I believe that pre–democracy, the black population by and large had a very similar and flat income profile (barring the few families which had shops, butcheries and medical practices); this homogeneity I believe played down issues of who had what, because by and large everyone was the same. Enter black diamonds and some families can now afford more than others. This I think creates subliminal pressure and frustration among those who are failing to access and reap the benefits of the country’s liberalised economy. You may argue that this is not unique to South Africa; yes, nonetheless it is a contributing factor.

Fourthly, there is the point of high inflation and interest rates and thus the rapidly escalating cost of living. This places people in a position where they are failing to subsist — of course further adding to the frustration.

Fifthly, there is the issue of South Africa becoming the bread basket of the continent and thus attracting a lot of foreigners to our land. This has resulted in an acute increase in the foreign black population; this further exacerbates the frustration.

The penultimate factor is the issue of Zimbabwe and Somalia, and the reported mass influx of the respective foreigners.

Lastly, there is the issue of negative stereotypes which have been perpetuated about black foreigners. One such is that Nigerians are untrustworthy drug–dealers with a penchant for aggression.

Now that we have supposedly identified makwerekwere, have subliminal motivation for their purge and have a pretext, a question which I have recently encountered arises: How do you mobilise people to go on these purges? I think the socially cohesive nature of the communities wherein these events take place, provides a clue. In these communities it is not uncommon to know who the in–laws of someone living five houses down the street, are. Thus people know each other (in stark contrast to life in suburbs) and if you ever wanted to see the bush telegraph in action and not merely confined to history textbooks, visit these communities.

Point being, once such a purge is initiated it is very easy to spread the message, and get all and sundry involved. A friend of mine who lives in one of Mamelodi’s (east of Pretoria) squatter–camps (where one such purge occurred), says another factor is the issue of social coercion. That is, the modus operandi which was used in the eighties to weed out dimpipi or ascaris (i.e. spies), the “it is either you are with us or against us” mentality. Thus you find people who would not get involved in the physical beatings but rather jeering or being idle spectators. How and who starts it? In such highly charged environments (Khutshong comes to mind), there are always instigators who wield social capital and as a result can get people up in arms.

But in all of this, how do black Africans feel? Are we meeting the expectations that black foreigners have of South Africa? Many of these individuals feel that their countries gave home to the South African struggle contingent in the heydays of Apartheid; yet here they are, asking us to wash their hands as they did ours, and we choose to turn a cold shoulder. Thus a lot of them have this sense of disillusionment when they are treated with such contempt here.

I think part of the problem here is that people from my age upwards hand scant education regarding what truly was happening during the Struggle (for example, I only discovered further in my high schooling that when it was said that Nelson Mandela went underground, it did not mean that there were underground tunnels in Soweto — clearly English is not my mother–tongue). I can only hope that the education system at present is doing much more and conscientising the school–going youth.

The remedies which I have seen deployed to ameliorate this escalating situation, are advertisements which were being run on radio around Human Right’s Day this year. Other than that I have heard of no other interventions (I make an effort to look at a newspaper once a week, listen to radio news once a week and watch TV news once a week). Given that it was Easter, I did not hear of anyone asking the Bishop Lekganyane to speak to the congregants at Moria. I did not hear the South African Council of Churches (SACC) telling their members to allot a minute or so in their Easter sermons. I did not hear members of the Congress of Traditional Leaders (CONTRALESA) being asked to speak to their subjects about this matter. I did not hear anyone requesting the Congress of Traditional Healers to give voice to this issue. Which leads me to ask: Given our seemingly lacklustre efforts, are the victims of all this violence to believe that this is immigration policy by other means?

As a matter of principle we should categorically reject this barbaric behaviour. I expect that following the Alexandra incident you will grow tired of hearing politician after politician, radio presenter after radio presenter, condemning the behaviour of the people who perpetrate these purges. Do I think that this condemnation is going to help? No. Do I think South Africans in these communities will feel vilified and not listened to? Yes. I think these condemnations will be perceived as “the powers that be once again glossing over their concerns”.

By all means arrest the perpetrators. Do I think the arrests will act as a deterrent against such future behaviour? Yes, I do. Do I think that the arrests will help change people’s attitudes? No, it will merely result in a cold war. What is needed more than anything is a systematic rehabilitation of people’s attitudes.

I think that pontificating about how narrowminded and savage people are, and not really trying to come up with drives to educate people and rehabilitate their attitudes, is not what we need. South Africa ran massive drives circa 1994 to get people to buy into the rainbow nation idea and to put down arms; I think we should embark on similar drives to make people understand that these Africans are our brothers. South Africans need to understand that black African foreigners are not to be feared, treated as sub–human or purged. Failing that, I feel on the passing of Tatu Mandela we may experience a purge transient, which would have the world disgusted and may permanently scar us.

Beyond the political expedience and convenience of accepting these foreigners into our communities, we need to understand that they, too, are humans like any other. In case you missed that, I will repeat it: Beyond the political expedience and convenience of accepting these foreigners into our communities, we need to understand that they, too, are humans like any other. We as South Africans need to make our people understand that with the economy that we have amassed, there are going to be responsibilities. If, in the words of Biko, we truly want to give the world a more human face, then we need to rise above such pettiness. We are sons of Moshoeshoe, Sekhukhune, Luthuli and Mandela, we have little choice but to rise to the occasion.

Boitumelo Magolego was born in the northern townships of Pretoria and spent his formative years living in rural Limpopo. He completed his electronic engineering honours degree as a Mandela Rhodes Scholar at the University of Pretoria.

Melo asks: if Superman torpedoes 500m into the sea and back out, during that period that he is in the water, is he flying or swimming?”