Press "Enter" to skip to content

My Shangaan mirror: What I do not have and how I could get it

A while back some thoughtful pieces were posted on this site concerning xenophobia. The one that drew my attention most was Tinyiko Maluleke’s “I could die soon”. What I liked most about this article was that it historicised xenophobic sentiments instead of simply representing them as a spectacle that emerged after apartheid. I think this is helpful because in that history we might find some illuminating prototypes for answers to what we are seeing today. Like Tinyiko, I grew up in a world that harboured strong views about Shangaans — down in rural Transkei in my case.

Our own cultural monad at the time was punctured by narratives about the powers of people up north who were able to change the things we could not, and who could overcome the growing limitations imposed on local economies by a combination of apartheid geopolitics and capitalism. In our own imaginations, Shangaans had more powerful mutis and nyangas, bigger penises, women who loved hard and faithfully, and an uncanny ability to scratch a living from dirt itself. From this it would later become clear to me, as, with Tinyiko, my own fighting resources started to rise above the shoulders, that Shangaans were indeed an internal category, one that belonged to my own childhood world and there stood for our self-perceived incapacities to act effectively on our world and our imaginations of redress.

So, any successful local businessman would soon be rumoured to have smuggled the testicles of a murdered man to a strong Shangaan inyanga, who turned them into a success-generating monster. Our migrant workers bragged about taking the pain of bathing their penises in hot Shangaan medicines to make up for the shortcomings of natural endowment. More successful migrants (perhaps those with a low self-image) even imported their own Shangaan nyangas to strengthen their households before they departed for the mines — to make sure that any man who enters their wives in their absence will get a nasty STD (any wonder about the connection between HIV origin and Shangaan medicine in some rural discourses?). It became a matter of time, and the trickery native to signifying practices in general, before the people who purportedly owed their success to Shangaan medicine became Shangaans themselves and Shangaan became a proxy for ill-begotten gain, unconscionable harm to another person etc. This is why our version of xenophobia affords us an opportunity to feel both inferior and superior to them (they can get things alright but it is all unfair).

If there was a time, however, when Shangaan had simply been a rhetorical and moral category, these would soon be backed up with action. They had come too close. They were no longer exotic imports who performed the egoistic fantasies of our fathers. They were, at least in our sprawling informal settlements, neighbours. Circumstances, much like those that had made us fear for our own masculinity in the first place, brought us all together in poor living quarters and, with nothing to show for it, they continued to conjure up images of goldmines run by Nigerians in the basements of Hillbrow. We had never needed to see rich Shangaans in themselves and our obsession was not with their penises but our own. Shangaans, in other words, were our own stomachs and our own loins. Is there a better example of a “good” reason to kill somebody?

Back to history and back to Tinyiko. So, is it ever enough simply to make moral arguments of these assertions of difference if they, in fact, are so entwined in the very political economy of our history and present? Perhaps more importantly, the conundrum Tinyiko showed us about a Shangaan being a Mozambican and a Mozambican a Shangaan is not that daunting after all. For as separate categories both Shangaan and Mozambican contain nothing and cannot be subjected to the logic of empirical logic — they are, on the one hand, our brains at work, our creativity, our genius, our ART and, on the other, the tragic reality that reality is more real when it reflects our most subjective experiences. If I kill you because you are a Shangaan it is more that you are MY Shangaan than the one you might have thought you were. Europe was self-cannibalising and collapsing from under its own weight in the 1940s not because of some Jewish invasion but because Jews had almost always been part of its self-image. Shangaans, likewise, were always part of what it meant to be a South African and why that image has come to sponsor unprecedented acts of violence in our time is a question that reaches beyond individual morality and change has to be sought concurrently from each xenophobe as from the structural conditions of our time that, I must be clear, have nothing to do with Shangaans as a people but sponsor their production as icons of our problem.