All of the languages and Xenophobia in South Africa

So South Africa,beautiful country, have a blast every time I am there,  a few years back, 2010 World cup woo hoo! Lately I am not a big fan and we will talk about why in a second.

sunset in capetown
Sunset in the Cape!

Let’s start on a lighter note, a historical phenomenon I find most fascinating about South Africa, the languages spoken in that country. When some people meet me they assume I speak French or Swahili or “African”. Then they found out I am from southern Africa and proceed to make the click sounds at me in reference to the little they know about the “click” languages in Africa. While all these assumptions about me are well, slightly racist, they are not entirely baseless. So I thought I would break down this whole language business across Africa, and esp. the south.

So every native African you will meet will likely speak at least 2 languages. One will be the language of their colonial masters depending on who colonized their country or origin, of which English and French will be the biggest ones. We will also then speak our mother tongue, which is generally according to what tribe folks are from. I am Shona, so I speak Shona and,  we are one of the few tribes whose language does not have the “click” sounds in Southern Africa. Those languages are actually largely spoken in South Africa, and they are  about 8 of the 11 official languages in the country, including, Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho, Swazi and Ndebele.

If you have never heard of them, they are these insanely beautiful languages with intricate click consonants to them, that depend on where you put your tongue when you speak. Zulu is the most common one and Xhosa is the most intense one, in term of clicks per minute, by my personal assessment. I spent some time in Cape Town a few years ago., where most of Xhosa people are from, and my daily train rides to work were very colorful, with people coming to me and just starting to click away at me! I would have no idea what they are talking about,  and they would first assume I am  being a snob, they they would realise I am actually foreign,  I am Zimbabwean. At this point their whole attitude towards me would change which leads to my second story in this piece, the reason why I burnt my fan club card of South Africa, xenophobia.

South Africans do not like Zimbabweans, or other Africans for that matter. This is of course a very broad generalization, but it is very relevant right now because it parallels America’s relationship with immigrants, especially since this election. By virtue of being colonized the longest, South Africa is the most developed economy in Africa and is considered the African land of opportunity. Much like America, large populations of immigrants from less fortunate circumstances across the continent have been migrating to South Africa since its independence in 1994, seeking greener pastures. In fact the largest immigrant population in South Africa, is actually Zimbabweans, who have been moving there for the past  2 decades since our own country has been in economic and political turmoil . Our dynamic with South Africa is largely like  the US- Mexico one; we go to South Africa, do all  the menial jobs and send money back home to our families.

 However several times in the past few years, there has been widespread xenophobia protests by South Africans targeted at  foreigners,  in particular other black Africans. The most recent ones were in 2008 and 2015  and they always end in a lot of people dead, injured and displaced and the South African government barely containing the situation. The causes of this attitude amongst the South Africans who perpetrate them  can be boiled down to economic struggles i.e. competition for jobs, commodities and housing as well as nationalism and a belief in South African exceptionalism or a feeling of superiority in relation to other Africans, ring a bell here America?

A good read on the phenomenon is on the link below.

South African Xenophobia:why there is so much hatred for foreigners

Obviously this is a complicated issue but I I have feelings about this, because my people were burned alive on the streets for trying to earn a living, but a bigger sentiment is around how Africans take care of each other, and South Africans seem to forget that. South Africa was the last country to be de-colonized in Africa and literally everyone was holding it down for them until then. Before 1994, throngs of South African refugees were pouring across the their borders to neighboring countries and we welcomed them and took care of them, not that they owe us or anything but, short term memory much?

Additionally, these xenophobia protests are a symptom of much bigger deep seated social and political issues in the country, that South Africa leaders have not solved since they got independence.  For instance, there is a grain of truth in the foreigners taking jobs argument, because compared to Zimbabwe, South Africa’s education system is poor and has not been developed much since their independence. Consequently, Zimbabweans, who are from  the #1 most literate country in Africa, (90% literacy rate thank you :)),  have over the years swooped in on a lot of skilled jobs at a lower pay in South Africa! But of  course let’s blame it on the foreigners!

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