Since the early 1990s through several significant stops in 2008, 2015 and 2019, violent attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa continue to flare up and increasingly seem to have become some kind of acceptable norm. A recent addition to the list of these ill-fated things, foreign-owned shops in Thokoza, East of Johannesburg, were ransacked and burnt on 29 July 2020. Perpetrators of xenophobic attacks advocate for the discrimination, displacement, disempowerment, disaffection and even death of foreign nationals in South Africa. They justify their vicious actions as a means to defend and restore their own socio-economic existence. There are progressively less opportunities in their communities, they say, and add to that this year, the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The offenders assert, though evidence consistently invalidates their claims, that foreign nationals living, working or owning small businesses within their communities steal jobs and compound their livelihood woes. Frighteningly, the recent spate of attacks in Thokoza comes within less than a year since the September 2019 violent attacks targeting mostly African migrants and their shops across the country. At that time, 12 lives were lost, 10 of which were South African, mostly in the Gauteng Province. In the days following, over 700 displaced Nigerians and Zimbabweans were repatriated.
Tolerating violent attacks heavily compromises the already fragile social relations between foreign nationals and South Africans in many communities scattered around the country. Xenophobic attacks, or any other form of discrimination, are particularly defining to the fate of the entire African continent (including South Africa itself), that of Africans as a people and to the future of the symbolic “Shangaan bag”. How will we – Africans – redefine ourselves (and our bags) in a COVID-19-challenged future that demands our deeper introspections and benevolence in the face of multiple crises? Will we continue to reactively kowtow to our frustrations and turning on our neighbours in order to vent out? Or will we rise up to the challenge of showing the world that we truly carry in our hearts the spirit of “Ubuntu” that we lay claim to?
In 1983, many West Africans, mostly Ghanaians, were forcibly repatriated from a wealthier Nigeria at the time – or they would be jailed. The checked red and blue plastic big bag – popularly dubbed the “Ghana must go” – became a symbol of strife for a helpless and dispossessed people. It became an emblem of the pain that many West Africans carried within.
Today, the same bag, with its many names such as “China bag”, “saga bag” or “Shangaan bag”, carries the luggage of Malawians, Mozambicans, Nigerians, Pakistanis, Somalis, Zimbabweans and other migrants who – heavy-laden and their hearts soaked with contempt – have decided to leave the victimisation and fear which come with living in South Africa. One can even say that the bag has become a familiar symbol of poverty, displacement and forlorn pain permeating the African continent: something like the Malian musician Salif Keita’s heart wrenching monotone wailing from the depths of Djoliba, but for peace and collective prosperity in Africa.
In the book The Educated Waiter: Memoir of an African Immigrant – the “Shangaan bag” plays a pivotal role in telling the story of migrants who had to send food home to Zimbabwe from South Africa in the turbulent year 2008. At that time, Zimbabwe was undergoing a historically significant general election, while some township streets in South Africa were burning as some community members raged on, similar to the advocates of the, again recent, “#ZimbabweansMustFall” rhetoric.
The protagonist in the book paints a vivid picture of the difficulties that he faced while trying to send off, from Park Station bus terminus in central Johannesburg, some food home to his kith and kin in Zimbabwe. His and many other Africans’ sellotaped “Shangaan bags” have always been attempts by fleeing migrants to preserve what remains of their belongings. Often, their bags have been tattered by agitation in the same way that their lives are shattered by baying crowds. The merciless crowds have time and again thrown burning tyres, pangas and knobkerries their way. Many Shangaan-bag-carrying migrants have narrowly escaped, but others have not been so fortunate.
Many labour migrants travelling to and fleeing from South Africa have carried their merx in the “Ghana must go” bag for decades. Inbound, it securely houses their hankering for better livelihoods in the comparatively stable economy that is South Africa. Soon, their hopes are thwarted when some of them – like Ghanaians whose backs were forcefully turned away from a hostile Nigeria of the 1980s – are met with animosity, disdain and sheer violence. Women’s heads are suddenly heavy-laden by these weighty “Nigeria must gos”, “Zimbabwe must gos”, “Pakistan must gos” – these “anyone must gos” – balanced on them like thick firewood logs, despite constant anxiety and lurching.
These ill-fated, on-head-balanced bags swaying and hardly steady, sit above violated, wailing children clutching onto their mothers’ skirts beneath. Indeed, “Shangaan bags” are a cold and wet on a winter’s night symbol of the migrant’s fate. This saddening picture, yet a snapshot taken from reality, instantly invalidates commonplace phrases like “Ubuntu” and “rainbow nation” to which South African society aspires. As things now stand, this at times idealistic bombast has been fully put to the test. Furthermore – as is commonly believed – South Africa has one of the best Constitutions in the world. If that is so, perhaps it has now become more imperative than before to implement it resolutely in protecting the basic human rights of all humans – including foreign nationals, women and children.
Tracing back through the history of African civilisation, it can be proven that Africans were not this murderous, tyrannical people who lack compassion for others. Or are we? The scourges of hatred, exclusion and violence are maladies that South Africans and all other Africans – ordinary citizens right up to political and business leaders – should fight vigorously and deliberately, rather than passively. Violence is a lose-lose gamble for everyone, a ticking time bomb that will undoubtedly propel the demise of South Africa’s political and socio-economic reputation. South Africans – with the aid of rigorous awareness campaigns, migration policy reforms and effective, impartial policing – are capable of ridding the country of these ugly, divisive social phenomena of prejudice and hatred culminating in violence. Given South Africa’s history, the latter is not a reputation that the country can afford to tolerate.
We should never, especially now faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, go back to 2008 – year of the unforgettable, disgraceful image that was Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave – ‘the burning man’. That lost life – and the lives of over 60 people who died that year – truly revealed humanity at its worst. In the same way that Apartheid did, ‘the burning man’ bloodstained South Africa to the world. With that in mind, one last question begs our contemplation: do we, Africans, have what it takes to change the fate of the “Shangaan bag” today, starting with where we live, work or lead? Or do we not care what will happen when our children will carry it tomorrow?
Article by TZ Taruvinga, Author of The Educated Waiter: Memoir of an African Immigrant. TZ Taruvinga is a published author and ghostwriter, as well as a corporate trainer working with private and public sector organisations on the African continent.