Monday, April 20, 2009

Dispatch: Conversations on Xenophobia

Wednesday is Election Day. Barring something radical happening, Jacob Zuma will become South Africa’s next President. The campaigning is becoming more aggressive. My favorite new poster, for the Independent Democrats, reads “Put Criminals in Jail, Not in Government.” Babalwa is in East London handing out pamphlets for her party, the African Christian Democratic Party. Their presence is not huge, but she is a member and it is her first presidential election, the first she is really engaged in which is exciting. On Friday morning at my favorite cafĂ©, I was procrastinating and eavesdropping on a neighboring table – three women talking about their concerns of South Africa degenerating into another Zimbabwe, people being trapped and unable to leave. Fear? Paranoia? They too will vote on Wednesday. I know people who are voting for the new Congress of the People party (COPE) – some are heavily involved in local party leadership, others may not be 100% sure but see it as an alternative, and many still hope. Others are ANC stalwarts and will vote for the ANC – some are not Zuma supporters, but it is the party that matters. Others still, like my friend’s boyfriend, are ANC stalwarts but do not like Zuma and therefore will simply not go to the polls at all.

The large posters on the side of the road are my constant reminders of the impending elections but I am immersed in new reflections on youth, on how we rationalize our actions, separate what we do from what we think, develop our moral compass.

In the past month, I have been crisscrossing the area, conducting interviews with young people – in groups, one on one, whole classes – about xenophobia and in particular the violence that erupted last May. I have been to Masiphumelele township near the beach town of Fish Hoek, to Imizamo Yethu, in glorious Hout Bay, I have been to private Jewish schools, to a surprisingly diverse former Model C school, and to very exclusive all boys private schools. That last one was a bit intimidating -- the first time I have stood in front of a classroom filled with boys or young men sitting up in uniforms, a school of looming pillars that breathes its many years and very establishment. I have also spent time at Vusisizwe High School in Zwelethemba township outside Worcester, about an hour and a half from Cape Town. Every time I drive into Zwelethemba, through the one road that is the entrance to this township, I am reminded of the incredible strategy of the apartheid government as it built these townships with only one main road to come in and out, so much the better to control people.

I have encountered passionate, dynamic, young people. I have been surprised, delighted and challenged by their views and by my own. And I have learned how little I know and how much my own opinions and views of the violence last May are influenced by what I read and watched about it in the news, and how complex things are when one really begins to interrogate things. I see that the issues presented and the themes here reach far beyond xenophobia.

I have met many young people who participated in looting and were very upfront about it. But what surprised me were their reasons why. We have an image of perpetrators that is a flat image – they are bad people, they committed wrong, they hate foreigners. In fact it seems more complicated and layered now. Many were not xenophobic, are not. They did it for fun. They did it because their friends were doing it. They did it because they were angry. They did it because they were hungry. All of this is just as disturbing. As one boy told me, “Many people were in the streets, some to get food, some do it for fun. Not all people hate foreigners. Others do it for fun or they have poverty at home, others they hate foreigners.” This boy, Alutha, whose Xhosa name means struggle, was in the street, picking up errant sweets that had landed on the ground from the looted shops, singing with friends and having fun. Fun. The violence in Zwelethemba erupted in March – two months before the country exploded. It started when a Somalian shopkeeper killed a 20 year old named Eddie. I was not there. His friends say he was a lovely open person. They say the shopkeeper was robbed earlier in the night, and “rest his soul,” they add, Eddie was drunk. He had purchased cigarettes and not gotten proper change. Then again, as with so many crimes of this nature, we were not there. A friend of mine says that these incidents make the looting and violence that happened after more complex than clear xenophobia in other places – that some might look and see, not something excusable, but a rationalization for the violence.

“When I marched,” Alutha says, “I have in mind the struggles from apartheid. I thought how did they do that. I thought let me do that and have that imagination that I was in the struggle.” “I wasn’t thinking right or wrong, I just wanted hair cream,” one girl told me. And who doesn’t want to look beautiful. Others were angry, wanted to destroy. One, who says he likes his Zimbabwean neighbors and he now understands how important foreigners are to the country, says he just wanted to destroy. He was angry and looted and wanted to destroy. But his moral compass would not push him over the edge to physical violence, to hurt another person.

And several of his classmates simply want foreigners out. One seems to define xenophobia as the violence that occurred, not the belief or energy. He can separate the actual violence from his fierce desire to rid his community of foreigners who he feels take their jobs and strain the community. He told me that “it” was wrong but foreigners still need to get out. “It” is the violence clearly. The idea of that separation is so interesting to me. To see a behavior as wrong but not a sentiment. Like people who have feelings but if you do not act on them the do not exist. People who are anti-Semitic, but have a few Jewish friends who they do not place in the category of Jews they dislike.

I also met many students who felt that they lived miles, a world, a universe away from this violence. Some did not know their place, could they speak up? “As a white South African,” explained one girl, “I was not directly involved. I felt scared to say something to offend people – a black South African or a foreigner might be upset and say, ‘Why are you talking, you aren’t involved?’” She continued, “The husband of my domestic worker is from Angola. What are you when your husband is Angolan and you are South African, what are you? What side are you on?”

Another girl struck me when she explained, “I had a perfect image of South Africa, you are sheltered but when your friends are affected you become part of this terrible vision that is South Africa.” She attends a school with several foreign students who stay in hostels and couldn’t figure out how to comfort her friends.

Many wanted to help but didn’t know what they could do. A big debate ensued about the impact of collecting food as an act of assistance, how we define help and action in these situations. What is enough, but also what makes us feel like we have really made a difference. Several were involved in school, youth group, or church efforts to assist – by making things, collecting, cooking, and engaging with refugees and victims.

One girl admitted to being a bit cynical. “Even though you thought it might not make a big difference you still try,” she says, “despite the big feeling of hopelessness, that giving hope just prolongs their suffering. Befriending people and talking to them in a real way is more helpful than food…They’re not just taking shelter, but they take that feeling.”

Some felt there was not much they could do besides make sandwiches or blankets in their school hall. Could they really go into the townships? “It’s a long way,” said one girl. “If its not in front of our eyes then its like its not in our universe. You have to make a balance between not putting yourself at risk and not being ignorant.”

One group of girls approached their principal to help, they wanted to have a protest outside the school, hold events, take action. The principal was not encouraging and told the girls that these things would scare the foreign girls living in the hostels, but she would think about it. “We were deflated after,” said one girl. In the end they had a drive for food and personal items. And another, “When you have a big vision and you’re told that all you can do is bring a toothbrush to someone, you feel frustrated.” That line is one of my favorites and never fails to make me smile.

Sometimes as the conversation went deeper into the reasons for the xenophobia and what may have motivated some Black South Africans to take this kind of action, it moved into the class and race divide here and I heard things that I didn’t expect. “When I look back this country has been a war zone for many years,” explained one 14-year-old boy. “I heard on the radio, ‘Once we’re done with the foreigners we’re going for the Whites.’ It scared me. None of us have good job opportunities when we’re older. It’s really unfair. Xenophobia is an example of how they act ruthlessly when they don’t get their way. They have no sympathy and it’s their brothers. Its not whites. Its so scary how they do this to their own.” It makes me wonder where youth get their opinions and beliefs. How they are influenced by what they read, what they learn in school, teachers… and parents. Family dinners and the conversations that come with them are powerful forces.

One girl who grew up in a township and attends a privileged school reminded us that poor Black people are not the only xenophobic ones in South Africa. “Everyone says the perpetrators were from the townships,” she said. “They were, but last year catching a train home at peak hour, a lady was in the train and a Somali guy came in the train and by mistake he steps on the lady and she loses it. She said, ‘You’re not even from here.’” A classmate then asked if the woman was White and she confirmed and continued, “It’s easier to say perpetrators are so stupid but you get a lot of people sitting in houses saying people are stupid but inside people are for it. They feel the same way.”

Often it is adults who get to tell a story. But it is a privilege to sit at the table with these young people, be able to ask them any questions I can think of, hear them open up and share their experiences, their honesty, their struggles to find their place, their values systems, their identity and for me, just to listen.