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Kwerekwere in Cape Town

Binyawanga Wainaina

G21 AFRICA Irregular

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Kwerekwere: Derogatory term meaning African from outside South Africa. Used mainly around Johannesburg, but more recently around South Africa by Black people.

Kwerekweres are said to be very dark, over-ambitious. We are supposed to be very good at two things: selling things on street-corners and black magic (muti).

Our main crime is stealing jobs and women.

Binyawanga Wainaina
Photo of Binyavanga Wainaina.
Amaghana: Same as above. Used mainly in the Eastern cape and the Former Transkei. Referred originally to immigrants brought into the Transkei and Ciskei from Uganda and Ghana as teachers, civil servants and doctors when the Homelands were given 'Independence' in 1976.

I had been in South Africa for a year before I first encountered bigotry. I was sitting in a mini-bus taxi, on my way to Kwamakuta, one of the large Townships just far away enough from Port Elizabeth to keep property prices stable, and near enough to provide a pool of cheap labour for the large car-manufacturers.

A large woman with improbably clear skin stared at me for most of the way. After a while, irresistably driven, she asked, "Are you MaGhana?"

I said, " No. I'm from Kenya."

She smiled and said, " Yuuu! You are handsome! You maghana men are so handsome-yuuu-but your women are ugly! They are Black! Black! Black! and they have big muscles!"

Minibus taxis are not big vehicles. If you say something to someone, you speak to 15 people. A debate erupted in Xhosa, about the ugliness of 'Amaghana'

. Then the inevitable question, " What are you doing in our country?"

"I am a student. "

One guy asked me if there are nice cars like the one we were in in Ghana. I said yes.

I wasn't sure where to get off, so I asked. Several people told me they knew the house. On the way there, one of the guys offered me a beer. We stopped at a shebeen, and had a few quarts of beer. I wasn't allowed to pay. Eventually, I was taken to my friend's house. They waited until I was safely inside, and we said goodbye.

I have lived in South Africa for 10 years. One of the hottest issues right now is the xenophobic treatment of Black African immigrants by Black South Africans. It is an issue that I have tended to avoid.

I have found Black South Africans, from all parts of the country. to be hospitable to a fault. I have made many firm friendships of the best sort. Friendships that have survived adverse times.

Yet many people I know -- honest, hardworking people -- have been beaten, thrown off trains, verbally abused, even had their documents torn up.

Part of the problem is transference. There is now a Black government, but whites and a near-invisible new class of Black people retain their economic stranglehold on the country. 70% of the economy is controlled by 5 or 6 companies.

The education system for Black people was amongst the worst in Africa. People were taught nothing about the rest of Africa. Nothing, that is, unless it involved genocide, cannibalistic dictators, savage tribes, drought and civil war. The media played the same role.

Until the 1990s, South Africans in general were not allowed to learn about evolution in State sponsored schools.

So, to suddenly have all these well-spoken dark people flood the country -- people with many degrees, diplomas, people whom you could only communicate with in English -- it was easy to transfer the hate to them.

In the mining cities and towns the problem has been there for much longer. Workers have been imported from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Swaziland to work in mines for over 50 years. When workers came to the cities to work, they were segregated according to community. For a long time there weren't any problems. Then the layoffs started. Gold prices plummeted, recession hit. The riots and upheavals of the 80s encouraged the mining houses to invest more in foreign labour. South Africans were 'troublesome'.

As workers across the country started to unionise, labour from nearby countries became more attractive. They didn't strike. They would accept less wages. They were docile.

They could be deported.

The same thing was happening higher up the ladder. For years, well-educated Zimbaweans, Zambians and Basotho got managerial positions. Academics from all over Africa started getting jobs in the former white Universities. Most avoided politics at a time when fence-sitting seemed like betrayal.

To be fair, many African academics supported the idea of a new cnstitution and free elections. But after the disasters in their own countries, most were against the unions and the proponents of things like nationalisation.

We have been there. Done that. We just couldn't afford the t-shirt.

Sadly, many expatriate Africans missed something special. Their fears blinded them to the great changes that were going on. Many failed to see the obvious. The ANC government-in-waiting was far more democratic and organised than the ruling National party. Black South Africans were not all a bunch of card-carrying union members in red t-shirts. The common understanding amongst Black opinion was that differences could not be allowed to exist while a Black Government was not in power.

Elections came and went. Africa celebrated. Then the refugees and immigrants came streaming in. Today, Hillbrow, once Johannesburg's only multiracial surburb -- home to artists, musicians and thinkers -- has become a fortress controlled by Nigerian Druglords. Crime here is probably higher than any inner-city area anywhere in the world. Crack cocaine has hit the streets, and it seems like every gun in Mozambique's civil war has found itself in South Africa.

These are the inevitable results of poor policing in a country that had no experience in the flip side of globalisation. The Nigerians managed, despite their small numbers, to be voluble and flashy enough to take the blame for the whole problem.

The press didn't help any. The country's largest weekly screamed that there were 8 million illegal immigrants. Statistics that have yet to be substantiated. The liberal White media was full of sob-stories about innocent South African girls in jail in Rio after being deceived by their Nigerian boyfriends.

Somehow, the fact that the Chinese Triads and Russian mafia are the main players in this trade managed to escape wide coverage.

The more liberal papers, relieved that Black people were now being seen as bigots, became the champions of the poor downtrodden Africans. By 1999, having a darker than usual skin or an unfamilair accent could get you picked up by police and deported.

Most expatriate Africans I know have been harassed at one time or another. A well-known Tv and Radio personality was once picked up at night, together with his wife and children, and left at the Zimbabwe border. His bank accounts were frozen.

It is common for people's papers to be thrown away or burnt. It has became a great cash cow for policemen.

While the issue got hotter and hotter, many pertinent facts got lost in the hysteria.

The rest of Africa has been by far the largest investor in South Africa since 1994. It is also South Africa's largest trading partner.

70% of tourist arrival to South Africa is from the rest of Africa, a fact that manages to escape the Marketing Strategy of the South African Tourist Authorities. Most Africans who come to Johannesburg come to stock up on goods to sell in their home countries. They spend billions of rand every year buying anything from luxury cars to ladies' panties.

Photo of Capetown.Most of the immigrants -- legal or otherwise -- don't bother to look for employment. They arrive with small amounts of capital, and start small businesses, many which employ South Africans. At Green Market Square in Cape Town there are 89 traders from the continent. They employ 200 South Africans. Most immigrants don't plan to settle in South Africa. They send most of their profits home, mostly in the form of South African goods. When they have acquired a degree of financial security, most go back home.

South Africa's borders are very difficult to man. It is estimated that 70 % of illegal Immigrants who are deported to Zimbabwe and Mozambique are back in South Africa the next day.

Although unemployment remains a big problem (over 50% in some places,) Black South Africans have enjoyed unprecedented income growth for the last 15 years. The Black middle class, which was near non-existent in the early '70s, is now by far the largest middle class in the country. Times are not so bad.

Many black professionals are benefitting from this. Many Black people can speak up to five languages. This gives them many advantages over whites in the job market.

One of the more distressing issues has been South Africa's eagerness to issue visas to people like Mobutu's generals and family. In exchange, they brought a chunk of Congo's foreign reserves into the country.

A couple of years ago, I had a beer with a Congolese musician in Johannesburg. I asked him why he came to South Africa. He said to me. "I am just following my taxes."

Most whites read these changes as Affirmative Action, discounting the genuine self-improvement efforts of Blacks. Crime that the police encouraged in the townships in the eighties has now spread to the white surburbs. Whites are now emigrating in droves. It has been estimated that more than 90% of white graduates in medical school leave the country before doing their Internship.

The logical beneficiaries of this brain-drain would be Black South Africans and qualified Africans. Unfortunately, the South African Government still prefers to bring in white professionals in many cases.

White expatriats in South Africa don't get accused of stealing jobs.


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