Thursday, August 26, 2010

Fighting xenophobia in South Africa

It was extremely beautiful when Africa was solidly behind Ghana's Black Stars at the latter stages of the World Cup in South Africa. One South African journalist re-designed the Ghana flag, replacing the Black Star with a Black map of Africa. I loved it. The Black Stars had been crowned 'Africa United' and the South Africans applied their "local is lekker" touch by christening them 'BaGhana BaGhana' to rhyme with their own Bafana Bafana. It made us all forget the May 2008 riots and xenophobic attacks. We've had the good and bad times,

After a recent conversation with a friend in South Africa, I have come to learn that xenophobia in South Africa towards other Africans is quite real. It disappoints me. I love Mzansi, but such news troubles me greatly. To think that black South Africans would treat other black Africans with contempt is atrocious. We see South Africa opening up to the rest of Africa through Channel O, etc, but we need more than that. C'mon, South Africa, no one is coming to take your 'jobs'. Africa is uniting and this is part of the process. Yes, we know local is lekker but You are making beautiful movies and doing well economically, who else would you have helping you out other than the same people who supported you in the apartheid days? Make a positive film about condemning this xenophobia stuff, celebrating other Africans, and give us reason to believe you can accept other Africans wholeheartedly. Like you did with BaGhana baGhana. :-)

We've seen the 'xenophobia' at work in various South African movies. Tsotsi is one of my favorite movies ever. I watched it for the first time in Spring 2006 and loved it. One thing that didn't dawn on me was the name of the 'gangster' character Zola played - Fela. The biggest gangster in Soweto had a Nigerian name. I have heard that many drug dealers in South Africa are Nigerian but that's not good reasoning for naming South African movie gangsters Nigerian names.

The negative portrayal of Nigerians in South African movies reached its height in the movie, District 9. It didn't win an Oscar like Tsotsi but it had many nominations. Nigeria had to ban the movie's screenings in Nigeria because of this portrayal. This is what I had to say -
I thought South Africa and Nigeria were cool now? In the movie, Nigerians run a cat food 419 scam in the slums of District 9. As if internet fraud was not enough, they were being portrayed as people who would also deceive aliens. We know about ABC 20/20's special on Nigerian 419, but you got to give it to these guys, they are hustlers and have the entrepreneurial spirit. What I didn't enjoy was the portrayal of the Nigerians as slumlords, criminals and drug dealers. Now, from prior knowledge, Nigerians may be running drug cartels and prostitution rings in South Africa, but in the slums? Why would they travel all the way to Nigeria and live in the slums? Besides, the South African anti-apartheid fighters have a whole bunch of weapons, which is partly the reason for the high incidence of crime in Mzansi, so how could the Nigerians be portrayed as the criminals? I suppose Neill Blomkamp couldn't portray South Africans that way and the easiest targets were the Nigerians. This must stop! I demand someone make a movie that portrays Nigerians in South Africa in a good light. Because such people do exist in real life.


Jerusalema was nominated for best foreign language film at the Oscars but it didn't win. This South African mafia movie did not take kindly to Nigerians either. It made people think of 'Makwerekwere' when they heard BaGhana baGhana. I wrote -
My Nigerian friend borrowed the movie to watch and didn't miss the Nigerian references in the movie. The Nigerians in the movie were portrayed as drug dealers and pimps. I don't know why they had to choose Nigerians to play such roles in this script but that wasn't cool. Could this be the life some of the Nigerians in South Africa are living? Yes, it turns out some. Lucky Kunene had a line where he claimed Tony Ngu's people had messed up their own country and came to South Africa to mess up theirs as well. Tony Ngu in turn talks about 'entitlement' from Mandela. In 2008, news of xenophobia attacks in South Africa made the rounds and some foreigners there lost their lives. Some people argue the South African government is not doing enough to empower the blacks as their jobs are taken by the 'makwerekwere'. One other thing to note here is that these Nigerian roles are not played by Nigerians.


It's not all bad though. MTN and other huge African companies have come from South Africa and continue to do great work in Africa and beyond. It made me proud to see MTN as the primary sponsor for the Mzansi Mundial, the very first World Cup held on African soil. MTN has built its business by expanding into other African countries and these nations accepting them. Most of its business is from Nigeria, the same country that's been getting the raw deal in the aforementioned movies. We have South Africans investing in business across the continent and their businesses starting franchises all over. I think it's beautiful and encouraging. The South African economy is still developing and at stages where other African ones are not at yet. Other Africans would seek better jobs in the South African economy and seek to attend the better universities that are in South Africa. It's a win-win for all parties.

The immigrant problem in South Africa is not very different from that in developed countries. You have many African immigrants doing menial jobs and resorting to social vices to survive, etc. Hillbrow in Johannesburg is noted for having African immigrants who are criminals and drug dealers. However, other parts of South Africa are inhabited by other Africans who are well-meaning residents of Mzansi. They are contributing the cultural and economic diversity by operating restaurants, shops and starting entrepreneurial ventures. The onus is on both local South African authorities and African embassies to make sure that these immigrants contribute positively to the South African lifestyle and economy.
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