The Funambulist Correspondents #06 Johannesburg: What Makes Us South African? Questioning Afrophobia



Dear reader, this text is published in the spirit of open-access as part of our new project entitled The Funambulist Correspondents. Every week for a bit over a year, we will publish a text written by one of our 28 commissioned correspondents in as many places of the world. The project is made possible through generous support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts

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Identity is political. So, is the status of belonging or being born in a particular place. This is evident in the reception and conduct towards immigrants across the world.

From time to time, there is violence in South Africa. Innocent people are intimidated and dehumanized, simply because they come from another country.

During early March 2021, distressing videos were circulating on social media. They showed a man being violently attacked by a group of other men[1]. At the watch of bystanders, with no particular help, this man is beaten all over his body with a metal rod. News articles would report that this incident took place at the central business district of Durban in the KwaZulu-Natal province. According to them, not just one, but actually two street vendors were hospitalized after being attacked and their merchandise burned by a group of unidentified Black South African men who shared views that immigrants must leave South Africa[2]. One of these assaulted men was identified as Abdul Balma – a citizen of Burkina Faso. He was stabbed several times. The other man is from Senegal.

Events of xenophobia (the fear of “other”), and what I would rather refer to as “Afrophobia” (the fear of a “specific other,” in this case, Black South African’s “fear” of other African nationals) have a long history in the country. Why are they still continuing, even escalating? Hostility, humiliation and physical harassment towards Black African fellows? Why are we South Africans still verbally harassing non-nationals, calling them kwerekwere, a derogatory slang word for “foreigner”? Why is there so much discrimination and hate against citizens from elsewhere in the continent?

Research conducted in the country and by Human Rights Watch about xenophobia shows that violent attacks towards non-South Africans “were made up of Black South Africans who are angry at the economic and living conditions they are experiencing – poverty and inequality, chronically high unemployment, high crime rates, and poor public services.”[3]

Some claims that emanate from poor societies that often feel side-lined by the government are that foreigners participate in illegal activities such as selling drugs, while at the same time taking advantage of social benefits and stealing jobs from locals. Those are quite common and popular opinions among South Africans.

In communities Afrophobia persists through classifying foreign nationals through their physical attributes. For instance, how dark someone’s skin tone is, how they speak English or what accent they have, or their inability to speak local languages. Yet, identity is socially constructed. And so are our differences. Afrophobia persists at a time in which South Africans have not interrogated who they are, or where their roots and family histories lie.

What does it mean to be a Black person in South Africa? What does it even mean to be South African? How do we South Africans view ourselves in relation to other African citizens?

These questions trouble me a lot, because there are intersections between African countries that makes us who we are. To learn more about my own identity and my family’s roots, I had a conversation with my grandmother. Sitting in the yard of our home in Soweto, Johannesburg, she told me:

My father, your great grandfather, was born in 1912 in Lesotho. He was orphaned at a very young age. Because both his parents had passed on, his siblings would be taken by elder siblings or relatives. My father would be taken by his elder brother to live in Bloemfontein in the Free-State province in South Africa until about the age of 12. His other siblings would live and be taken care by other relatives in different cities across South Africa, ultimately growing up separate from each other during a time where communication was poor or almost not consistent. My father moved to Mahikeng or still known as Mafikeng, in the North-West province, to live with another relative where he would attend school and herd animals as some of his religious tasks. Mahikeng was and still is predominantly with a Tswana speaking population while Bloemfontein and Lesotho populations speak Sesotho – language my father also spoke. My father met my mother in the North-West province where they also went to school together. In 1938, at the age of 26, my father travelled using his bicycle from North-West to the then industrialized Gauteng province for better job prospects. He secured employment at a furniture store in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Later, once he had a family was working for a locomotive company South African Railway, now known as Transet. I and some of my elder brothers were born in North-West, with our other siblings being born in Gauteng. My father and mother (who grew up in North-West) built a life in Soweto where we also built our own families. My mother, whose surname was Shopane, belonged to the Barolong tribe, one of Batswana’s tribes existing both in Botswana and South Africa.

The partial history of my family cannot be easily simplified, as it presents even more complex matters. My great grandfather’s surname, Duiker, still leaves many unanswered questions. The complexity of this surname lies within the apartheid history, when white settlers who could not pronounce a specific surname of Black people, would for instance resort to renaming them.

Knowing a bit better about my family history shows that there is an intersection and cultural diffusion between African countries, our cultures and languages.

As science journalist Angela Saini, in a conversation about investigating the return of race science with host Layla Saad on Good Ancestor podcast says: “We have always been moving, back and forth. So, even after the migration out of Africa, there were people moving back into Africa, there were people moving within Africa, there were people moving all over the world and sometimes moving back again…this is one reason we are genetically homogenous species…it is culture, language and dress and everything else that make us feel as though the differences are bigger than they really are…”

She continues to say: “We have always been mixing with others. There are no pure races or pure cultures or pure ethnicities, that later all got mixed up”.

Why then, are nationalist mentalities continuing? Excluding others and maintaining territorial boundaries? Even when we know that borders where artificially created, and that identity is a construct? Where does this come from?

It is inevitable to ignore even decades later the reflections by Jean-Paul Sartre on the effects of colonialism in Africa. Sartre says: “For it is not first of all their violence, it is ours, on the rebound that grows and tears them apart; and the first reaction by these oppressed people is to repress this shameful anger that is morally condemned by them and us, but that is the only refuge they have left for their humanity…”[4]

Sartre reflects on how the brutal oppression of the “natives” during colonialism created anger that natives bottled-up and later misplaced in fighting their own people.

He continues: “This repressed rage, never managing to explode, goes round in circles and wreaks havoc on the oppressed themselves. In order to rid themselves of it they end up massacring each other, tribes battle one against the other since they cannot confront the real enemy – and you can count on colonial polity to fuel rivalries; the brother rising his knife against his brother believes he is destroying at once and for all the hatred image of their common debasement”[5].

In other words, a situation would emerge among social groups over others in which the oppressed become willing to participate in the oppression.

In the context of South Africa, the apartheid regime as a colonial structure brutally dehumanized Black South Africans through a policy of classification and segregation – creating a notion that Blackness is inferior and whiteness superior. The regime exploited these artificial differences and used them as a means to plant fear, distrust and envy in all of us. During the end of apartheid, this fear, distrust and envy re-emerged among Black South Africans fighting against their brothers and sisters and thus, creating differences among themselves.

Where there is a misdirection of anger and where the actual problem – white supremacy – is not addressed, we have to continue interrogating our origins. So that we can understand the current brutality and discrimination against African fellows. At a national level, a decolonized education system needs to be developed further, ensuring that our children learn African epistemologies. As a country, there is a need to confront an ongoing lack of strong policies to protect those who are neither white nor South Africans.



[3] “They Have Robbed Me of My Life” report summary by Human Rights Watch:

[4] Jean-Paul Sartre in his preface to Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 1961.

[5] Ibid.

Lebogang Mokoena is a South African journalist and researcher. She writes on various topics and in recent years became interested in the topic of urbanization. She has contributed to South African and international publications such as The Journalist, Daily Vox, Futuress, the Finnish Architectural Review, and The Funambulist. Lebogang recently completed her MA in journalism at the University of Johannesburg, exploring the impact of funding business models on the production of quality of investigative journalism.