by Ropafadzo Mugadza. Photograph by Tim Johnson.
My aunt and uncle found my brother standing outside the coach station. Naked. His body rattling like wind chimes in a storm. A year later my sister and I were stood in the same Johannesburg coach station. He left it with nothing but his life. We were determined to not make the same mistakes. The idea was to keep yourself looking mobile. If you looked as if you didn’t know what was going on, if you wore flashy clothes and used your phone or if you sat in one place for too long, you would be targeted. My brother broke all three of these rules. He was an easy target. He was sitting on a bench with his headphones on when he noticed. He thought he was being paranoid. He turned off his music. It wasn’t paranoia, people whispered words he couldn’t understand and glanced at him as they walked past. He was missing something. That’s when he heard it.
At the sound of those Shona words, he knew he was in trouble. They told him to watch out, but it was too late. Three South African men surrounded him. In front of the crowd, they made their demands. They wanted everything. No one, in the hoard of people surrounding, flinched or gave a second look. It was normal. If it wasn’t him, it would be someone else. That was the language of the coach station.
The coach station was a restless place. It was always infested with activity. It was a hotbed of cultures, all gathered, intermingling and festering until they produced a whole new culture. Yet as my sister and I stood waiting for my aunt and uncle, despite all the caution and the knots that had wrung themselves in my stomach, I could not help but be enthralled by how vibrant a place it was. Women in traditional dress carried massive bags on their heads, slaloming amongst street performers, street vendors and reuniting families. The spirit of resilience was potent in every culture in Southern Africa. The coach station was a place where all the hardships of the turbulent times manifested. Broken economies, poverty, even genocide, all of this meant that you wouldn’t find a place more biting with the pungent scent of resilience.
A month before I had been stood at the coach station my classmate Tino hadn’t shown up to school. Her mother had died. She owned a business in South Africa and she sent money from there to Zimbabwe to support her family. Locals invaded her home and beat her to death. They had found out she was Zimbabwean and they would not let us be fruitful from the soil of their land. It was all anyone spoke about that day.
South Africa is a multicultural country. The economy is well developed and, as a result, it attracts many migrators from other African countries. It is also Africa’s most industrialised country, making it desirable and resulting in thousands of visitors each year. Nearly one million Zimbabweans live in South Africa, making them the biggest foreign community in the country.
It was 2003 when I went to visit my aunt and uncle. I didn’t remember the last time I’d seen them. But we always spoke on the phone. We were close. She was part of the early flood of migrators that had left Zimbabwe just before the hyperinflation hit. She was now living in a big family home. It had paid off. She was profiting.
Every lunchtime at primary school I bought a candy apple. It cost me the same amount every time. But this changed; I began noticing that the notes were rapidly morphing into vast spectrums of colour with more and more zeros on the paper. The currency went from thousands to millions, then billions. The price of my candy apple was higher every day. The changes were so rapid that I’d barely caught sight of them. The economy plummeted. Banks closed. Wages would be worth nothing within a week. The government resorted to constant water and power cuts. People had no choice but to leave.
By the early 2000s Zimbabweans were swarming South Africa. South Africans began to notice. They were hostile. To them, we were not human. At least not in the same way they were human. We were a lower form. Primitive and unevolved. Masquerading as people, like dogs on their hind legs. There was something in the air between us. I’d heard stories. I’d seen the news. At the mention of one word, heads turned, and hearts pounded. Zimbabweans trembled before it.
There is a common trend in Africa, xenophobic violence goes hand in hand with dwindling economic opportunities among locals. However, xenophobia is not simply a response to foreigners invading their land. It is a displacement of anger that the less fortunate people of South Africa feel from existing in a country that is prosperous, but under a system that hinders them. Bluntly put, black South Africans attack black Africans because white South Africans are protected by the government. Black South Africans have been faced with the fact that whites control the means of production in South Africa and they are powerless to change that. Little is done by the South African Government to stop xenophobia, it is an easy way for them to not have to answer for their lack of investment in the education and employment of black South Africans. Instead of acknowledging the socio-economic causes of the conflict, people in powerful positions attempt to shift the blame and even condone criminality and xenophobia.
At my aunt’s house, every day, I stood in the living room and stared through the window at the grey apartment complexes across the road. I would do it for hours. Just waiting. The buildings would stare back. Stoic and unmoving in their silence. Everything appeared calm. Everything was in order. I was tense. I imagined a boisterous crowd erupting from behind the concrete walls. Tearing through the veil of normality and ringing chaos into the air. They marched towards the house, breaking through my aunt’s gates. And then I, standing paralysed by the window, met the eyes of a person for the last time. It never happened. I was only ever met with silence. The colossal concrete structure stood still as always.
Police showed up to my aunt’s house the day after we arrived. They wanted to know if we’d seen anything. She let them in, they sat on the sofa sipping tea. I sat opposite them quietly. They told us there had been an attack on a Zimbabwean family at the complex across the road.
This was the fourth incident that had occurred at this complex in three months. They killed a mother and her two children. They left the father alive. The cruellest thing they had done. My sister and I weren’t allowed out alone. I found this strange. In Zimbabwe, we lived without parents and were free to go wherever, whenever. The structure of a conventional family was unfamiliar and uncomfortable. We were told to be careful, to draw as little attention to ourselves as possible. South Africa was a great place once you knew how to stay safe my aunt said. I wasn’t convinced.
On the surface, South Africa was a prosperous country. Driving around in my aunt’s car I was mesmerised by all the colourful advertisements. It wasn’t like this in Zimbabwe. People weren’t always trying to sell you things. As you drove around in Zimbabwe there was only land, uninhabited and uninterrupted. Land that was authentic. My aunt took us to the safari where my uncle worked. It was beautiful. Magnificent scenery was all that caught your eye. The green lands were tamed and controlled. Inside the hotel, it was the ‘roots’ of Africa, imagined by a European interior designer. The customers were white. Not a black person was in sight unless they were staff. It was the idyllic version of Africa. With zebra skin rugs spread across the carpets of the hotels. Cheap carved statues of archaic African figures were littered around. My aunt said they were manufactured. She insisted that they should have bought authentic ones from skilled vendors.
A South African lady who was a cleaner at the safari was good friends with my uncle. She had aged into folded layers of skin and it was a mystery how she could keep an active job with her rattling and frail looking body. She had to work to support her family.
“I see many tourists coming to see animals. My own grandsons are born here and they’ve never seen a Zebra in their lives. Their mother couldn’t even afford to take them to a zoo. Isn’t that funny?” She shook her head as we watched an Australian couple enter the lobby with their two kids.
We had a free meat buffet that day. I ate like it was my last meal. Waiters would come to our table with different types of meat: kudu sausages, ostrich legs even honey roasted crocodile. It was my first buffet. The first time I had experienced food in abundance. In Zimbabwe, the crumbling economy meant there were low food supplies. Every day my body naturally woke me up at 5 am. If I was lucky I would wake up at 4am. We would go to the shops and join the queue of people, people hoping to buy a loaf of bread. Sometimes the bread didn’t come. We waited all day. Waited with patient anticipation on hungry stomachs for nothing. And yet every day I still woke up at 5am. Sometimes the bread would come, and it would run out before it was your turn. Queuing had almost become a way of life in Zimbabwe. If you were stood in any place for a long enough time a line of people would develop behind you. We made jokes about it. But that never stopped anyone from joining any queue they saw without context. We had no choice. It was a shock to come from a place where I waited for hours to get one loaf of bread to then find myself in a place where I was being offered food from every angle. I ate until I threw up. I ate with desperation. As if at any moment it would all be taken away.
“You’re eating like there won’t be any food at home.”
I stopped eating. My Aunt was right. There would be food at home.
As we drove back home I noticed between the woods in the highway there were little clusters of civilisation. They had houses made of cloth. There were entire families. Living as best they could in their fragile homes. They seemed settled, but not lively. Their slumped, almost lifeless demeanours stood out to me. They were deathly thin, their bones sticking out from their skin. I thought about the masses of food left on my buffet plate. All I could do was stare helplessly at the people who could never afford hope. They were hidden. Clumped amongst the dark places that no one looked at. The South Africa no one wanted to see. These people had never tasted the fruits of their country but it wasn’t because of people like my aunt. Hundreds of years of oppressive strongholds had South Africa’s children bound to poverty. This has always been the case.
As dazzling and prosperous as it seemed, there were still millions suffering. Black South Africans had every right to be angry. They had suffered a brutal colonisation and to this day they were still living within the design of systematic oppression. White South Africans were nourished and thriving, some kept slaves ‒ their maids and gardeners. The idea of foreigners coming to their country and profiting was something South Africans could easily hate. Zimbabweans became a scapegoat for them, it was much easier. It wasn’t easy to face the racism and oppression embedded in the social, political and economic foundations of their country. Those were not problems they could look at or touch. People like my aunt were.
Sometimes when we were sat in the living room of my aunt’s house we would hear screams. Our wide eyes would meet as silence thickened in the room. No words were spoken as the screams echoed. In a country where people had been subjected to violence and oppression, it wasn’t surprising that they were repeating the cycle. They couldn’t let foreigners be fruitful in the soil that was still barren to a lot them. A build-up of unexpressed rage within the country was being unleashed onto Zimbabweans. We’d heard that some children had been captured after being sent out to the shops. The locals put the children in tires and burned them. There were videos going around. I hadn’t seen them but I had listened as my aunt watched. That was enough. Hearing the unforgiving chanting of the South Africans and the wails of pain from the children was enough to understand why my aunt clutched tightly to her toddler every night. In the afternoons I still stood and looked out at the grey buildings. Waiting.