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We Have Done Nothing to Them

Zimbabwean immigrants face Afro-phobia in South Africa

New America Media, Commentary, Cynthia Chitongo Posted: Jul 14, 2008

Editor's Note: A mother from Zimbabwe witnesses the horrific treatment of her fellow immigrants in South Africa -- while she remembers sharing her school and community with South African refugees fleeing apartheid years ago. Cynthia Chitongo is a writer and secretary for a company in Cape Town with legal refugee status in South Africa.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Every year as I was growing up in Harare, Zimbabwe, we celebrated Commonwealth Day at my little school, Sunningdale 1.

Prior to that day, each class had to research any country and its culture, style of dress and other traditions. It was an exciting time for students as we learned about different countries, especially in Africa. Each Class was then asked to present what they had learned in their research to the rest of the school in many creative ways - fashion, drama and plays, pictures and preparation of the staple foods from various locales.

Little did I know that at this particular school, the majority of pupils were "colored" people from a place called Cape Town in South Africa and that some words that they were speaking or putting into our vocabulary were Afrikaans words. I did not know that next door to me in the township of Mbare, not so far away from Sunningdale, was a Xhosa family, the Tutanis, from the Eastern Cape; they still live there today. I meet some of the people that I went to school with here in South Africa, and they speak the same language and are not afraid to call my home their home.

All of these people were scattered in Zimbabwe -- running away from the situation in their home country, South Africa. Our fourth largest city, Mutare, was filled with refugees from other places too, including Mozambique. Over the years we saw many African nationals from different countries come to live in Zimbabwe. If they were to be honest, they could never say they were ill-treated. They were at home. The Harare Declaration was signed in Zimbabwe. The African National Congress (ANC) felt at home anywhere in Zimbabwe. As long as they were on Zimbabwean soil, they were at home. We accepted South Africans or any African as our brothers, and still do to this day. No questions asked. When I was in high school, my aunt became a foster parent for a Zulu brother and sister, and the girl attended the same school as me, Mabelreign Girls High School, also in Harare.

Never in Zimbabwe did we dream that our country would be in a situation like we have today.

We had the best of everything until one day, without expecting it, we found ourselves in an economic situation that was difficult to endure. After much deliberation we decided to come here to South Africa, not because we had accommodated them before but because we needed help. Every person who left Zimbabwe left for reasons best known to them and why they chose wherever they went is a long story.

Most of us left because we did not agree with the policies in our home country, and there was nothing we could do to change them. Some of us even got into trouble for voicing concerns or disagreeing with those polices. All I know is that it is never easy for anyone to leave home without any plan or a thing to your name and go and start your life all over again. That is why it is called refuge. Its not easy to adapt to the changes that you come across in a foreign land.

Its even harder when you are rejected because you are a foreigner. What foreigner? I am an African. From a distance I look like one of the black South Africans. It's only when the locals speak to me and I answer back, either in the same language or in English, that they pick up that I am a foreigner.

Their reactions range from a rude insult or mockery to silence. Imagine that you are on a train and the journey becomes unbearable. You are afraid to ask for directions because they will go out of their way to make you lose your way. This is not true for all of them. There are a few saints who love and respect other people and who are helpful and friendly. But its always a nine out of 10 chance. They will make it worse for you if at work the employer prefers you because you are educated and you understand common sense. Because of where our nation has been, Zimbabweans will work anywhere, regardless of education, just to better our lives, and for that, fellow Africans here in South Africa get very jealous.

We have stuck it out here in South Africa with all the hostility that we have to tolerate. But never in my wildest imagination did I ever think that it would get to xenophobia/Afro-phobia attacks. Blacks against blacks. As I am writing this I am very emotional. I cannot stop crying. I cant believe its happening. I have been displaced, and I find it very hard to trust anyone.

All I want is to go back home, but after three years where do I start? My whole life and those of my children is now part of South Africa, and through every trial and struggle, we had hoped that it would get better. I have never experienced this cruelty at home, and I am in a dilemma as to what to do. I am lucky because I am staying in an old flat that is being renovated, and I have had a lot of support from white friends here in Cape Town. What if it gets worse? And we are fortunate: What about those staying in relief tents at the moment? In the cold and rain. The emotional trauma makes one sick.

Maybe one day my black South African brothers will find themselves in a situation where they have to go and live in neighboring countries. They have done it before. What hurts is that we have done nothing to them to warrant such persecution.

Related Articles:

Anti Immigrant Mobs Maraud South Africa

Mugabe Loses His Legacy

African Generational Divide Uncovered by Zimbabwe Issue

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