Viewpoint: Revolution and Afrophobia

Former South African President Nelson Mandela (left) and his wife Graca Machel greeting fans before the 2010 World Cup football final No-one can deny that Mandela is an avowed pan-Africanist

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Zimbabwean filmmaker and columnist Farai Sevenzo considers the role of revolution.

I have had very little to do down here in South Africa since the football finished.

Start Quote

Apartheid, though dead in law, seems to still live on in some people's heads”

End Quote Farai Sevenzo

It seemed foolish to pack up and leave when I am so near home.

The Springboks are being hammered mercilessly in the Tri-Nations by New Zealand and Australia, and much of the gloss of them being the current Rugby World Cup champions has long faded.

I do not even know who has been watching, there is a massive dose of sport fatigue after June and July.

Endless hours of sport - specialist channels of highlights and yet more channels dedicated to repeats of the very same sport - makes me feel like I'm hurtling towards old age, a beer belly and cemetery expiry.

No thank you very much.

Another lion meal

Instead, as the Cape Town Book Fair got under way, I am reminded of the fact that there are more Nobel laureates for literature around these parts than anywhere else.

A girl looks at a picture of former South African President Nelson Mandela at a museum in Mvezo during Mandela's 92nd birthday celebrations, about 70km from Mthatha, in the Eastern Cape It is 16 years since apartheid's demise

Throw in Wole Soyinka's presence in the country at the moment and the late Alfred Nobel would probably have given up his dynamite fortune for South African citizenship instead of staying Swedish.

I've seen the apartheid museum, I know the Soweto tourist route and there seemed little point in heading over to the Durban International Film Festival without a film and, what's more, game parks are for tourists and I vainly leave myself out of that category when in Africa because I know what lions look like and have no desire to make the headlines as another lion meal.

So what to do?


Second hand bookshops are two or three to a pavement in some parts, there are libraries and many of those grotesque shopping malls have a bookshop or four.

Not in vain

Long before Nelson Mandela's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, a category that should be called apartheid literature has always been endlessly fascinating to me - sitting as we are 16 years into the miracle of apartheid's demise.

A boy stands next to a picture of former South African President Nelson Mandela at a museum in Mvezo during Mandela's 92nd birthday celebrations, about 70km from Mthatha, in the Eastern Cape Revolutions should be enhanced by committing them to memory

They are still there, the jails that housed this country's liberation heroes - black, white, coloured, Indian, Afrikaner and Jewish - and the books reliving those years are enthrallingly engaging.

So we are reminded of the sacrifices of men like Bram Fischer, Roman Eisenstein, of the evil of apartheid through the pettiness of prison wardens, of the great African revolts of the 1970s and the 1980s, of the value of patience, of the violent loss of women like Ruth First and of a time so barbaric it is a wonder it went on for so long.

Revolutions, by their very nature, should not be belittled - not by forgetting them nor by entrenching laws which make it a criminal offence to criticise an ageing president - but they should be enhanced by committing them to memory on the written page and remembering that so much life lost was not in vain.

The laws of nature

I packed all my reading into a long uninterrupted week and emerged to the headlines of the present day which were saying current ministers are spending millions of taxpayers money on stays in five star hotels and the odd rare bottle of brandy.

Start Quote

The word, xenophobia, I thought out loud, was not really enough”

End Quote Farai Sevenzo

That tenders are being handed to the undeserving and a culture of corruption has taken over the roots of the revolution.

That four white students from the Orange Free State have been fined $2,700 (£1,700) each for humiliating five black workers in a supposed initiation ceremony which involved making the workers eat food the students had urinated on.

Apartheid, though dead in law, seems to still live on in some people's heads.

Meanwhile, every day the people's lives are no easier, but the cream of the revolution seems, as if by the laws of nature, to be rising to the top of the glass.

Running rumours

As the nation celebrated Mandela Day, a friend suggested I might like to witness an African National Congress (ANC) meeting.

In Mandela's 92nd year on this earth, the theme of the meeting was to be "Say NO to xenophobia".

It seemed an appropriate way to see how the ruling party were dealing with the widely reported rumours of xenophobic attacks in Cape Town and parts of Johannesburg.

Phineas Lucky Nobela from Mozambique stands in his shop at the Winnie Mandela informal settlement in Tembisa township, north-east of Johannesburg South Africa owes her existence to the endless generosity of Africans

After the love affair with Ghana's Black Stars, the end of the African affair seemed far too sudden, and rumours were filling the papers that attacks on foreigners were about to begin.

But the police denied this, and warned the reporters not to provoke the situation by running unsubstantiated rumours.

Of course, that did not stop the local television crews filming Zimbabweans crossing the Beitbridge border post with their fridges, beds and wardrobes, vowing to watch events from the other side because some of them had already lost fingers, ears and other bodily appendages to xenophobic attacks in the 2008 mayhem.

Endless generosity

In the end the meeting at the ANC's Sonia Bunting branch in downtown Joburg was preaching to the converted.

As well attended as it was, no-one could deny that the old man whose birthday the world was celebrating was in fact an avowed pan-Africanist, who talked in his book of meeting the Kaundas, the Senghors, the Haile Selassies, the Nyereres and a host of African leaders to further the ends of the ANC's newly formed armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe.

And the speakers acknowledged too that South Africa's famous toyi-toyi protest dance was inspired by the Zipra forces then fighting Ian Smith in what was to become Zimbabwe.

South Africa owes her existence to the endless generosity of Africans during the struggle, when there was nothing like "too little to share" with South African exiles across the whole continent.

A police car patrols at the Winnie Mandela informal settlement in Tembisa township, north-east of Johannesburg The silent majority turn to violence to express their frustrations

Young Ivorians and Congolese men in the audience got up to say they loved their adopted country, and to claim that in spite of police harassment they had done everything to fit in including learning English when it's not even their first, second, third or fourth language.

So why all these attacks on Africans?

The silent majority

Early the next day I was a guest on one of Jozi's hip radio stations and the presenter wondered what I thought of the xenophobic attacks that had occurred overnight.

The word, xenophobia, I thought out loud, was not really enough in these circumstances.

For no Englishmen, Serbs, or Russians have been attacked, the vast majority are black Africans.

Alfred Noble would not be noticed as a foreigner here.

And many agree that we should really call it Afrophobia, which is not a fear of afros but of Africans.

Of course here in Johannesburg you will find no radio presenter or politician who approves of such attacks, and the politicians will tell you of the ANC's vast African credentials.

But it is the silent majority who are confused by the lack of progress in their fortunes, who see other nationals climb the greasy poles of corporate wealth and turn to violence as an expression of their frustrations.

In this respect, this great land has much to do.

Thanks for your comments. Please read a selection below:

As a Nigerian, reading about the xenophobic inspired attacks on fellow Africans in South Africa is saddening to me. I recall how in the late 70s & early 80s we were asked to contirbute to the liberation movement - the Nigerian government actually asked ordinary citizens to contribute, and we did happily, believing that we were contributing to the fall of apartheid. On a personal level, i recall that my hostel mate having told us wide-eyed 18 year olds his experiences during the Soweto riots, filled us with pity that a young person like us to have suffered so much was unacceptable. It sharpened our resolves then to see the end of apartheid. And now this! I wonder if i were to bump into my former hotel mate now somewhere in, say, Jo'burg, if he would attack me or as ask that i be sent away from SA. I just wonder.

Patrick Thorpe, Lagos, Nigeria

Afrophobia indeed! The piece is well written - Thanks Farai! I remember the beating that I suffered from my mom for coming in late when I went to see Lady Smith in a concert with Paul Simon on a neighbour's TV set. We were socialised to sympathise with South Africans regardless of the circumstance - I thought, mine is a mom's beating but brothers are being killed in SA so nothing could stop me. The 2008 attacks shocked me - how could they pay us back like that? Are they frustrated over their place in society? I think it is their turn to pay us back - they need to think it over!!

Sakama Samuel, Melboure, Australia

No matter what you say, or do, the minds of the black SAs have already been made up against their fellow africans... to me, that doesnt show any sign of gratefulness or gratitude... well, i feel for them cos, i don't think anything would bring me to that country. I'm very much okay in my country. here we don't care what color ur skin is... it's a land of peace and freedom.

Obot, Nigeria

This reminds me of the resentment of Polish migrants by UK citizens bearing in mind that they are both Europeans.The silent majority is not helpful at all but I am hearing reports of an increasing numbers of organizations and ordinary citizens helping curb this outbreak. It will take time but it will eventually end.


It is terrible that some black South Africans have reacted violently to the mass migration of other Africans to the country. However, we need to look at their anger from all angles and not just blindly criticise what is happenening. Yes it is never a good thing when people are killed or attacked for whatever reason. In my opinion it is something that sadly has been building up. I think it is a collection of many issues some of which probably go as far back to the days when Africans from Malawi and Mozambique came to work in the gold mines during the apartheid days. Then came a mass exodus of Nigerians and other West Africans after the end of apartheid. Finally the mass migration of Zimbabweans which continues even today is probably the straw that broke the camel's back. A lot of black South Africans see opportunities being taken away from them as the number of migrants increase. It is never a good thing to categorise or stereotype people, as a foreigner I know what it means to be stereotyped but going by what i've heard from people both South Africans and other Africans based in South Africa is that it is no secret that there are organised African syndicates many them involved in car jacking, armed robbery and drug trafficking. This coupled with the perceived job taking by foreigners is making things even worse. It's a complex issue but one that many African governments that have nationals in South Africa would do good to tackle by earnestly addressing the issues of poverty and job creation in their own countries and maybe even sending special task forces (comprising officials from the Police/Home affairs, Labour, Finance ministries etc) that could work with the South African authorities to find solutions to these issues. But ultimately African governments must themselves work to put the welfare of their people first so there won't be a need to migrate in the first place be it to South Africa, Europe or America.

Wilhelm, London

Of course, Africans have short memories and we are our own enemies! What about the Nigerians repatration and inhuman treatments of Ghanaians in the 80s. These were the very Ghanaians who taught at their schools and universities, worked as doctors and nurses and of carpenters and masons to develop Nigeria. Now Nigeria is suffering the affects of their action and South Africa will also go the same.


As a young kid growing up in Nigeria in the early 1980s i knew of apartheid because the Nigerian media will always take it upon themselves to report the killing of our fellow africans in South Africa. We as children in primary schools used to sing a freedom song on our morning assembly grounds hoping for the release of Nelson Mandela. The song goes..."bring back! (3ce), Nelson Mandela, bring him back to Soweto, i want to see him walking hand in hand with Winnie Mandela!!!"... Our government sent aid, supplies to the south africans in their plight. some of them were refugees in our country. But surprisingly, in South Africa today, our people are being killed. It's just a case of biting the finger that fed you.

Dante "slimboi" Yahaya, Auckland, New Zealand

just dont know what to say, as a sierra leonean, i used to sit in front of the television as a kid and watch the horrors of what was going on in south africa during the 70s. those images stays with me till this day and how we welcome those (south africans) who were running away from such horrors, they were given free education, housing etc, and there were no ill feelings towards them and now to read this, it just sadden me, i hope the goverment of south africa stands up and do the right thing.

edmond bangura, massachusettes, usa

Thank you Farai for your interesting article. You do a great job harnessing events together. I must say that I was shocked the first time I heard about the attack on fellow Africans in South Africa. I have read about attacks on Africans in Some European countries but in our own continent, it beats my imagination hollow. Growing up in Nigeria, I saw all that was happening to our brothers and sisters in South Africa on TV and I used to feel very bad about the struggles and oppression going on there. It is sad to see that S. Africans are turning against their fellow Africans after their own experience with violence and oppression. I have seen racism first hand and I know that it is because of the colour of my skin which I am proud of regardless of the perception of others. But for my fellow African to discriminate against me, it will be an abomination. Where do you turn to if you are discriminated against by white and black? We as a people need to learn to love one another regardless of colour, creed, religion etc.

Omorodion Osula, Boston, USA

First of all i will want to give thanks to most of the positive answers as regards to the issue of this South Africa of a thing. In a real word,we are all Africans and why are we still attacking ourselves despite that Africans are Africans, whether from the West, North, East or South, we still remain one as Africans. As i was reading through all the write up from my fellow African brothers from different part of the world, i almost cried because it remind me of the word i use to hear from the Westerners (Dark World) which most of the western Countries use to call us...When are we going to rise up from our sleep and learn from our past and also to love ourselves as one big brother...Africa is a blessed continent and it is high time that we know what is good for us. South Africans, please always try to remember the past from the other African Countries in the days of your apartheid as regards to all what was contributed to you people there, anyway we know what is actually your problem there we do hope to put everything into prayers so that everything we come to normal.

charles jossy, Germany

What happens in south Africa is neither xenophobia nor Afrophobia but simply racism. The south African blacks should better spend their energy demanding reallocation of land which 1% whites occupy as against landless 99% blacks, but they are too weak to talk to minority whites. Next time these white minority carry their Mandela Mbeki to Robben Island, they better not run to Front line states for protection. I wonder what Nyerere would say if he were alive today.

Sunny Ekwenugo, Berlin, Germany

@Lnadi, so the presence of African syndicates justifies the slaughter of Africans, what about European syndicates and Arab syndicates. The fact remains that Nigeria especially under Murtala Mohammed and Obasanjo contributed heavily to the anti-apartheid struggle. I recall seeing Thabo Mbeki and other S. African leaders in Victoria Island on many occasions. So also did the frontline states like Zimbabwe many of whom were bombed for their opposition to Apartheid. The conduct of Black South Africans is inexcusable. I will never ever visit South Africa.

Charles U. Odiase, Los Angeles, California

I am really against the beating and attacking of fellow Africans, but I agree with Wilhem from London. In this country we have porous border whereby plus/minus two millions Zimbabweans and about one million Mozambicana are here in the country illegal. We dont know where they stay and they dont have any documentation. Let me give you a practical example how illegal people can do in this country. A Zimbwabwean crooks the other day beat a three year child to blindness due to the fact that a white person taking advantage that they are illegal. He never paid them the amount requested for their labour. Therefore it goes without saying that illegal immigrants accept any lowly paid job in this country because you cannot unionised them. Those who bashing us from Canada, Berlin etc One wonder why dont they go to their country and develop them that speaking from ivory towers. Finally I wont it to make clear to them we were fighting the system within the country we make this country ungovernable fighting a very powerful security apparatus. There were no two million South African blacks in Nigeria, Tairzania or any african country during tough times of apartheid. What you Nigerian during the 80s when you cahse the Ghanaians

VeIi Hlatshwayo, Johannesburg South Africa

The attacks against blacks by South Africans show that there is a need to continue the revolution. Until wealth and land is equally distributed among the citizens, such story will continue.

Yayah Leigh, Sweden

it is always good to hear the issue of attack on foreigners raised, the importatnce of raising awareness about it cannot be stresssed enough. Afrophobia is somewhat cliche to some of us foreign residents of SA and it is such a pity that from to generation to generations we africans continue ignore our core values. we are a prosperous continent with enough to feed all.

jedidiah warrior, South Africa, PMB

Well said piece from farai, regardless how we might try and justify these xenophobic acts it does not matter how many south africans crossed boarders during apartheid the fact is they did and were well received. Today might be a different circumstances but just think what africans had given up on south africa being liberated, do you think it was going to be possible?

sicelo, johannesburg

Interesting how, for an article about Afrophobia, almost all of the Africans are living outside Africa. Presumably, they are just as Afrophobic as any South African black, since they have left their homeland. How can they then criticise them? It is gross hypocrisy.

Lungile, Port Elizabeth, South Africa

Farai always takes sarcasm and social cynicism along with him in his writings and utterances. I wonder whether he's given up in the struggle for a better world. But he was raising serious, pensive issues. I think South Africans are frustrated they're not getting the jobs and not living the lives they should. i think when other Africans are getting well paid jobs it hurts. There's a point there. i don't agree attacking other African is the answer. They have reason to make noise about their plights to their governments and demand policies and measures to be taken to empower more South Afrcians. Taking machetes to send away Africans is not right, We sacrificed for South Africans during their liberation struggle. I was part of fund-raising drives in Freetown those days and I came to meet Namibians and South Africans sent here. its time for governments to step up their acts to provide for their people and avoid Africans killing Africans in feats of frustration.

Cyril Jengo, Freetown, Sierra Leone

The debate that Sevenzo's insightful article above has provoked is timely and it should help us engage in some serious soul-searching. What debates like this bring out, among other things, is the fact of how easy it is for well-meaning people to find some sort of scapegoat for their conditions. Wilhelm and Hlatshwayo both have their scapegoats in the immigrants in their respective countries, Poles for Wilhelm and 'Africans' for Hlatshwayo. Perhaps these immigrants could probably have helped to turn the fortunes of their own if they had not left a vacuum behind them (for that is what the views of the two commentators above imply!) More seriously, we need to think of migration as a fact of the modern world. Tellingly, today's migrations are multidirectional--South to North; East to West, etc. Just as there are 'Africans' in South Africa, there are also South Africans in 'Africa', or for that matter in any other part of the world. Likewise, just as there are Africans in the West and elsewhere, there are also Westerners and all tribes of humanity in Africa. So what the heck are we talking about here? I think the real problem, the real misfortune, here is the failure to recognise and accept that migration has become a global phenomenon that, fortunately or unfortunately, is not about to go away. That being the case, it is incumbent upon one to prepare oneself for the competition that it engenders. Otherwise, it is quite pathetic for one to cry foul and lick one's wound without really rising up to the challenge. There are things that are just damn right wrong and they need to be contfonted.

ojedie, Cape Town, South Africa

Call me crazy but I think what is happening in South Africa is neither afrophobia nor racism but something bigger than that. The crime rate is worse now than any time before and criminals will use any excuse to further their purposes. Foreign Africans are not the only vulnerable group victimised in that country. The 'witches' in the North Province, the farmers, woman and babies raped, etc. are not victimised because they are foreigners but because they are vulnerable. Many policemen are corrupt, the government is not doing enough to stop the. It is a shame that some people choose to use a blanket approach and accuse all south Africans of xenophobia, and being ungrateful to what other Africans have done for us. There are millions of foreigners in South Africa who can testify that the majority of SAs are friendly and caring people, some of us are married to Foreign Africans. Some Nigerians, Ghanians, etc. are doctors, nurses teachers in our country, of course we are grateful they are here. Its only good for nothings and ignorant criminals who prey on any vulnerable groups.

Tisetso, Preston, UK

You should not worry about us Zimbabweans. Yes our country is going through a tough period now but we'll be back and after we do, its the S. Africans who willl be crossing the Limpopo. We promise them the same kind of hospitality we extended to them during the apertheid years. I recently read that Zimbabwe owes about US$5,5billion in foreign debt...thats it!!! Given the extent of our natural resources it will be easy to take care of that. Now if only that old colonial and imperialist fool Britain would leave us alone. I love Zimbabwe, I have faith in Zimbabweans. Zimbabwe and its resources are for Zimbabweans...not the British, never again.

Mwana We Vhu, Harare, Zimbabwe

Well written article. Afrophobia is a sad development in S Africa especially that Zambians and other nationals in neighbouring countries suffered bombing raids at the hands of apatheid agents in the 70s and 80s.

Gershom Chongwe, Ndola, Zambia

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