Tuesday, April 21, 2015


(Photo by Ntokozo Mbambo.)

Something I read on a local Facebook group:

Hello moms, last night around 1900h l had my worst nightmare in my life. As I was fetching water from the tap outside my room, some guy came to me and threatened to kill me if I was to fail to tell him what the elbow is in xhosa pointing at it and pretending to cut his neck to show me he was going to kill me. Puzzled I responded in Ndebele as its called the same. Funny the landlord says to me I cant stop them.

There has been a huge wave of xenophobic attacks in South Africa on 'foreigners' - people from neighbouring countries like Zimbabwe or Mozambique who have moved to South Africa in search of employment opportunities. There has been a lot of discussions in the media about why these attacks are happening right now but the idea that keeps popping up is resentment over employment. There is a very big unemployment problem in South Africa (perhaps something like one in four people are unemployed) and yet large swathes of people who are able to find employment are foreigners. 

These attacks have been violent. Horrifically so. I've read about a man being burnt alive after being beaten and run over by a car. Mobs of angry people roam the streets looking for stereotypical foreigners to harass i.e. a domestic worker or gardeners. Surprisingly to me domestic workers or gardeners are more often than not from Zimbabwe or Malawi or other African countries rather than being South African born. 

I began the post with the quote from a Zimbabwean living in Cape Town. The woman was tested to see if she was a South African or not. How? By testing her linguistic skills. The gangster/criminal/xenophobic racist asked her how to say 'elbow' in Xhosa. I'm not sure if the man spoke to her in English or Xhosa as it's not clear to me from her story. He threatened to kill her if she was unable to tell him the correct answer. She responded in another language, Ndebele, but she knew that 'elbow' is the same word in Xhosa and Ndebele (elbow = indololwane). 

The man was trying to find out the woman's identity through her linguistic abilities. This backfired on him since she was skilled enough in Xhosa (a language mostly spoken in the Western and Eastern Cape) and in her own Zimbabwean language, Ndebele, so she was able to fool him into thinking she wasn't a foreigner. 

(The situation reminds me of the Shibboleth/Sibboleth story in the book of Judges chapter 12.) 

Who is in and who is out? Who is acceptable and who is not? Who belongs and is welcome in South Africa and who is not? 

Using language as a measuring stick is a fascinating thing. There are 11 national languages in South Africa and I believe most people are multilingual and actually, the majority of the population would be at least trilingual. So testing someone's identity through what language they can speak is quite a tricky thing to do. Obviously the thug thought he could intimidate the woman but what a strange way since the language of many foreigners (Ndebele spoken in Zimbabwe) has many loan words with Xhosa (the language of many locals in this area). He could have at least chosen a word that is not the same in both languages! 


Once when I was on the banks of our local waterway ('vlei' in Afrikaans which translates to 'swamp' but it's a freshwater estuary) a man came up to Shiri and me and spoke to me in Xhosa. He said, 'Kunjani, sisi? ('How are you, sister?'). I was a bit concerned. I was alone except for my baby. The vlei is quite full of criminal activities at times. And culturally there was absolutely no need for him to greet me like that. If anything he should have spoken to me in Afrikaans or English. I replied, 'Ndiphilile.' (I'm well.) And then he left. It was a very odd encounter. I expected him to ask me for something - directions, food, money, the time, anything. But he didn't. Later I wondered if he was testing me for my own identity - could I respond with the right words? Did I belong here in South Africa? I may have been overthinking the situation but it was very odd anyway.