Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Xenophobia or Culture Shock?

Xenophobia is one topic that many writers find unfashionable because of the way it has being recycled over and over in the media. I however find that the writings on Xenophobia unrepresentative of me, the young foreign student.

University brochures emphasize on how South Africa offers international students, “Exotic combinations of landscapes, people, history and culture for a-larger-than life experience." a tempting prospect. These glossy prospectuses almost guarantee a smooth transition into the South African way of life. They did not however prepare me for the hostility I face for being a black foreigner. Or for what some call culture shock.

With the credit crunch hitting the finances of my parents badly, attending university in America or the United Kingdom became a fleeting illusion, the best alternative, was enrolling at a university in the country whose people killed mine in xenophobic attacks. When I boarded my flight to OR Tambo airport, I shrugged off the possibility of been a victim Xenophobia. I thought xenophobic attacks were isolated to townships and illegal settlements.

Like most foreigners (and many South Africans I have come to learn) my perceptions of Johannesburg were fashioned by the media. This, with the news headlines in mind, is what I kept telling myself each time I walked out my flat:
• There is a criminal lurking behind every corner waiting to stab somebody and that somebody might be you.
• Move with a pocket knife everywhere you go.
• If you’re going to a lower income area travel on a tourist buses with guides to take you to the safe places.
• If you left someone at home, call them every hour to find out if they are safe.

In the same way I perceived Joburg as a city with bullets flying around at every corner, South African Xenophobes may tacitly agree with news and feature stories that portray the immigrant as a parasite bent on feeding off benefits meant for South Africans. This could be one of the reasons for implicit and explicit acts of xenophobia in this country.

My friends often jokingly say the worst place for a foreigner to be in Jozi is a reception manned by security guards. My own experiences of being the foreigner attended to by a guard have gone something like this:

"Heita" the guard greets me while wearing a smile.

"Enter" I answer.

The guard then begins to speak to me in Zulu.

“I cannot understand you sir. I’m a foreigner.” I tell him.

“What language do you speak?” the guard asks, now frowning.

“English.” I say, knowing that English is where our language skills intersect.

“No what traditional language do you speak wena?”

“Bemba, Nyanja and bits of Ki-Swahili.”

“Oh, where do you come from mfana?”

“Zambia.” I respond.

A black woman walks in, she and the guard speak in vernacular. The guard helps her fill in the entrance forms before letting her in. He then turns his attention back to me, speaking in his native tongue and expecting me to follow.

“I cannot understand what you are saying” I tell him.

He continues speaking Zulu. I ask him to switch to English, but he ignores. Then a whitey walks in "Good Afternoon Sir, how can I help you?" the guard asks paying attention to the way he pronounces his vowels.

"Am headed to see a friend, picking him up for lunch."

"Yes Sir. Fill in this form, write your name here and your contact details there. Thank you and have a good day" the guard tells the whitey.

"Thank you."

I get angry and tell the guard off but he still responds in vernacular. I decide to walk past the guard without filling in the form. The guard stops me and says in English “Ey fill these form. You can't leave the building without having this slip signed." I fill in the form while wondering whether or not to lodge a complaint. I have had similar experiences in restaurants, at roadside markets and even in banks. I decide against lodging a complaint, as reporting such acts has become tiresome.

I can construct a few sentences in Zulu and when the bit of Zulu I know is sufficient enough for me to get to the end of a conversation, I make a new friend. But when I can't get to the end of a conversation without asking to switch to English, I get cold feedback. At these times I feel like leaving, quitting my degree and catching the next flight home. But then again it could be culture shock; my failure to understand that blacks 'ought' to speak vernacular or risk been shunned and that a white man can get around fine without speaking a word of Zulu or Xhosa. Or maybe I’m a victim Xenophobia and should count myself lucky because I do not get a tire lit around my neck.