Zimbabwean journallist Maynard Manyowa writes that he is certain that his fellow countrymen have not done enough, as guests of South Africa, to either listen to the concerns of those leading the anti-immigrant charge or consider their grievances around crime.
My disclaimer is this- I am a Zimbabwean, so my allegiances should be obvious. But I am also a journalist, so I must give my fair judgment. Without wasting your time, I will tell you now, I have no business criticising those South Africans who are xenophobic – my wife, a South African, is better placed to do that, and she has already done it and got the t-shirt, twice!
I want to speak as a Zimbabwean, and reflect on the arguments made against us living and working in South Africa. I write this at the obvious risk of being called a traitor, a sell-out, and countless other things. But, as more and more people continue to lose their lives, I cannot be complicit in this any longer.
It is a tedious task to write about xenophobia. When people lose life, limb and property, the waters are immediately muddy, and clarity becomes an expensive commodity. In fact, clarity is often the first casualty of emotion-driven debates.
Yet, here we are, in 2022, and waves of violence have emerged again. For years, the first port of call has been to lecture South Africans about Ubuntu, about oneness and about blackness. But as we have delivered one lecture after the other, bodies have continued to pile up on the streets. (And I don’t mean this literally).
It is hard to tell if the lectures fell on deaf ears or were ignored, but I am more than certain that we have not done enough, as guests of South Africa, to either listen to the concerns of those leading the anti-immigrant charge or consider their grievances.
It is on the back of this that I was driven to put my own outrage aside and listen. And I concede that as a journalist, this is what I should have done many years ago.
The irony of ubuntu
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When tensions between locals and foreigners first translated into rampant and widespread violence, it came as a shock. In condemnation, many people spoke about how South Africa had betrayed Madiba’s sacrosanct principle of Ubuntu.
When it happened again, around 2015, I wrote an open letter to Robert Mugabe, demanding that he get an audience with Jacob Zuma and remind him of the role played by African states in liberating South Africa.
To be honest, all these things remain true. There is no humanity in placing a flaming tyre around a gardener’s neck, for no other reason except that he was born the other side of a river. This cannot be justified, by anyone, at any time. I will repeat myself; the lynching of foreign nationals is wrong.
But, as has been the challenge many times. The conversation ended there when it should not have.
While there is no ubuntu in stoning a poor immigrant, there also is no ubuntu in committing any other type of crime. The entire concept of ubuntu can be likened to graciousness.
A host has no right to kill his guest. But a guest also has no right to break into his host’s house, steal his children’s cookie jar, and ransack the guest room.
I understand that the juxtaposition of these issues leads to the real risk of allegations of whataboutism or justifying equivalence.
But the problem is, those who are against migrants sing one tune – stop being bad guests. We refuse to listen and in turn, say murder is taking it too far. And so, it becomes a case of what came first, the chicken of the egg.
However, all this just angers those that feel sick to their stomach about rampant crime which they claim is tied to migration. Screaming ubuntu will not help. Perhaps the greatest ubuntu we could demonstrate, is acknowledging that there is a crime problem, and some of our fellow countrymen are involved.
Even one is too many
People love to say crime knows no nationality and that statistics are not clear. This is a fair argument, but it also conveniently ignores that even one foreign national committing a crime is one crime too many.
Under current Zimbabwean law, foreigners who commit crime in Zimbabwe are deported after they have completed their sentences, and whatever status they had, work permit or permanent residence, will be revoked.
This policy is not new, nor should it be considered hostile. The United Kingdom, the United States, and several other countries deport criminals who abuse their hospitality once they complete their sentence.
At the time of writing, it is not clear how many Zimbabweans are in South Africa’s prisons. What we know is that in 2011 there were 1,913 convicted criminals from Zimbabwe. In 2015, President Zumba said that number had increased to 4,000.
In 2017, 7.4 per cent of South Africa’s prison population (158,111) was foreign, with Zimbabweans and Mozambicans making up the bulk of that number. At the time, 448 Zimbabweans were either currently imprisoned or awaiting trial for murder while another 186 were up for rape.
These are huge numbers, and even though they are considerably less than the total of 158 111 prisoners, it cannot be downplayed. In fact, the argument that foreigners are committing less crime than South Africans simply makes those who are already aggrieved cross the line from angry to furious.
Instead of telling our guests that it’s only 7.4 per cent, we should instead look at each other, and speak in one voice against our own brothers and sisters that commit crime because even one criminal is too many.
We owe South Africans a thank you and an apology
If for some unknown reason today, South Africa was thrown into chaos, and 500,000 people fled into the country over the course of a month, Zimbabwe would put all of them in refugee camps.
At least that is what the law says, and that is what Zimbabwe is doing with refugees from Rwanda, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia. It is also what Kenya does, and what Uganda did when one million people showed up at its doorstep. Believe it or not, even Malawi has vibrant refugee camps.
The Zimbabweans that fled to South Africa en masse beginning around 2008 frankly had little choice. Mugabe unleashed incredible terror and murdered people in hundreds. I was 18 at the time, but fully remember how we lived in a military state and in perpetual fear.
But what we forget is, South Africa could have put us in camps. They did not. Instead, they allowed us to enter and integrate with communities. This deserves a thank you. It was a compassionate gesture that allowed people with skills to immediately enter the economy and join the production chain.
The special permits, whatever name they go by now, remain the biggest perpetual gesture of goodwill by any neighbouring country. Even the United Kingdom is now borrowing that idea with regards to Ukrainian refugees – albeit Ukraine is at actual war, getting to the UK is a mission and the refugees are processed from outside of the UK. Reiterating the argument that, if we want to look at Ubuntu or brotherhood, we must look no further.
We also owe South Africa an apology. The truth of the matter is, we all know a friend of a friend and a cousin of a cousin who knows somebody who knows a criminal. In some instances, we know them directly.
It is not just ‘one’ crime, it is lives that are destroyed
On 24 September 2015, Jabu Mbatha’s life took a turn for the best. Her fiancé Zukisa Kela paid for her lobola, and a wedding was surely imminent. Outside their circles, people didn’t really know. But, on 8 October, Zukisa announced his bride to the world, on his Facebook page.
Zukisa’s post would be the last, about his bride, or anything for the matter. Nine days later, as Jabu and Zukisa walked in Rhodes Park with another couple, they were ambushed by eight men.
The men took turns raping Siphokazi Tyeke and Jabu Mbatha as their partners who were tied up watched helplessly. The thugs then tossed the men into the pond, and laughed as they drowned.
Three of those men were convicted of murder and rape. The other five fled to Zimbabwe. One of them was arrested in 2016, pending extradition, but little else is known or said about the case. This is just one story.
In December 2021, Victor Kambanje, 32, was startled out of his sleep by a loud thud and bang. He had been asleep alongside his wife and two young children in Cosmo City.
Four armed men entered the house. They made him kneel, in front of his two young children, aged 5 and 8. According to his cousin, they put the gun to his backside and “shot him through the anus”. The thieves ransacked the house as Victor lay on the floor, dying, and in anguish.
According to an account provided by the wife to family members, the men who murdered Victor were Zimbabwean. After the murder, the police did not attend the crime scene, nor did they take fingerprints or gather evidence.
The family have accepted that the men may never be identified or caught, and Victor’s wife and children have themselve moved back to Zimbabwe.
These are just two stories, but this is South Africa’s reality. People hide their mobile phones while walking in Johannesburg CBD, for fear of being mugged and stabbed. But it happens anyway. Nobody feels safe.
Our role as Zimbabweans is to build bridges with our hosts not burn them
I have taken a lot of criticism from my own countrymen recently for my views, but I have also been encouraged by many. South Africa can be haven for Zimbabwean migrants, but it is being spoiled by those that play mischief when they get there.
We can debate about proportions all we like, but this will not appease those who say they are fed up. We cannot ignore the fact that many people have gone through what Jabu, Siphokazi and Victor went through. The people affected by such cruel crimes that involved our countrymen will never forgive us.
Our role now should be to extend an olive branch and tell those who are aggrieved that we understand their frustrations, we equally stand against crime, and that we are willing to join hands with them and drive out criminals.
We must also take a moment and ask ourselves why Botswana has problems with us, Zambia has issues with us, Namibia has problems with us, and the UK is deporting us. It is not just happening in South Africa.
And, if a person falls out with everyone they meet, you have to conclude that they’re the problem, not everyone else.
– Maynard Manyowa is a Zimbabwean journalist based in Manchester, England. Follow him on Twitter – @iAmKudaMaynard