Plan B: More Zen, Less Phobia – Dean Hutton
I briefly met Andile Tshabalala on Tuesday on the way to a meeting with Lindiwe Matshikiza to brainstorm ideas on interventions we could create as artists to increase public safety in our communities. We’re calling it Action TBC (to be confirmed).
I saw Andile from my car window, resting on the side of the road with his blue trolley, taking a mid-afternoon break from gathering recyclable material. The message written on the side of his trolley read: Plan B. We chatted, we made this picture, and I thanked him, financially, for his time. The experience changed my week and it might have saved me from cynicism.
I’ve seen a lot of insincerity in my 18 years as a journalist. Working as an artist has shifted me from discontent. I don’t know how long this feeling will last, but there’s one thing I didn’t doubt on this Freedom Day – the landscape I saw when I walked alongside maybe 25 000 Joburgers on Thursday last week, from Hillbrow, through Joubert Park, down into Doornfontein, and across the CBD via those parts of the city we know as Little Lagos, Little Lusaka, then Little Addis into Newtown. That’s the South Africa I choose.
The South Africa of young and old, so many clothed in a hundred civic organisations’ free T-shirts calling for justice, accountability, human rights, ubuntu. T-shirts not fronted with the visages of grinning old men. Signs calling for peace, humanity, and declaring intersectional solidarity between queers, and black and foreign bodies.
Not the South Africa of unconscious privilege swallowing its own tail. Not the chase for political power, the corruptive grasp. The South Africa I reject is that one line of anti-xenophobia marchers that attempted to make the march about them, those so-called leaders, the premier and his bully boy security who pushed photographers around and made it impossible to work, who tried to install themselves as head of The People’s March Against Xenophobia. The shit that floats to the top whenever a moment for grandstanding presents itself. I celebrate that the marchers ignored their attempts.
We need more occasions to ignore politicians. Political will be accomplished only when we banish politicians to their offices to do some work. Because they sure as hell aren’t doing their jobs in front of the cameras. Change starts by rolling up our sleeves and refusing to wait for politicians to grant us justice.
This is my Plan B: a community of strangers willing to meet in the streets to prove that love will always be a greater force than hate. A gathering of collaborators to make our public spaces safer by using the tools of art-making. A declaration that change starts with action.
On the back of Mr Tshabalala’s trolley are these final words: Life goes on.
life |lʌɪf| noun (pl. lives |lʌɪvz| )
1 [ mass noun ] the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death
2 the existence of an individual human being or animal
3 (usu. one’s life) the period between the birth and death of a living thing, especially a human being
4 vitality, vigour, or energy: she was beautiful and full of life
5 [ mass noun ] (in art) the depiction of a subject from a real model, rather than from an artist’s imagination
Johannesburg, a City of Migrants – Gabriel Hoosain Khan
I visited Fordsburg on Freedom Day, a migrant suburb perched on the periphery of the Joburg city centre. I felt at home sipping coffee at the Turkish Café as brown people browse scarves and robes in languages I cannot speak. Abruptly, three army trucks came by, big, muddy brown and burly: the trucks crunched forward awkwardly, out of place in the crowds of strolling families.
Johannesburg has always been a city of migrants. First the iron smelters atop the Melville Koppies arrived. Much later, in 1886, those who worshipped gold meandered across the veld to dig holes and build stark white monuments to it, and a mine dump lager is still erect around the city. It has always been a city of migrants, from the gold prospectors, to the systems of migrant labour that followed. These moves are important in the quest to understand the xenophobic violence here.
“Wang thola, where is home?” asks one of the signs at the People’s March Against Xenophobia, which took place last Thursday. Home, for residents of Joburg, as the placard implies, is elsewhere. Not that all homes are equal. No, homes are etched into the earth separately: hostels on the dusty roads where black migrant workers lived, and the lush green avenues for the randlords who owned the mines. These marked differences still exist today, evident in the glittering geographic fragments of the apartheid dream.
It is rare for these fragments to align, but they did last week. For once, Joburg’s impish spirit of dissent hushed as the state, City of Joburg, political opposition, civil society and faith-based organisations joined hands to denounce xenophobic violence and embrace unity. As this phenomenal collective of close to 30 000 people marched through Hillbrow and the city centre, crowds gathered on the pavement and couples leaned over balconies. At first, some seemed fearful (was this a lynch mob?), but once they heard the joyful singing and read the placards, they joined the march or cheered as the demonstrators passed.
The response to April’s xenophobic attacks by the South African police (the army followed soon after) and civil society was swift and efficient. This is apparent in the number of lives lost – far fewer than in 2008’s wave of xenophobic violence. But these responses are familiar, particularly familiar in townships and hostels – the march of the campaigner and the brute force of the security services. The night before this demonstration, the police and army raided the Wolhunter Hostel in Jeppestown, banging on doors and lining up partially clothed men in the corridor. Only four days after raid on the Jeppestown hostels, the same security forces raided Mayfair and Fordsburg to arrest undocumented migrants. As the cameras flashed, capturing a familiar residue of violence, I wondered who the security forces were protecting.
The difficulty lies in a reaction to violence that aims to qualm violence but lacks the ability to respond to its systemic nature. A reaction that sends security services to hostels in Jeppestown, Alexandra and Actonville to snub out xenophobia without responding to hostile environments which foster violence. I do not deny the practical need to protect foreign nationals. I am contesting the assertion that a response by security services can do more than neutralise xenophobic violence momentarily.
The foreign nationals affected by violence are also located in this geography of violence. It is only foreign nationals working or living in high-density, low-income areas that being targeted. The challenge is the manifestation of xenophobia as it intersects with broader struggles for basic amenities such as shelter, sanitation and community safety. Further, the South African state has implemented a visa application process that is difficult and expensive, and the shaky system for refugees and asylum seekers does little to help poor (almost always black) foreign nationals.
That being said, the march happened, and movement offers opportunity, little glittering gold veins snaking through the bedrock beneath the city. The response by civil society reflects the shifting ideas about xenophobia from violence isolated to foreign nationals, to a reading of violence located in broader struggles for justice.
As I sipped my coffee, I mused about how in places like Fordsburg and Hillbrow, the lives of those who live on the margins – migrants, refugees and sex workers – are centred. There is something queer about bringing the margins to the centre.
A Clenched Fist for Unity – Achille Mbembe (initially posted on Facebook)
The People’s March Against Xenophobia took place last week in Joburg. Various reports suggest there were between 25 000 and 30 000 of us – figures far higher than those of the 2008 mobilisation.
I went to bed that night but could hardly sleep. All these images kept flooding my mind – liberation songs from the times of anticolonial struggles in Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia; songs from the struggle against apartheid; children (and I mean children) carrying placards proclaiming our common belonging to a common humanity; school kids in their uniforms riffing on older, slower hymns with a faster, energetic and combative tempo; thousands of young people of all genders and sexual orientations bringing the street to life; anti-xenophobic chefs wearing their best outfits; women of all ages, colours and professions; old veterans of earlier struggles beaming with joy and vigour, happy to be back in the arena and throwing their fists in the air.
It was as if South Africa at its best was back. And for a moment, it looked as if nothing could stand in its way. We walked through Hillbrow, knowing full well what it all meant – tall grey buildings cramped with people from all corners of this vast continent; open sewage at almost every intersection; extraordinary resilience amid infrastructural decay; a landscape of destitution and hope combined, with restaurants offering a Nigerian breakfast in the morning and a South African dinner in the evening; and here and there a wall covered with graffiti, an excerpt from Bob Marley next to images of Nkrumah, Malcolm or Lumumba.
Then we walked through Little Ethiopia, with hundreds of people on balconies cheering, raising the right hand and clenched fists before letting go hundreds of small Ethiopian flags. I saw many so-called foreigners on those balconies and behind those security bars that have turned many an apartment or house into a mini prison. Many looked too scared to join. Many took pictures. Women ululated. Unable to hold on, many simply let go. Emotionally overwhelmed, they simply shed tears of gratitude and smiled.
The majority of the marchers were South African citizens, members of countless grassroots organisations, many of whom might not see eye to eye. But on this day, they buried their differences and tied their own fate to that of the “foreigner”, knowing full well that in this postapartheid dispensation, the poor is the foreigner.
I took lots of pictures of various slogans, costumes and faces – “Borders are illegal”, “Be Zen, not phobic”, “No African is a foreigner in Africa”, and countless others. Each spoke volumes.
I also saw a woman shouting on the pavement. She was unfurling a picture of King Zwelithini. The king was draped with a leopard skin hat, almost Mobutuesque. He looked almost naked, and the woman lonely.
*The People’s March Against Xenophobia was an emergency coalition convened to confront xenophobia in South Africa, denounce the violence, and embrace unity. The coalition included the African Diaspora Forum, CoRMSA, the Treatment Action Campaign, Equal Education, Awethu!, seven trade unions – FAWU, NUMSA,SACCAWU, SAFPU, SASAWU, CWU, PAWUSA – as well as SECTION27, Corruption Watch, and Doctors Without Borders/MSF. The response to the xenophobic attacks on the face of it seems to be phenomenal – for once the South African political voice is one in which the state, the opposition, civil society and faith-based organisations are all in harmony.
all photographs © Dean Hutton