June 16 2011. What a bittersweet day. One part of me has celebrated the triumph over adversity that this day represents to the countries of Africa, and South Africa in particular. But another part of me has felt like breaking up into a million pieces of sorrow for the violence that my fellow countrymen and women, Zimbabweans, are still facing at the hands of our neighbour, South Africa.
In case you are a little confused, here is a bit of history. On June 16 1976, black South African students led uprisings against the apartheid regime revolting against the compulsory introduction of Afrikaans as one of the main languages of instruction within the education system. Afrikaans, with its connotations of racism and separatism as enshrined by the Afrikaaner-led ruling National Party, represented much of what non-white South Africans deemed their oppression. Therefore, to be forced to learn and, ironically, enrich one’s knowledge base using such an oppressive language was simply degrading and a step taken too far for these South Africans. And so they took to the streets to protest and demand the immediate reversal of this legal decree.
It is estimated that over 20 000 students took part in what is now commonly referred to as the ‘Soweto Uprisings’. Of those brave students, almost 200 died. But the image that has come to symbolise the gallant efforts of those youth is one in which a young man, Mbuyisa Makhubo (18) runs through the streets of Soweto carrying the dead and limp body of 13-year-old Hector Pietersen, one of the students shot dead by the apartheid police. Pietersen’s older sister, Antoinette Sithole runs astride the pair, holding up a hand in panic and despair.
This is a solemn image that speaks to many people the world over who have struggled against any system of oppression; who have chosen to fight even when their weapons were blunter, smaller and less effective than those of their opponent; who have stood up to be counted and even laid down their lives in sacrifice.
This is the South Africa that I love – the South Africa that inspires me and gives me hope.
But, as I write, I am filled with mixed emotions. Today, on the 35th anniversary of this important day, I learnt of the death of 26-year-old Farai Kujirichita. Living in a South African settlement in the city of Johannesburg, Farai – a Zimbabwean national – was bludgeoned to death by a mob in his community in January.
This story only came to light last week when the New York Times wrote an extended feature about the incident, even supplying a chilling link to a video recording of the South African mob jeering and cheering as they beat Farai to death with a wooden plank. His skull and face were crushed in and by the time the police came to the scene of the incident, he was already dead.
Over the last few years, instances of violence between Zimbabweans and South Africans have been on the increase.
Due to a decaying national economy and growing political unrest, many Zimbabweans have left their homeland in pursuit of greater stability. It is estimated that by 2010, there were approximately 1,5 million Zimbabweans living in South Africa. Many more are to be found in Botswana, the United Kingdom and North America.
But we have not always been so welcome in the countries where we have fled, particularly in South Africa.
In 2008, widespread xenophobic attacks perpetrated by South Africans against other African nationals, particularly Zimbabweans, scarred relationships and heightened tensions between nationals of the two countries. During those attacks, it was officially estimated that in just the month of May 2008, 62 foreigners were killed; 670 injured and 30 000 displaced. Most of these were Zimbabwean, although the image that has come to represent this horrible carnage is one of a Mozambican man who was set alight by a disgruntled community and who shortly died from his injuries.
I try to reconcile this image of brutality against fellow Africans with that of the brutality that South Africans themselves faced so many years ago. And I am not sure what to feel. But I know that it hurts my heart completely that we are at war with each other like this.
When I posted a link to the article about Farai Kujirichita on my Facebook wall, I could sense the great anger that many of my Zimbabwean friends felt at this violence. Are Zimbabweans so terrible that we should be tortured like animals?!
I have lived in South Africa and I know that not all South Africans hate Zimbabweans. Some of my best friends are South African. I love to speak isiZulu and there’s nothing I adore more than listening to South African music. But I have also received those discomforting looks of disapproval passed my way by some South Africans; those who give me the cold shoulder when they ask me something in Xhosa and I respond in English that I do not understand; or the ones who start talking to me and say, “Those Zimbabweans…” not realising that I am one too.
And so today, my heart is torn between loving this country and choosing to be angry.
I felt this way again last year on July 12, just after the end of the World Cup, when I happened to be at the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa. Zimbabweans had been put on high alert that just after the end of the games, xenophobic attacks would likely flare up again. Many took the warning seriously and decided to pack up their lives and go back to their faltering nation and wait for things to settle down once more in their adopted country, South Africa. I watched families bind all of their belongings to the tops of buses – televisions, sets of sofas, beds, kitchen tables and chairs – everything that they had worked hard to buy. I watched adults and babies alike struggle for comfort in crammed jaunty buses, their faces riddled with uncertainty and fear.
I watched and found it ironic that fellow Africans had to flea South Africa the day after the greatest spectacle that this continent has ever brought to the world – an event that showed that indeed, Africa was a continent of colour, capability and unity.
My heart broke then. But I think it breaks even more today.