I recently spent part of a week in South Africa, where I once lived and worked and had a fantastic experience on all fronts.
Had I been younger than I was when I arrived to take up a job as a researcher at the University of Witwatersrand in 2001, I might have sought to stay for good or for a very long time, possibly until retirement or even beyond. But by the time I got there, I had decided that East Africa was where I wanted to settle down.
And so, four years later, having completed the tasks that had taken me there, I left. Still, the decision was difficult, for I had I grown to feel almost as much at ease there as I did back home in Uganda.
For almost half of my entire stay, I was holed up in a village in the rural northeast, near Mozambique. I was there to study a range of local phenomena as a member of a multidisciplinary team comprising epidemiologists, public health specialists, demographers and social scientists.
My experience in the village, Ka Masuku, in what during the apartheid period had been the “Black Homeland” of Gazankhulu, was enlightening. I had gone there armed with fairly simple ideas about the apartheid era and how non-white South Africans had experienced it. I shall return to that shortly.
According to local reckoning, I was the only African on the aforementioned team. That by no means implies that my colleagues were from outside the African continent. The vast majority were South Africans: White, of Asian descent, and black Africans.
What the label “African” meant in the context of Ka Masuku and presumably in the wider South African context, was that I was not “South African”. I was from “Africa”.
The label was for the most part used, quite innocently, by the black South Africans, the villagers especially. Although it was sometimes used as a kind of jibe, it was amusing and also understandable.
It was understandable because in its efforts to make them feel inferior to their white compatriots, the apartheid system had also transmitted the idea that, as South Africans, blacks were somehow superior to “Africans”. Negative media stories and images coming out of “Africa” did nothing to dispel that notion.
The one thing I never experienced, however, whether in Ka Masuku or back at the university in Johannesburg, was xenophobia. In the village that may have had to do with who I was: A temporary resident who was preoccupied with esoteric matters of which they had little understanding. No local saw me as a competitor for anything.
Back at the university, I had come to fill a skills gap. In other words, I was not a threat to anyone.
I was reminded of all this on my recent visit when a resident Ugandan sent me an image via social media. The video clip showed a group of mainly young men in a part of Pretoria, wielding machetes and waving them at women and children staring at them from the balcony of an apartment building.
To chop up
Up until then I had not heard of the anti-foreigner protests and violence that had taken place earlier in the day. The young men were threatening to chop up African immigrants who, they argued, should go back to their own countries.
The accusations against the immigrants are very specific. They steal jobs by accepting lower pay than South Africans would accept for the same kind of work. They deal in drugs and sell them to minors.
They have set up businesses in informal settlements and the poorer residential areas and are making money that South Africans ought to be making. They are therefore growing rich while their South African neighbours are growing poorer, unable to find employment and therefore the money they could use as capital to start businesses and also prosper.
Overall, the accuracy or validity of these accusations is debatable. That said, there is some evidence that immigrants have taken advantage of opportunities that, before their coming, South Africans would have taken for granted, or not even noticed. And now that some are visibly better off, the South Africans want the opportunities for themselves and see mass eviction as the only route to seizing them
So, what can the government do in response?
A quick scan of the local print media revealed little more than a chorus of condemnation of their countrymen by the country’s political elite and civil society groups. It seems, however, that the more interesting reaction has been the hardening of rules and procedures for applying for visas to travel to South Africa.
Multiple entry visa
One has to experience the process to realise how onerous it has become. Perhaps most notable for a regular visitor is how it makes no difference whatsoever how many times you have been there and left voluntarily, within the time limits specified in your visas. You still face the same stringent procedures as a first-time traveller.
And if you want a long-term multiple entry visa, just forget it. To the South African authorities, it seems as if every “African” traveller is a potential illegal immigrant.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org