Web article: Closet reflections on South Africa at 21: Remembering David Motsamayi

Pedzisai MaedzaBy Pedzisai Maedza[1], Zimbabwean playwright who lives in South Africa, winner of the Africa Thesis Award 2014.

Freedom Day 2015
For the wise geeks 27 April is the 117th day of the year and 118th in leap years in the Gregorian calendar. In this understanding of time it also means that there are 248 days remaining until the end of the year. To those who know, live, belong, relate, identify and love South Africa in that order or in a combination of those relationships, the day means so much more. On this day twenty one years ago, the winds of change that had blown on the southern tip of the African continent from all directions brought universal suffrage. What had seemed impossible had become possible.

The regime that had legislated into law a system of governance that was a crime against humanity ended. The regime which infamously brought into the universal lexicon the word apartheid and its associated meanings came to an end. That a regime whose genesis some trace to 1652 could be halted in the manner that it occurred was described as nothing short of a miracle by some.   

In 1994 on the 27th of April for the first time in its history all people of all colours and creed were allowed and able to cast their votes in the first democratic and non-racial elections. The day is a special day on the South African commemorative calendar. Annually on this day, the country and the international community remember and commemorate this day as Freedom Day. Official publicity reaffirms that peace, unity, the preservation and the restoration of human dignity are the hallmarks of the annual Freedom Day celebrations. To some, it only means an extended weekend.

It must be granted that the day means different things to different people. There is so much to celebrate, but this piece is not a dithyramb, neither is it an eulogy. This year when the country commemorated Freedom day, I did not celebrate. I have no comment on those who did find reason to celebrate. As a foreign national of African descent, I reflected on the times past and ahead in the solitude of my room removed from the country’s citizens.  

I wish I was alone in my mistrust and fear of seeing citizens in large groups or mobs and second guessing what the mob might do, when they realise that I, foreigner of African descent and travelling on an African passport is in their midst. It is a chilled reminder of the fragility of goodness and this democracy.  In a few days’ time it will be May. The month that has become the ceremonial month to reflect and celebrate the idea of Africa, as manifested in philosophies, people and structures that frame what today we conceive as Africa and African-ness.  

On South Africa’s Freedom day, I reflected on my place as a human being classed and perceived as a person of African descend on the continent of Africa, in the geographical and political space under the jurisdiction of the Republic of South Africa. I reflected on my being, and going through the world and time in my corporal body, as well as the readings, labels, symbolisms and other isms that others use in juxtaposition with me, and to make sense of me, and others of my kind in South Africa today. Belonging in South Africa is increasingly being centred around notions of indigeneity and nationality.

I reflected on the rise of a narrow reading or as officials have so often reminded us, on a mis-reading of South African nationalism. A reading that is by nature an ultra-exclusive conception of citizenship founded exclusively on indigeneity and nationality. It is a reading that, when mis-read or misunderstood strips me and fellow non-Europeans of the right to have rights. It is a reading that says the state will not undertake to recognise and respect my person and property should my stay be deemed to be unworthy to be here.

Remembering Freedom
Speaking at the first anniversary of South Africa’s non-racial elections President Mandela said: ‘As dawn ushered in this day, the 27th of April 1995, few of us could suppress the welling of emotion, as we were reminded of the terrible past from which we come as a nation; the great possibilities that we now have; and the bright future that beckons us. Wherever South Africans are across the globe, our hearts beat as one, as we renew our common loyalty to our country and our commitment to its future. The birth of our South African nation has, like any other, passed through a long and often painful process. The ultimate goal of a better life has yet to be realised. On this day, you, the people, took your destiny into your own hands. You decided that nothing would prevent you from exercising your hard-won right to elect a government of your choice. Your patience, your discipline, your single-minded purposefulness have become a legend throughout the world...’

In 2008 then president Thabo Mbeki delivered his last Freedom Day speech as President, reminded the nation: ‘The brutalities of the past - detentions without trial, disappearances of our people, deaths in detentions, hangings of those opposed to apartheid, imprisonment, exile, massacres, assassinations, forced removals, banishments, the Group Areas Act and many more laws that made the lives of black people unbearable - are testimonies that our freedom was never free. Although today we walk tall because our collective efforts culminated in the 27th of April being our Freedom Day, we all still carry scars that remind us that our freedom that is at times taken for granted was never free...’

In 2010, President Jacob Zuma paid tribute to the many activists, dead and alive in the country and outside of it who played a role in South Africa’s liberation: ‘On this day we remember all the brave men and women whose struggle and sacrifices made it possible for us to enjoy the benefits of democracy today. It is a day to reflect on how far we have advanced in building a new, united and democratic nation. Importantly, it is also a time to consider the extent to which the freedoms articulated in our Bill of Rights find expression in the daily lives of our people. From the ruins of a racially polarised order, we have built a nation driven by a strong commitment to the values of justice and equality. As taught by our icon President Nelson Mandela, we must remain steadfast in our determination that never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another...’

It is now 2015, and yesterday the fourth president took to the podium as has become custom, and  like in 2008 the country is at cross roads. The ‘oppression of one by another’ keeps rearing its head. The military has amid what seemed like great reluctance, had to be called in to restore and maintain calm amid rising popular sentiment against non-European migrants. These sentiments found expression in citizen riots in some parts of the country targeting non-European foreigners’ persons and property.  Seven deaths later, immeasurable trauma and chaos we are told that calm has been restored. And like in 2008, we look at one another and try to make sense of what happened, why it happened and keep fingers crossed that whatever it is that happened does not happen again and again. A chorus of voices from across the board has risen to condemn this move. While so much can be said, and has already been said, space constraints do not allow me to digress.

(Re)Placing Freedom
On 27 April 2015 as the rest of the country commemorated Freedom Day, I remembered the sixty three lives that were lost in ‘the dark days of May 2008’ as Mbeki told us. I remembered the many that were displaced. My heart sank at the memory of the attacks of foreign owned shops in January 2015 and the lives lost and disrupted then. I shed tears for the many now displaced, and violated and more so for the seven lives lost. My heart bled for the many that remain nameless statistics of many other crimes on the face of this beautiful land. These attacks have been dubbed xenophobic attacks and the president went to great pains to show that ‘South Africans are not generally xenophobic’. At the risk of being branded a denialist, I have to say that I agree. Yes, this is not xenophobia Mr President. The cancer has metastasised. It is now and has been since the beginning been something far, far scarier than notions of xenophobia can begin to account for the evil deeds, these ‘few’ who do not represent the majority have proven capable of unleashing.

I will use the senseless and wanton murder of but one man who was stabbed for being an illegal African. The government is and was keen to tell the world that the calls for foreign nationals to leave was not government position, and that they especially did not refer to foreign nationals whose stay was regularised by the law.

In this my reading, or as we were later advised, our misreading of events, the profiling and looting of non-European foreign-owned shops was regrettable. We were told that the media mis-represented Lindiwe Zulu the minister responsible for Small Business for publishing verbatim her remarks which we ‘misunderstood’ to suggest that as foreigners we should at all times remember that our presence in the country was a favour bestowed on us.

If you are a foreign business person and your property and person is attacked, remember that your right to rights and recourse to justice is tied to your indigeneity and nationality. In cases such as these this right can be suspended and is overridden by that of the citizens attacking you. Why was it that in the face conditions, in this land which the tourism board says is ‘alive with possibility’ they seemed to thrive where local businesses were struggling? It was the victims and survivors’ fault that they did not share their business secrets with their South African counterparts.

Communities were urged and reminded if not coerced through historical blackmail that the society needs to be hospitable because of anti-apartheid support that the continent at large rendered in the attainment of South African freedom. While this is historically true, blowing this ‘vuvuzela’ misses the point. What is at stake is the fact that no person has the right to use extrajudicial means, and in this case violence against real or perceived competitors. Period.

What is at stake is the vigilante spirit which takes on and leads to the breakdown of the law. The ‘few’, as the authorities are keen to remind us that has to be condemned in the strongest terms possible. This unqualified condemnation is yet to happen, and we can surely blame the media of this ‘misrepresentation’ of what the president really meant to say, because if we listen carefully to the undertones of his speech, he actually says that the government does not condone the attacks. Although he does not tell us if the country’s intelligence had prior knowledge about the attacks.

Defending Freedom?
In the same breath that he took issue with the criticism and being chastised by the governments of the nationals who were attacked in South Africa, asking the continent to share the blame and responsibility for the attacks, or at least the cause of the attacks. In his view, everybody else was to blame for contributing to the conditions that led African nationals to leave their countries of birth and or origin and to be in South Africa.

In his Freedom Day speech he took issue with criticism directed at South Africa’s handling of the crisis, charging: ‘As much as we have a problem that is alleged to be xenophobic, our sister countries contribute to this. Why are their citizens not in their countries and are in South Africa?’ South Africa, and by extension South Africans,  he charged, are not to blame for this and any other preceding (and succeeding attacks should we be unfortunate to witness any) attacks, we can ‘misrepresent’ him to mean.

This declaration of innocence or at worst qualified culpability can be ‘misread’ to mean that the president is of the opinion that the attacks would not have happened had the victims not been where they were victimised in the first place. The ‘few’ murderers who attacked, stabbed and led to the death of foreign expatriates cannot be solely held accountable for their action, because their actions, if we follow this line of reasoning, were not actions at all but were reactions to the presence of foreigners in the country.   

When the latest wave of violence was unleashed by the infamous few, the Zulu king who made the call for the attacks to happen was quick to exonerate himself and shift the blame onto the media. The monarchy alleged that they too were ‘misunderstood’. Now that this ‘misreading’ of the words has occurred, and the unintended consequences of those words have led to the loss of lives, the question is who is going to take responsibility and be accountable?

While the attacks were raging, the police chief in the city of Durban accused displaced foreign nationals and faceless cyber beings of using social media to spread and exaggerate the extent and scale of the attacks. The authenticity of the footage was not officially disputed. My reading or misreading of the communication was that the authorities, rather than worrying about the events themselves, were really worried about how the events would be perceived.

This was confirmed when the minister of Defence announced the deployment of troops to restore order. The minister reminded the nation that this measure was necessary since the government was being accused of not taking necessary and swift measures to protect the victims and contain the spread of violence and anarchy.

It took the death of a Mozambique national and the front page publicising thereof (initially identified as Emmanuel Sithole) for the president to be alarmed and authorise the deployment of the military. A government minister condemned this and other attacks and was more upset that this murder made the front news than about the fact that it had occurred. This, my reading of his speech, will most likely also be dismissed as a ‘misreading’ and ‘misrepresentation’ of what the good minister meant that is ‘typical of a foreigner’.  The media has or some would say was ordered to be biased in its coverage to protect the South African brand and image. Somebody coined a term for it, and called it ‘patriotic journalism’.

‘Sweep it under the carpet’ was said loud and clear. Why? Because that is what others do. Surely we are not the worst, and these images show us at the worst, which could make us the worst or equally unacceptable, make us look like the worst. Relativism should be the guiding principle in the reportage, and coverage.  It is relativism that blinded us to see what machetes could do in 1994 in another place on the continent. It blinded us to see what was happening in Rwanda because we could not imagine machetes being weapons of mass destruction.

President Zuma also expressed anguish about the front page publication of especially this image. My ‘misreading’ of what he said is that it is not the breakdown of the rule of law which allowed for all this to happen that bothered him the most. In his words he was alarmed about the image that this sends to the world and the damage this would potentially have on the brand that is South Africa. He bemoaned if this was how we wanted to represent the country. What Susan Sontag once said about Abu Ghraib images can be repeated here, ‘what is illustrated by these photographs is as much the culture of shamelessness as the reigning admiration for unapologetic brutality’.

We should not use the actions of a few to judge the majority, we are told. While this too is correct, we can also not afford given the repeat nature of these attacks, to sweep the actions of these few under the carpet. These few have shown us time and again, that they are capable and willing to inflict even more harm in the name and defence of ideals that are held by the many. We should pay more attention to what these dangerous few say and mean as well as imply for the rest who are, we are told, the majority of South Africans.

Who is David Motsamayi and why should you care?
The president’s discomfort represents a dangerous narcissistic obsession with the image that choses to forget the real issue at hand.  To me it comes across as an insistence on mopping the floor to dry the water without taking the time to switch the tap off. This blame shifting is deplorable. We are all trapped in a hole, and should stop digging. This blame shifting has been expressed in the conflating of Migrancy with criminality.

Being an undocumented African migrant is increasingly being touted as the worst cardinal sin possible. The government has introduced a raft of stringent migration laws that render a significant number illegal and more are in the pipeline says the president in the light of current and recent experiences. In 2008, prophets of doom said this was a recipe for disaster and events in the last few days we have to concede with a foul taste in our mouths, and seven deaths later that they were right.   

The laager or we are under siege mentality that is spurred can be misread by these special ‘few’ to mean that repelling these perceived others by any means necessary is their patriotic and moral duty. A case in point being that group crimes are by their nature more complex than this singular approach permits. The murder of Emanuel Sithole is an apt case in point. President Zuma used the Freedom Day speech to tell the nation that the deceased, was ‘Emmanuel Josias, who was identified by the media as Emmanuel Sithole, he was killed during a callous robbery in Alexandra township.’ I return to this ‘callous robbery’ in which nothing was stolen latter on. The president went to great pains to put it on record that Sithole had used a false name to avoid detection because he was an illegal immigrant. I am not sure what to make of this fixation not with his murder but with his legal status. The fixation could be ‘misinterpreted’ to be an effort to vilify him in the court of public opinion as an innocent victim, which he was, and to qualify and excuse the actions of his murderers.

I find it curious that undocumented migrants would top the list as the number one enemy of the republic in the wake of anti-foreigner riots. The energy that the state puts into the rhetoric of scapegoating undocumented migrants is especially curious with a bit of hind sight. The migrant and refugee cuts an interesting figure. From a distance the migrant is often pitied and from up close, he/she is feared. On this year’s Freedom Day I remembered other times and other ‘illegal’ migrants. I wonder how they feel or would feel about the scapegoating of undocumented or falsely documented migrants.

The scapegoating and ‘othering’ of African migrants has evolved into a leitmotif that conflates immigrants with not only ‘illegality but actual criminality, despite empirical evidence that African immigrants are far likelier to be victims than perpetrators of criminal activity.

History tells us that Somalia, some of whose nationals are now operating small businesses in South Africa and were being locked in metal ship containers and set alight alive, provided passports to the African National Congress members during the fight against the apartheid government. Unconfirmed sources say current South African President Jacob Zuma had a Somali passport while in exile.  

History will also remember a certain illegal migrant who left South Africa illegally, and enrolled for a Masters’ Degree at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom. Only he knows how as an illegal he crossed so many borders to further the cause of South African freedom.  That illegal migrant was to become democratic South Africa’s first deputy president in 1994, and president between 1999 and 2008. His name is Thabo Mbeki.  

The most famous South African illegal migrant that comes to mind that I remembered on this year’s Freedom Day is said to have used a fake Ethiopian passport to travel the world and to drum up support for freedom. This passport was issued in 1962, and it was not until 1990 that this illegal migrant was to get a legit passport from his country of birth. And even this passport had a spelling mistake.

This illegal migrant was later to say: ‘Ethiopia has always held a special place in my own imagination and the prospect of visiting [it] attracted me more strongly than a trip to France, England and America combined… I felt I would be visiting my own genesis, unearthing the roots of what made me an African. Meeting the emperor himself would be like shaking hands with history.’ This migrant travelled under the false name David Motsamayi.  Upon his return to South Africa this person was arrested and charged for his illegal status and trip. On his arrest, his true identity was exposed and revealed. His name was Nelson Mandela.  

Remembering violence
Violence is widely recognized as a problem in contemporary South Africa. There are widespread policies and interventions at various levels to combat violence, or to employ it. These contestations dominate local and global politics. Surprisingly what gets the least attention is the meaning of violence.

Various labels have been prefixed to make sense of the widespread violence and brutality that characterise the lives of most South Africans. Violence primarily directed towards non-European migrants from other African countries and increasingly from Asia has popularly been framed and understood as ‘xenophobic violence’. This is in spite of the strong differences of opinion that emerged about the root causes of the 2008 attacks, and whether the label ‘xenophobia’ was warranted at all.

My reading of the violence against non-European migrants explores the violence as both an embodied experience and a socially and culturally mediated phenomenon. What has remained under-explored is an effort to understand how violence relates to manifestations of power, configurations of legitimacy, structures of inequality, and perceptions of difference. Violence or the deployment of violence when explored from personal, collective, and institutional perspectives offers us insights into key notions and questions about security, resistance, suffering, and criminality in South Africa today.

The ambivalence of the political establishment in the wake of violence, and the latest attacks calls to mind Samantha Power’s assertion that politicians will only act to stop mass killings if and when the political cost of inaction outweighs the risk of acting. On this Freedom Day, I am not sure how many cadavers need to line up the streets to tip the scales for politicians.

Seeing the (in)visible
If we are to accept that xenophobia is an attitude, when that attitude becomes embodied and becomes manifest in verbal or physical action as was the case in 2008 and 2015, those violent actions need, and are worthy of examination in and for themselves. The 2008 and 2015 attacks, and those preceding them have been acknowledged as criminal acts, but have thus far remained ‘crimes without a name’ in the words of Winston Churchill (1965).  

As Gregory Stanton shows, the UN Genocide Convention is often ‘misread’ as requiring the perpetrator’s intentions to be the destruction ‘in whole’ of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. Some historical scenarios of genocide fit this description the most eminent being the genocide in Europe led by Nazi Germany and the 1994 Rwandan genocides. Many other instances seek or achieve the destruction of the targeted group.

What distinguishes the use of violence in genocide from other forms/acts of violence is the perpetrator’s ‘intent’. Scholars have shown us that genocide is hypothetically possible without the loss of life. This would apply in situations where the perpetrator intends to destroy ‘in whole or in part’ the targeted group but the plan fails due to any reason, be it the lack of or inadequacy of force to implement the destruction. I would hazard to say in 2008 and 2015 South Africa has witnessed two such abortions.

In some instances intent can be proven from statements or orders issued by the perpetrators. In South Africa, we were told in many instances that the actual message is or has been lost in translation. In the recent wave of violence the media is said to have ‘misrepresented’ the Zulu king. It was therefore not the king’s fault that some sections of the population decoded this misrepresentation that ignited the violence.  

It is more often the case that no such records exist, or survive. In such cases a systematic study of the killings, or acts of genocide would reveal a pattern that reveals the intent. Stanton reminds us that motive should be differentiated from intent, arguing that ‘intent is determined by the specific purpose of the act’. The perpetrator might have multiple motivations, varying from greed to political domination. It is at the level of motives that the poor are scapegoated and the deployment of violence is read as being motivated by competition for resources in a fragile economy.

It is important to highlight that humans are complex and can be driven by multiple motivations, and that such motivations evolve. The socio-political motives of mass violence are hard to ascertain and different motivations unite in intent and give birth to genocide. Motivations are the rationales of intent. Research by Alison Des Forges underscores the multiplicity of motivations that drive people who perpetrate genocide.  Some individuals are driven by virulent hate, some by real fear. Some individuals participate under duress to self-preserve and or protect significant others from being harmed by those who ask them to participate or ambition and greed.

G- is a dirty word
Stanton’s ten stages of genocide are insightful in making sense of the genesis and metamorphosis of anti-migrant sentiments in South Africa. The stages are classification, symbolisation, discrimination, dehumanisation, organisation, polarisation, preparation, persecution, extermination and with denial marking the last stage of genocide.

Classification is defined as the division of the natural and social world into categories. Classification exists in all cultures to differentiate ‘us’ and ‘them’, and to determine the treatment we accord to individuals. The second stage involves the use of symbols to mark and signify the classification we ascribe to different people. Symbolisation can be imposed on a group internally or externally. Symbols like customary dress, body or facial scarring are examples of internally defined symbols. Historical precedence show genocidal governments, in the preparation stage, forcing target groups to wear distinctive clothes and symbols.

The third stage is discrimination on the basis of the categorisations. Dehumanisation is the fourth stage. Stanton argues that classification and symbolisation are essential processes in all cultures. They evolve into stages of genocide only when they become the basis for discrimination and dehumanisation. At this stage one group denies and refuses to acknowledge in word and deed the humanity of people they deem as ‘the other’.

Dehumanisation allows the perpetrator to kill the target group with impunity. Name calling and the use of pathology discourse marks this stage.  Infamous  examples  include  Nazi propaganda calling its victims ‘rats’ or ‘vermin’; while Hutu hate radio called baTutsi ‘cockroaches’. In South African parlance the derogatory word ‘amakwerekwere’ is affixed to non-European migrants.

The fifth stage of the genocide process is organisation. The organisation  of  genocide  varies  by  culture,  and  need  not  necessarily  be  centralised. The method of extermination varies from society to society, and can be conducted by amateurs or trained militias or both. In Rwanda machetes were mostly used to kill Tutsi in 1994. In Cambodia hoe-blades were used to strike victims on the back of the neck in 1975-79 massacres.

Polarisation is the sixth stage in Stanton’s formulation. Polarisation efforts by extremists seek to eliminate moderates who might object to the use of mass violence. Stanton calls the sixth stage preparation. This phase involves the systematic identification of victims, and their places of residence.

Persecution precedes extermination in Stanton’s model. The victim group is subjected to attack and killed, often together with the children. According to Stanton ‘it is considered extermination, rather than murder, because the victims are not considered human’. The killings themselves are often described through euphemisms of purification.

Denial marks the last stage Stanton’s genocide model. The extent and methods of denial vary, and will inevitably pick up from the tone of Freedom Day. Denial can also occur through what Stanton terms ‘definitionalism’, where deniers make the case that the killings ‘do not fit the legal definition of genocide’. Or to most who dismiss the Convention, not enough people were killed to warrant such a word, as if death is a numbers’ game. Or we will just wait for the media dust to settle. The dead and displaced will be old news tomorrow. In President Zuma’s opinion it is not fair to use the actions of a few to colour a 50 million person country. And all but the irrational would agree. The unintended consequence or misreading of what he said is the fact that appearing to apologise and cover up for the actions of these few or to deny their existence makes all of us complicit and accomplices in their actions.

An abbreviated version of this article appeared in Dutch on the Afrikablog of de Volkskrant on 5 May 2015.
Photo of Pedzisai Maedza © Pedzisai Maedza.

[1]Pedzisai Maedza (28) was born in the cattle ranging and sugar cane growing small town of Chiredzi in Zimbabwe, close to the border with Mozambique. The civil unrest in Mozambique that ended in 1990 resulted in cross boarder conflicts and abductions that saw his family migrating further inland. He grew up close to the Renco gold mine in Masvingo. In 2006, Pedzisai moved to Harare to study at the University of Zimbabwe, where he read for a BA Honours degree in Theatre Arts, graduating in 2010 with a first class. In 2012, he was a recipient of the Great Zimbabwe University Staff Development Fellowship. This enabled him to enroll for the Master of Arts Drama degree at the University of Cape Town, graduating in June 2014 with distinction. He was awarded the 2013 UCT Research Fellowship and 2014 International Federation for Theatre Research (IFTR) New Scholars’ Award. Pedzisai was also awarded the 2014 Canon Collins Trust Scholars’ Award to pursue a PhD in Drama at UCT. His research interests lie in documentary theatre, historiography, migration, memory studies and representations of violence.