We Are All Africans

THEY CAME TO LIVE THE AFRICAN DREAM.  Now they sit on patches of browned grass on the edges of our cities, living in tents, their bodies battered, their homes burnt to the ground, their possessions crushed, stolen. Now they must start again.

The True Believer

He carries the Holy Bible with him everywhere he goes. It is wrapped in clear plastic, the pages are crisp and white, its message is clear and concise. It is so different from what lies before him. Here, everything is temporary. Here, the future is uncertain. Stephanos Worku Abeto was an important man in Hossana, a small town in the Ethiopian Highlands. It is where his wife, his nine children and his nine young grandchildren still live. His parents were farmers and he studied agronomy at university in Ethiopia and France. But he ended up working in politics for much of his life. And although he was in the ruling party – the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front – he had to leave his country. “I told them they weren’t following the constitution!” he says. “They said, you are against us! They wanted to make me go to jail. So I escaped.” In 2005 Worku Abeto came to South Africa and started a business with other Ethiopians selling blankets and comforters door-to-door. But when the violence came, all his stock was taken, along with the R80 000 in cash he had saved. “They came and chased us away,” he says, clutching his Bible. “They were kicking me. It was terrible. They are in a bad spirit, the devil’s spirit. Now I am waiting for full peace. Only God knows when it will come. We are waiting for the government. We are waiting for God.”

The Boxer

His red punch bag swings from a thick tree branch in the far corner of the dirt lot he has called home for the past three weeks. He is waiting to be transported back to his own country, where it is safer. The boxer from Tanzania sits down, reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small stack of carefully folded newspaper clippings. He opens them gingerly, presses out the creases on the dried grass and then hands them over. “Karage Suba to Fight Perpetual,” reads one headline. The story was in a Malawian newspaper last year and his face smiles from the picture; gloves on his hands, ready to fight. The boxer has been in South Africa for just eleven months. “People in my country say if you want to make money in boxing you must go fight in South Africa,” he says. So he came. By himself, fresh-faced and 21 years old, training every day at a gym in Primrose where he would spar with some of South Africa’s best. But then the violence broke out and the other boxers made it clear that it was time for him to go. “The young boxers, they don’t like me,” he says. “So they say, Mr Suba you must leave this country. Everything you got here, you must leave here. And then you must leave this country. I don’t like South Africa now. I like peace.”

The Miner and His Wife

How long do you live a country before you can call it your own? Five years? Ten? Twenty? Half your life? Joseph Mondlana left his native Mozambique 47 years ago to find work in South Africa. He arrived in 1961 and got a job at Boxburg’s ERPM gold mine. Most of his life was spent there, deep in the South African earth. In 1999 he retired. He was 59. Mondlana planned to take care of his six children and his South African-born wife, Martha Mongwe, with his pension and a bit on the side – what Mongwe brought in from selling vegetables and cool drinks from their seven-room shack in Holomisa. But Mondlana’s pension never materialised, so the family made do with their small shop. That was until the mob came in May and dragged the old man into the street and beat him in front of his wife and his children until his right eyeball came loose from its socket, and then they smashed it, too. The mob took everything of value from the family’s home and burned what remained to the ground. At the refugee camp, Mongwe, who walks with a leather hoof strapped to one foot because of a childhood tragedy that left her with a stump at the end of her leg where her foot should be, has to lead her husband to the portable toilets at night as he cannot find his way there alone. The doctors were unable to save his right eye and his left eye sees only shadows. They sit on white plastic water buckets outside their tent, the wind beating the white canvas that is their home. They squint into the sun. They are waiting, still, for Mondlana’s pension.

The Walkers

It took Takawira Moyo just over a year to set up his life in South Africa. He started out doing piece jobs – painting, building fences, that sort of thing – but a few months ago he began to organise his own crews. Things were looking so good he went to fetch his wife and younger brother in Zimbabwe and bring them to the home he’d built in Pennyville, outside Springs. But before they reached the border while on their way back to South Africa, Zimbabwean soldiers ordered everyone out of the truck they were riding in. They had the men lie down on their stomachs. Then the soldiers beat the passengers with sticks and the butts of their guns, accusing them of being opposition supporters. The soldiers took every rand and then sent them on their way. When the trio reached the Beit Bridge border post there was no money for the taxi trip to Gauteng. So they walked. It took them three weeks to reach Polokwane. They slept in the bush, under bridges, in the hills. They were scared of lions, but what choice did they have? They depended on the kindness of others they met on the road to feed them. What choice did they have? At Polokwane, Moyo and Maketo found work. They worked for six days, loading a truck with rocks. At the end of the week, they were each paid R100. They took the money and left Moyo’s wife in Polokwane, to work for a woman in exchange for room and board, and went in search of the man who owed Takawira R1 300 for a job he’d completed before he left. Things were going to be alright. The brothers arrived in Pennyville the night the violence broke out. They heard the noise outside, a mob screaming that foreigners must leave. They fled without shoes on their feet. There was certainly no time to collect the R1 300, or their ID documents, their training certificates, the TV, their clothes. Moyo and Maketo ran until they reached the edge of the township. There they turned and watched their home go up in flames.

The Philosopher King

He holds court on the stoep outside one of the ubiquitous white tents that he has dubbed Parliament. He is seated on an upturned bright yellow plastic washing tub, with a group of young men gathered around him in a tight circle. James Osumba talks of revolutionary things. Today his discourse runs the gamut from South Africa to Kenya, from the UK to the US. There is much to discuss on the periphery of nowhere, on the edge of nothing, on a patch of barren brown grass with no trees to shield the biting cold wind. Osumba has been in South Africa since 2002, initially making his way selling sweets on a street corner in downtown Johannesburg and sleeping under bridges at night. He moved on, getting a job in a nappy factory; then as a security guard, moving up quickly, handling the schedules, the inventory, supervising. After all, this is a man who spent two years studying commerce at the University of Nairobi, but who was then kicked out for his involvement in student politics. His crime: questioning the generous bursaries given to the sons of politicians. He left home for South Africa. After all, where could he go? “You go up, those are terrorists there,” Osumba says. “You go west, there is war. East there is war.” But no matter. Everything is in the past now. As is his shop – the booming buy and braai operation he had set up on the main intersection in Tsakane. It was looted, emptied out, every bit of stock and his computer. The 29-year-old managed to keep a few books, which help expand his philosophies – mostly one-man monologues, with a few murmurs and snickers and nods from the other parliamentarians when he gets on a roll. “The old generation of leaders, that’s the problem in Africa,” he booms. “There is no vision to uplift the standards of the black people. There is no leadership. They aren’t looking after this tribe or that tribe. They think only: it’s our time to eat. Look,” he gestures to the spread of tents on the desolate plot of land before him. “Look at what we have done to ourselves.”

The Shopkeeper’s Family

He was one man in the crowd of a hundred that swarmed outside his booming tuck shop near Brakpan. A hood over his head to hide his identity, John Omar Phiri stood among the mob and watched his old customer, his neighbour of so many years, tell the group that Phiri was not from here. He was a qweri qweri, a Malawian, married to a Mozambican – the daughter of that other foreign shop owner just down the road. They would get his father-in-law, too. He would be next. It did not matter that his wife’s father had been in South Africa since 1961, that Phiri had come from Malawi in 1996, that he and his wife had two children on South African soil, four-year-old Emily and five-month-old Fatima. Phiri watched helplessly, his wife huddled up at a neighbour’s home with their two children, as the crowd removed everything from his shop. They took all he had worked for since 2001, including the fridges that kept beer, cool drinks and food chilled for his customers. They took bread and vegetables and air-time vouchers, cell phone chargers and earpieces. And all their money, their belongings, everything, including their clothes. He watched it all go, saw the faces of his neighbours as they descended on his life, pulling it apart, ripping it to pieces, vultures on a live carcass. “The clothes we are wearing, these we got from the community hall,” he says, pulling on a grey wool coat. “Everything is gone.” He brought the police to the crime scene the following day. They shook their heads and left.

The Widow

Outside Thapelo Regina Mashaba’s tent, three fish are baking on an open fire. The widow has opened up shop in the camp – a woman has to make a buck; there are five children to support, school fees to pay. Only Armado, her youngest, the six-year-old with a scarred face of broken blisters, of pink and black patches, is here at the camp. The other children are staying with friends in Soweto. They must go to school. She asks in Tsonga, through a translator, if her picture is taken will someone help them? If someone hears her story, will someone come forward, help her piece her life back together? I shake my head and look down. I tell her I do not know. I tell her I am sorry. She blinks and looks straight ahead. It has been a hard year for Mashaba. In February, her youngest son fell into a fire as she was trying to burn the hair off a head of cow she was preparing to sell in her small food store – the shop where she sold meat and fish and vegetables and fruit. Armado spent the month in a Boxburg hospital. It has been hard for Mashaba since 2004, since her husband died. He was a builder and, before he died, he built her a five-room shack near Primrose. It was her salvation, where she could run her shop. Now it is gone, her business and her home, dismantled in the violence, the zinc roof that held it together sold for cash at the local scrap yard. “They told me they don’t like foreigners,” says Mashaba, who was born in a village in Mpumalanga. “They do not like me because I am Shangaan.” The translator looks down at the brown grass beneath us, and shakes his head. He does not want to tell me what comes next. Finally he looks up and it comes out. “She says she is feeling like she can die now.”

The Leaders

Shepherd Ndlovu and Clayton Mudzingwa are our guides. They walk through their camp in the south of Johannesburg, just outside Germiston, dirt kicking up between rows of white tents, fires popping, children playing in ditches, a barber shop open for business over here, sweets and chips for sale over there. The community leaders are tying to make sense of the senseless. “This thing is about criminals and politics,” offers Ndlovu simply. The 42-year-old Zimbabwean has lived in South Africa since 1984, working the fields of Messina as a labourer, then as a foreman, and moving to Johannesburg in 2000 to become a security guard. Now Ndlovu is neither here nor there, but rather in this temporary place, with his wife, unsure of what will happen next. Three weeks earlier, he was at the Primrose police station where he met his cohort, the 30-year-old Mudzingwa, also a former security guard, also from Zimbabwe, also driven from his home by violence. Perhaps it is the training in security, the need to protect, that had them rise to the occasion. “The whole community couldn’t go into the office for meetings – someone had to communicate with the donors,” explains Ndlovu. “We needed to know what clothing we would have. We needed to know what was going on. We needed to know where we would be going.” They were appointed through an informal system, a volunteer system, one that evolved from those first few chaotic days, when a few men and women stepped forward to translate, to work in the kitchen, to speak for the masses crowding into the community halls and police stations. They were told from the get-go that these camps were temporary, two months tops, and already they are being told they must inform the other inhabitants they should integrate back into the communities they were chased from. “The problem is to go back is a difficult thing,” says Mudzingwa. “The people who attacked my family, they know me. They know me too much. The problem is we are afraid of them.” The leaders have spoken.

 The Woman and Her Children

“Disgusting!” the eight-year old shrieks, and springs toward her little brother, pulling away the crumbled bread Frankie has just picked up from the ground and is trying to insert into his mouth. Benita Ntumba is just eight but she is doing all the talking because her English is better than her mother Meto’s, and because she is a bright girl who, out of necessity, has come to learn adult things. Her father is a security guard working in Cape Town. He will come soon to get them, she tells me. Then Benita explains how her family came to live in South Africa. It is all quite simple to understand. So simple that a child can explain it. “We left Congo because of the war,” she tells me. “They were going to kills us there so we ran away. Here, people came to our house and they found out we were not South Africans and they wanted to kill us. So we ran away.”

– The Daily Maverick, written in April 2008, published April 2010