Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
In my language, Shona, there is a saying that neighbours run from a poor man as if he is a sorcerer. An experience I had in Johannesburg the other day seemed to prove this to be true.
I arrived at Johannesburg International Airport on a chilly morning prepared for the winter cold with a woollen jersey and a leather jacket. But I was not ready for what was to come.
My hosts, as usual, had arranged for a taxi shuttle company to pick me up from the bustling airport. The driver should have waiting with a placard with my name on it.
But there was no one waiting for me. The same thing had happened on my previous visit a month earlier. I visit South Africa on business from Zimbabwe nearly every month.
For half an hour, I must have looked like a cow lost from the herd. I moved around the arrivals hall reading and re-reading the signs held by other drivers while fending off other taxi drivers offering their services at exorbitant prices for the drive through Johannesburg's crime-ridden suburbs, where people live behind high walls and electric fences.
Then the man came. I recognised him from a distance as he has picked me up from the airport on several occasions.
He is a streetwise, middle-aged man whose convoluted name I have never been able to pronounce, let alone attempt to spell. He was cool, and neither apologised for being late nor offered to carry my bag. Instead he told me he had left his car about 200 metres away and we had to walk to it.
I am no athlete these days, and I was breathless and struggling by the time we reached the car. He ordered me to throw my bag on the back seat and to take the front passenger seat. Normally drivers open doors for their passengers: that is a standard courtesy in the taxi shuttle business, as also
is a seat in the back. Meekly, as a simple Zimbabwean in the big city, I made no protest, tossed my bag in the back and settled down in the front seat.
We drove quietly for some time. I noticed he had not locked the doors - regular procedure in Johannesburg against smash-and-grab merchants. I feared for my bag each time we stopped at a “robot” – the word Johannesburgers use for traffic lights which as often as not do not work.
I was quietly thinking about how best I could extract an explanation about his lateness and unprofessional behaviour when he looked at me out of the corner of his eye, smiled cynically, and abruptly said, “Zimbabweans are now killing our police here.”
“So I have read,” I replied, as I suddenly understood the reason for his cold behaviour.
“They [Zimbabweans] are everywhere now, on street corners, in alleys, literally everywhere. Crime has escalated,” he said.
“So can you please lock the doors so these Zimbabwean criminals do not steal my bag at the next robot?” I asked. He complied.
We drove on in more silence, but I wanted to ease the chill between us.
South Africans are beside themselves with pride and bragging about their country's hosting of the next football World Cup. So I tentatively asked: “Are you guys ready for the 2010 World Cup?”
He shot back, “Is it true that when these guys are deported back to Zimbabwe, Mugabe throws them into camps where they get military training?”
Okay, now I’d got the message loud and clear. My fellow Zimbabweans living in South Africa as refugees - some two to three million, according to media reports - are accused of being menaces who are responsible for most of the violent crime that plagues Johannesburg, and whom international soccer fans had better watch out for in four years’ time.
The top criminals are highly trained former soldiers in Mugabe’s army who have quit because they are so poorly paid, my driver informed me.
I replied that only a dozen years earlier, before apartheid finally collapsed, I was teaching South African refugees at a college in Harare. One thing they always said about Zimbabwe's capital was how peaceful the city was and how one could walk from one end to the other in the middle of the night without being mugged. One of my refugee students loved to talk about how Harareans cringed in horror when one day, in the middle of the street, he took out a flick-knife to slice sugar cane.
So I told my driver I could not understand how my own people, who recoiled at the mere sight of a knife, could all of a sudden turn into such hard-core criminals. After all, South Africa itself had been regarded as one of the world's most violent countries for decades before it became a democracy with Nelson Mandela as president in 1994. How could it possibly be that in just in just 12 years, South Africa had become a nation of saints, while Zimbabweans fleeing their troubled country were now responsible for all the crime and violence here? That puzzled me.
I don’t think South Africans really are more xenophobic than citizens of other countries, but I have realised that Zimbabweans have created misconceptions about themselves in the past six years or so since our country began its precipitous and disastrous decline.
The majestic Victoria Falls used to be the image that defined my country to the outside world. That is no longer the case. The picture that now characterises Zimbabwe is that of President Mugabe holding out his clenched fist.
Since the day he told the world he wanted to see the “white man tremble” and unleashed thugs onto commercial farms to drive out white farmers, Zimbabwe has been perceived and defined internationally as a violent nation. It has been a fair definition ever since the day an agent of Mugabe's Central Intelligence Organisation petrol bombed two members of the opposition at a rural centre and got away with it.
We have become a nation that bombs newspaper offices and printing presses. My country is now one in which armed soldiers invade nightclubs and beat up patrons, a country where police officers look the other way when ruling party thugs beat up members of the opposition, a country in which the ruling party has a private army that goes around terrorising people who choose to hold different political views.
When the world sees all these ugly images on television and reads about them in newspapers and books, they inevitably conclude that Zimbabwe is a violent nation. And when a few Zimbabweans join criminal syndicates in foreign lands, and are caught at it, naturally there is some outcry.
According to my driver, there is another angle to "this Zimbabwean thing".
“There is a misconception that Zimbabweans here work harder than South Africans,” he said. “But they are willing to take any job that comes along, and when they are ill-treated they don’t complain because they have nowhere to go. South Africans would complain and take their cases to the labour courts. When our people lose their jobs to the ‘makwerekwere’
[Zimbabweans], they complain. Complaining is not laziness.”
When Zimbabwe was still ticking over nicely and we were the second largest economy in southern Africa, I remember how we treated our poorer Mozambican and Malawian neighbours. We referred to the Mozambicans as “Moscans” and blamed them for all the crimes taking place in Zimbabwe. The Malawians, for whom we also had several bad names, were seen as taking our jobs because they never complained. Now we are getting a taste of our own medicine.
But all was not doom and gloom on my latest venture to Johannesburg. In the hotel bar, there were several people who spoke highly of Zimbabwean professionals teaching at South African universities and of the doctors who have helped prop up South Africa's healthcare system, which is faltering thanks to the country's eccentric health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang whom South Africans ridicule as "Doctor No."
We dare not make fun of our own ridicule ministers in Zimbabwe: you get arrested and thrown in clink for doing so, under one of the many draconian laws the Mugabe government has pushed through parliament.
Some of my fellow drinkers at the Johannesburg hotel bar were generous enough to express caution about newspaper reports on Zimbabweans' involvement in crime, saying South Africa has plenty of highly trained disgruntled soldiers and former African National Congress guerrilla fighters of its own who are more than capable of serious acts of violence.
Nevertheless, the messages are clear. For all sorts of reasons, we deserve the hostile press we get. Until we stop all the political violence, the world will not see us for the decent people most of us are. Only then will our national image be once again defined by the beauty of the Victoria Falls rather than the ugliness of an 82-year-old ruling oligarch.
Benedict Unendoro is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.
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