You’re Not From Here Are You? My migrant story.

I never meant to end up in Johannesburg but I always knew my life was not in the streets of Bulawayo. I was born with a wanderlust and for as long as I can remember being on the road has always been a source of great joy. The less planned the journey the better.

The events of the last few weeks around South Africa have touched me deeply and made me think a lot about my life, my place in this country and the world at large. Though I see myself as a global citizen, I am currently resident in a country that is in flux, leading to so many questions.

How does this affect me?

What of my family?

How will I tell our daughter why people were dying in the country of her birth whilst she was preoccupied with taking her first steps? Whilst we cut her first birthday cake last Sunday a family in Alexandra, barely ten kilometres from us, was mourning the death of a father and brother killed for being Mozambican.

I have lived in South Africa on and off since 1998 but only really returned here two years ago after a decade away. At the time I even wrote a breakup letter to the country of my birth, Zimbabwe. The only place I ever really felt at home was in Cape Town over a decade ago, this time however, I’ve come to call Johannesburg home, albeit grudgingly so. Cape Town was a great place to disappear into because one had the sense that everyone there was from somewhere else, we were all foreigners of sorts. Johannesburg, has been different, whilst I have never been a victim of outright xenophobia in my face, I have often been subtly reminded of my place here, especially online.

In response to this I guard my online conversations so as not to give life to the trolls. Whenever tweeting or writing about South Africa I am careful to never use the collective “we”. The reason being once you get under the skin of locals they will be quick to remind you, “you’re not from here though are you, so who is this we you refer to?”. This will quickly be followed by a torrent of “go back to Zimbabwe” and “ungrateful foreigner” rants. I have seen it and it’s ugly with little chance of recovery for your reputation.

I’m wary to get too deeply involved in South African discussions for fear of that comment that can instantly delegitimise me. it is always there, lurking like an axe swinging inches from one’s throat. Is that a xenophobic trait amongst South Africans? I don’t think so but I really cannot say for sure, it could be but I doubt it. I don’t know if I want to find out either, some things are best left as they are.

This detachment has left me at odds with those who advocate assimilation. Those who long ago burned their Zimbabwean documents in favour of completely embracing their new-found South Africanness. I’ve even been told to tone down my “Zimbabweaness” because I may offend the locals, difference between us is unlike some my brothers and sisters, I have no fear of being found out.

In my mind my detachment allows me a level of independence to speak, write and create in a way I would not enjoy otherwise. It still doesn’t help me figure out how I will explain this time in South Africa’s history to our daughter when she comes of age. Will we still judge each other by where we are from and what language we speak? I hope not.