The burden of blackness in South Africa


THE release of the identikit profiles this week of South Africa’s Bafana Bafana and Orlando Pirates’ captain and goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwa’s killers solved iconic athlete, Oscar Pistorius’ puzzle: The dangerous armed intruder in the house.

Meyiwa was killed by black men. Pistorius, as believed by judge Thokozile Masipa, shot through a locked toilet door in the belief that there was an intruder. senzo meyiwa

While in the former case the colour of the violent intruders cannot be questioned, in Pistorius’ case this feared, armed, poor, violent (imagined) black man, lent credence to Pistorius’s fears and we all identify with his fears.

South Africa is a crime-riddled society. In a way, we as Zimbabweans are connected to South Africa through teams we support, clothes we wear, economically and through our relatives across the border. So crime in South Africa affects us.

Pistorius and Meyiwa’s cases, and many others, help complicate our understanding of the South African justice system which has been accused of serving the rich and famous.

This instalment is an attempt to share some thoughts and experiences that some of our brothers and sisters who cross the borders into South Africa — whether legally or illegally — have to endure and go through.

The televising of Pistorius’ trial was an attempt at demonstrating how the wheels of justice turned and indeed we got to know the system as we watched the drama unfold in court for over a month-and-a-half. We saw the bulldog in Gary Nel and “liar” in Pistorius.

The lovable, begging, puppy-faced Barry Roux and distant and yet sympathetic judge. We set up courts in the taxis, on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms.

When Pistorius was sentenced to five years in prison we thought the judge was too lenient.

The numerate among us quickly did the math and told us he would be out by the next Women’s Day in South Africa. Most activists wanted justice done. Justice for those women in abusive relationships that usually end up violently or even in death.

Pistorius successfully showed us that the feared black man who usually comes into contact with the rich and mostly whites when they are working as gardeners, cleaners or when they come to steal, is a genuine character to be feared in the South African imagination.

In some cases we have Zimbabweans involved as either perpetrators or victims in these often violent crimes. Rumour had it at one point that Meyiwa’s killers were caught crossing the border into Zimbabwe and social media went abuzz about “these foreigners” who come into our beautiful country to cause crime.

Yes, South Africa is a beautiful rainbow nation to most blacks, but is there black in the rainbow nation? I digress.

Sometimes Zimbabweans get involved in crime because of their experiences and disillusionment after getting to Johannesburg. You have a situation where someone leaves the country and goes through a gruelling journey illegally crossing the borders and finally landing in the place of gold, only to realise that there is doom and gloom and no shine.

Hardened from their too many to account for experiences back home, some find crime as an option for survival. I have personal experiences with crime.

My story
I left Zimbabwe to study in South Africa in 2006. Since then I have had three encounters with violent black men. The first encounter was in 2008 when three armed robbers stuck two guns on my head: One on the forehead and another behind the neck and a knife on my side. All for a cellphone.

I demanded my SIM card during the ordeal and they duly complied. One attempted opening my gym bag with a knife and I resisted arguing that he must open the bag and take whatever he wanted instead of his intended barbaric method.

I threw the bag down and he searched and found nothing of value to them as it was full of students’ assignments I was supposed to mark and my gym equipment.

As they left I knelt down to pick up my stuff and I heard one of the robbers telling the one who had stuck his gun from behind my neck: “Ungamdubuli mtshiye (don’t shoot him, leave him).”

I am still struggling to believe that it was a real gun. It might have been fake and that statement was meant for me to be scared and not fight back. I reported to the Brixton police. Nothing was done. Not even a statement was taken.

The second incident was at the hands of the South African Police Services (Saps). Two months back I went to the Central Police Station and we were chatting about professionalism differences between Saps and ZRP (Zimbabwe Republic Police).

The officer I was chatting with told me Saps is not even a police force. “It’s a service,” he said.

The Saps came to the neighbourhood early in the morning and were asking for people’s IDs. I showed them mine and then put it back in the house and went to buy bread. I met them again on the way as I jogged to the convenience shops.

One playfully blocked me. I don’t like police, especially from certain countries. I told him I was in no playing mood and he was annoying me. I had not chosen the politically correct words as within seconds I was bungled into the police truck by four officers for “disrespecting” the police.

I protested and they shouted all manner of xenophobic things telling me, among other things, that Zimbabweans think they are better, educated and all. They drove me to the police station and dumped me in some fenced area at Honeydew Police Station.

I took all their details as they wore name badges and the truck registration numbers. I asked them to charge and lock me up otherwise we would face each other in court. They released me. I sued. I won.

The third incident was in 2013. Intruders, black I presume, broke into my house while my family and I were sleeping. They took my gadgets. When I heard of their presence, unlike Pistorius, I made sure my wife and son were safe.

I charged towards the intruders and they fled. I reported the matter to the police and asked them to come and get the fingerprints. I am still waiting. They only took statements.

Someone accessed my e-mail account probably through one of my stolen laptops and I got the IP address and gave the investigating officer. He told me he could drive to that address as it had no street names. By the way Zimbabweans think they are better and educated!

One white woman once commended them on their Twitter account for a swift reaction to her house robbery and I tweeted both her and the Saps that I am still waiting for their fingerprints guy since I was robbed ages ago. She told me to look at the brighter side.

I do not know whether to classify myself as poor or not. But, if I were to use a definition of being poor that one of my learned friends gave me, then I am not poor. He said that when one has more than two pairs of shoes, then they are not poor.

I have more than six old ones. But what makes me sympathise with the people, especially black South Africans and foreign nationals from the rest of the continent who view the South African justice system as favouring the white, rich and famous is the reaction of the police to certain victims of crimes.

I dare say a robbery of a black person is not necessarily seen as crime compared to that of a white or rich person. I am curious to know why the Saps stops commuter taxis — the mode of transport used mostly by blacks and ask for their IDs and not stop private cars, especially those driven by whites and do the same. Whites are never foreigners I guess.

Again, why would a whole nation rise up in arms and ministers and police chéfs set up investigating squads when a “celebrity” is killed while with his mistress?

Why would the police force offer prize money to anyone with information on Meyiwa’s killers and not do the same for many “unknown” ordinary citizens who are killed daily?

This is not being insensitive considering that during the week many people have been gunned down in South Africa and we do not get to have investigating squads set up. Of course the fragile episodic South African national identity needs something to feed on and sport is one of them.

When the future seems bleak to those of our young people frustrated and disillusioned by our postcolonial state of affairs they flee to the other side.

They cannot become the city street youth with only one option in life; that of petty trading – selling fruit, vegetables and cellphone recharge cards instead of working meaningfully, but then what we have now is a non-existent formal economy. But when they cross over they are met with all manner of challenges.

Even to the professional and educated Zimbabweans and non-South Africans, blackness, in some cases, just like not being politically connected in Zimbabwe, is a burden heavier than Ebola.

Some feel better off in a system where they encounter what they always expect than being hapless and face their futures being vandalised by the very system they expected to cushion them.

Shepherd Mpofu is a media studies and journalism lecturer at Nust. He writes in his personal capacity.