On a particularly average morning, I hop into my Uber and the driver greets me in Xhosa. As we continue down the road, I wonder how this interaction is going to play out because I politely answer in English. We drive in silence for some time until he speaks to me in Xhosa again, a little more forcefully. The atmosphere changes. This feels as if it is a test. I quietly apologise and tell him that I am Malawian and therefore don’t understand what he is saying. There is silence, again.
“Why do you have a South African name?” he prods.
I can’t tell you how many times I‘ve had this encounter. My name is a source of contention in this country. I feel like an imposter and a thief, someone who has stolen from a nation. Everytime I am faced with this, I am immediately apologetic and fearful. I try everything to diffuse a situation that might not end in my favour. His statement usually comes as a prelude to a barrage of verbal abuse.
“I think that question should be reserved for my parents,” I gently assert.
I don’t have the energy to dive into a history lesson about my heritage and frankly, he doesn’t deserve it. I’m not going to expend my emotional and intellectual labour on someone who has already made up his mind about who I am.
How do I, in this one Uber ride, begin to talk about how we truly are one nation within Africa? How do I explain that the borders that separate us are imaginary lines forced upon us by violent colonialists? How do I say that “my people”, the aNgoni, migrated from the south to what is now called Malawi and were once called Zulus? The very same Zulus who share South Africa with you. Is that not enough for you to ask yourself why you are so protective of a name?
Now that you are a little wiser, will your thinking change? How do you feel now, about the attacks on your fellow Africans- the ransacking of homes, looting of shops, and displacement of families from the places they call home? What can I say to the weight of your question and the animosity in your voice?
The possessiveness of this name is a colonial import and the colonial mentality of ownership.
I can feel the anger emanating off him. All of a sudden, he’s taking a sharp left into a street I’m unfamiliar with and somewhere the GPS isn’t directing him to. Panic fills my body. This is becoming my greatest fear. There is the terror of losing my life over this tiny, somewhat insignificant interaction.
“It was the second street.”
“Oh, my mistake.”
The GPS clearly told you where to go. I clearly told you where to go. Am I being paranoid? This doesn’t feel like an innocent mistake but rather psychological warfare. Is he instilling fear into me merely because of my name?
What’s in a name? Surely, not this.
The reality for fellow Africans residing in South Africa is that of fear and the constant threat of afrophobia. Everyday interactions become potential sites of violence because we don’t know how our “foreign-ness” will be received. Being a woman is as equally as frightening. We spend most of our time thinking of “what ifs” and how we will survive them. A female presenting body becomes a burden we wish to hang up to avoid the violence that they throw at it. When do we get a break? We are tired.
There are too many women, if not most women with stories of sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape and physical and emotional violence. South Africa being a country with one of the highest rape rates in the world, sexual and gender-based violence is the norm for us.
What happens when you are a woman and foreign? Existing while both and being black in a settler country is a sort of triple oppression. You are oppressed because you are black; you are oppressed because you are a woman and you are oppressed because you are “foreign”.
Living in a country that is so hateful towards women and so hateful towards African nationals creates an environment for African nationals who are women to constantly live a life where existing as both becomes a game of Russian roulette.
As a woman, I feel bolder confronting men. As a foreigner I retreat. What does this to me? Am I comfortable knowing that sexual violence is the norm in this country? That as a woman it is only a matter of time before something happens to me. They teach us that as women this is what to do if a situation of sexual violence arises and though these lessons are meaningless, we are always prepared for the worst.
I know to hold my keys between my fingers when walking to my car. I know to send my location when travelling on any form of public transport. I know never to fight back if I want to live. It isn’t comforting or comfortable to know this, but I do.
— Tessi Le Féu (@Txssi) September 8, 2019
Afrophobia is unpredictable. No one can prepare you for it. Your name could expose you. Your accent could expose you. Even your features could expose you. You will never know what it is about you that gave you away. At least I know as a woman, I will die because I’m a woman. As an African national where is the peace in knowing what it was about me that lead to my death? What gave me away? Was it my voice? My facial features? Or was it my name?
Everyday is a continuous battle to survive. Most of the time, I like to imagine that maybe there is a light at the end of this seemingly endless tunnel. This thought is the only thing that keeps me going.
Thokozani Mbwana is a queer feminist and criminologist turned freelance writer and researcher.