One of the reasons my parents wanted me to come to Rhodes University was because they knew I’d be safe. They’d seen the images of the xenophobic violence that erupted in Johannesburg, right at the time that my sister was a student at the University of Witswatersrand (Wits). They didn’t want to worry about me being targeted because of my nationality. They believed in Rhodes University’s message of inclusivity and zero tolerance against discrimination, a message reiterated over and over in pamphlets, orientation week talks, formal debates and discussions. However, protests and student action over the past two years have shown that this picture perfect image of Rhodes University does not match with the reality. This campus is not a safe and welcoming space for everyone.
On 8 April 2017, Tanaka Nyakonda, a Rhodes University student, was targeted and attacked at 37 on New, an establishment on New Street. He was attacked, not by outsiders or strangers, but by a group of fellow students. They ganged up on him. They tore his clothes. They beat him. When they were done, they waited for him outside the establishment, wanting him to fight one of them. They could’ve done a lot more damage had other people not intervened. That was not the only incident that night. One student was told that “ZANU PF babies” were not tolerated in South Africa (a reference to the student being Zimbabwean), and yet another heard foreigners being referred to as “smelly makwerekweres” thrice (kwerekwere is an extremely derogatory term for black foreigners). All three incidents happened in just one night. All three incidents have one common denominator: xenophobia.
There may be the belief that the events of 8 April were isolated incidents – unfortunate, but isolated. However, xenophobia within the student body is not a recent or isolated issue. It’s been lingering under the surface for years. Only now and then does it flare up into a visible problem, but even then, we shake our heads in disgust and disbelief for a few days, only to go back to business as usual. For the international students on campus however, it’s not something they can just brush off or pretend doesn’t exist. It was a problem during the FeesMustFall protests in 2016, when international students who attended meetings were heckled and insulted. It was a problem during the 2016 Student Representative Council (SRC) elections, when some students resorted to derogatory names for a presidential candidate who was a foreign student. It’s a problem in the beginning of every year when international students have to beg the university to help them with visa applications. It’s a special kind of dehumanising, having to plead with people to care about you when it’s their job to do so. It was a problem when I was editor of Activate last year, when I was accused of being a careerist, exploiting South African students for my personal benefit, and that I didn’t deserve to be editor because I’m not South African, that I was robbing someone more deserving (i.e. a South African) of the position. There are many other unspoken incidents, and instead of addressing it there and then, we sweep them under the carpet and forget that they ever happened.
Every time a xenophobic incident happens, it makes you feel unsafe and unwanted in a space that claims to be for everyone. Even when it happens to someone else you still feel that pain, because you know that there is a good chance that the same thing can happen to you. What happened to TanakaNyakonda is not an isolated incident. The motivation that drove his attackers is not a fringe mentality. Every derogatory remark, every dirty look and mumbled insult, every attack, reaffirms what many of us already know: xenophobia is a problem in this institution that needs to be addressed by both management and students. We cannot continue letting these incidents occur unchecked, for these harmful stereotypes and beliefs to go uncorrected. Are we waiting for something really bad in order to admit that this is an issue? Why are we collectively so hesitant to discuss this?
In my home language, there’s a saying, “kusina mai hakuendwi.” This translates to ‘you don’t go to a place when your mother is not there, because you won’t have anyone to watch over you, protect you, or keep you safe’. As I read what happened to the three students on 8 April, I realised just how isolated and unprotected we are, so far away from home. International students have their own struggles too, and having to deal with xenophobia from our peers should not be one of them. It’s vital that we all appreciate each other’s humanity and dignity, regardless of nationality. I am not South African, but that does not negate my right to be respected and protected in this institution. This isn’t my country, but this is still my university.