“I left Nairobi on 24th July 2018 and landed at Cape Town International Airport on the same day,” says Mwangi Gakuya, a middle-aged Kenyan man who travelled abroad for a job opportunity.
Mwangi observes that his first experience of the coastal weather in the west coast of South Africa was unwelcoming. He was not used to the high humidity and felt rather uncomfortable. But he was optimistic.
“The reception and clearance at the immigration desk was quick and smooth. I was in SA, legally and ready to start life in Mzansi, the Rainbow Nation”.
But as soon as he was cleared at the airport and mingled with the new community, it dawned on him that he was in a ‘different’ world. From language, mannerism and the culture of the people, Mwangi felt alienated from what he was used to. Additionally, at the top of his mind was apartheid and how even today, many years after independence, still played a big role in how local people interacted.
“It felt away from home in all ways; including the advanced development of South Africa compared to Kenya, different foods, and difficulty working amongst entirely new people who are wary of foreign nationals.”
His expectations of life abroad were not entirely met. All in all, he went on to stay in South Africa for one year, one month and one week, working as a financial advisor in an insurance firm; time he not only got to deeply understand the state of being a foreign worker in South Africa, but also slimly missed being a victim of xenophobia in 2019.
“My process and journey to SA was neither easy nor difficult,” notes Mwangi. After securing his job, he had a prior arrangement with his employer in terms of travelling and settling down in the new country.
He was met by a Kenyan colleague at the airport who helped him settle down and with orientation.
“For the first time, I met ‘coloured’ people who I had read about in history classes in school. There were ‘White, Coloureds, Indians and Blacks’ during the apartheid era.”
“South Africa is truly amazing!” He thought.
At work, settling down was “painfully slow”, Mwangi admits. He felt like he need orientation in everything, from the new job, to transport within the locality as well as interacting with the local people. Although South Africa is an English speaking nation, many South Africans prefer using their local dialects which Mwangi was unfamiliar with.
Moreover, “I was in a competitive industry and before long I needed to start paying bills and submit favourable businesses and reports to my superiors at work.”
According to Mwangi, it took him up to six months to finally get used to being away from home. Soon enough however, he realised it would take more than ‘settling’ to feel comfortable in the ‘divided’ nation.
In addition to the language barrier, many foreigners find themselves side-lined due to stereotypical labelling and unkind and cold treatment. All these arise from the fact that locals feel like foreigners are taking up their jobs. Initially this was not a big concern until the attacks became physical.
“When xenophobic attacks finally happened in my locality, it dawned on me that my work environment is poisoned against foreign nationals, my security was at risk and that my income and planned objectives have been harmed irreversibly; I had to act or change tact.”
Joblessness and poverty fuels xenophobia
Mwangi views Xenophobic attacks as economic wars against foreign nationals of African descent.
According to him, “joblessness and poverty amongst young South Africans, aided by populist politics that depict African emigrants as ‘opportunists’ riding on the freedom won by blood from the apartheid rule to either take up jobs or even accept low wages from employers is the main tagline of the attacks.”
Mwangi observes that the economic regime of SA is still rigidly held by a few, with racial undertones underlying all economic conversations. A huge population that is disenfranchised in its motherland and remains poor will explode any minute at a slight spark, xenophobia provides the relief and they turn rowdy!
And this is what happened in mid- 2019.
Small disagreements between locals and foreigners would erupt into violence. Some government officers also used derogatory terms to refer to Mwangi and other foreigners. Day in day out, Mwangi felt trapped in a land that he had hoped would bring him a good fortune for him and his family back at home.
Being the year of election, the disquiet in the country was looming and “there was loaded rhetoric by leaders concerning unemployment and immigration; all the signs were there for all to see!”
Looking back, Mwangi recalls he was always on alert mode. He always thought of the unrest and when the attacks begun, he was hit by panic. He relied on media to keep abreast with details of the attack, and predict the next viable move.
“Sometimes in July and August 2019 there were disturbances in Johannesburg.” It was reported that gangs of ‘foreign nationals’ either fought or repulsed the police in the course of their duties. Well, this created a huge backlash on foreign nationals by the government and the local population. Foreign nationals were swooped and locked in police custody on suspicion of illegal stay, dealing in counterfeit goods, crime, drugs, illegal firearms among many other criminal suspicions.
What started as a government operation against illegal immigrants, was overcame by “civilians looting burning of foreign-owned businesses and general disorder,” Mwangi observes. He added: “The violence spread outside the city into the hinterland and businesses just a street behind my house were looted and burned on the night of 14th into the wee hours of 15th August 2019.”
“One evening, young men in the same estate where I had rented a house came home with looted goods from foreign owned shops. The enemy was within!”
“I knew it was time to leave.”
Without drawing attention to himself, Mwangi started planning how to leave the country legally and safely. He cancelled his stay permits, booked one-way ticket home, got valid travel documents ready and in 13 days, he was ready to head home.
“It was not until I got to Kamuzu International Airport in Malawi, that I had a sigh of relief. I was certain I would not miss my stay in Msaanzi. And from my interaction with other run-away immigrants, neither would they return to South Africa any time soon.”
“On arriving at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi ten minutes after 8 in the evening, while descending from the craft I shouted ‘I am in my country nobody harasses me!’
“That flight and my arrival can only be equated to freedom from slavery or prison!” Mwangi recalls.
Life after South Africa
Life after living abroad can be challenging as there are personal as well as societal expectations that one feels need to fulfil. Mwangi felt the same pressure on returning to Kenya. Without work or income, life was difficult. But he is hopeful that things will look up soon.