Strangers in a strange land

Maurice and David, August 2011

Maurice is round-faced, bespectacled, and jovial 27-year-old who works as a chef in a guesthouse in suburban Johannesburg.

Since the guesthouse serves only breakfast, his working day here lasts only three hours. But his commute is long; he lives in Roodepoort, a town about 25 km west of Johannesburg, about a half hour drive away.  But Maurice doesn’t have a car; like most South Africans, he relies on minibus taxis to get around. These taxis ply fixed routes, and there is no service directly from Roodepoort to Bryanston. So Maurice gets up each day at 4 am to begin a circuitous journey to work that involves four taxi rides, is 40 km long, takes about 90 minutes, and costs R42 (about $6) a day.

Maurice’s daily commute pales by comparison with the journey that brought him to South Africa. Maurice is Rwandan, and his overland journey to South Africa in 2004 took two weeks.  The journey, mostly on buses and taxis, took him through Tanzania, Malawi, and Mozambique. Some of his belongings were stolen along the way, but somehow he made his way to Johannesburg.

Why did he choose to come to South Africa, I ask him.  “I just decided I wanted to go,” he says, “I didn’t know much about South Africa, and I didn’t know anyone here. But I just told my parents I was leaving, and I went.” He is happy with his decision; he managed to enroll in a hospitality program at a local college, and that helped him get his job at the guesthouse.  Maurice tells me all of this in fluent English; he also speaks French (a legacy of Belgian colonialism in Rwanda,) his home language of Rwanda, and Zulu.

Today is a special day for Maurice; his parents are due to arrive from Rwanda for a visit. Unlike their son, they won’t be taking the overland route. Instead, they will take one of four weekly non-stop flights on Rwandair. (South African Airways announced last week that it will start flying this route at the end of October.) It’s also his last day of work at the guesthouse; starting next week, he plans to start his own business, buying clothes in Mozambique and bringing them back to South Africa for sale.

A flyer distributed on the streets of Johannesburg

Maurice and his parents are survivors of one of the most brutal events of the twentieth century. Over the course of a hundred days in 1994, between 800,000 and a million Rwandans died as Hutu militants hacked, shot, and clubbed Tutsis and uncooperative Hutus to death.  That is rate of killing unmatched by the Holocaust or the Cambodian Genocide.

Maurice was ten years old at the time, and recalls hiding out in the forest with his parents to avoid soldiers of the Interahamwe, the Hutu militia responsible for the killings. “How can a small child hiding in the forest go to school?” he asks.

Maurice speaks passionately about the events of 1994. No family was unaffected, he tells me. Tutsis were the primary victims of the genocide; almost every survivor lost family members, and some families were completely wiped out. Pregnant women had their bellies sliced open and their babies ripped from their wombs. But Hutus suffered too; when the predominantly Tutsi forces of the Rwandan RPF took over, Hutu refugees fled over the borders to neighboring countries. Some of the killers were among the refugees, but most were innocent Hutus fearful that the new regime would take revenge against them.

Maurice becomes particularly passionate when he talks about the reaction of the international community to the genocide. “They did nothing,” he says. “The UN left the country, the Belgians left, and the French forces who were there did nothing.”

Maurice’s colleague in the guesthouse kitchen is David, a Muslim from Rwanda (cooking food for guests while he fasts during this, the month of Ramadan.) He is six years younger than Maurice, and was only four years old at the time of the genocide. He is reluctant to talk about his experiences, though; they are too painful, Maurice tells me. David lost both of his parents and his siblings in the slaughter.

Despite the country’s wealth and the job opportunities it has provided for Maurice and David, their lives here are far from easy.  Aside from the economic challenges facing them, they also have to deal with the fact that they are makwerekwere, an abusive term used here to describe African migrants from other parts of the continent. With one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, many South Africans, especially those who are unemployed, are deeply resentful of outsiders, many here illegally, taking their jobs.

A Zimbabwean curio seller in Johannesburg (The t-shirt reads, in Afrikaans, ‘Speak Afrikaans or shut up.’)

The list of violent attacks on foreigners is long, and it doesn’t take long to find evidence of xenophobia on the streets of Johannesburg or Cape Town. On a visit to Alexandra (an apartheid-era black township) a few weeks ago, I was standing on a sidewalk with some of my students, waiting for our vehicle to be cleaned at a roadside carwash. A Zulu man, about 60 years old, stopped to chat. “Where are you from?” he asked me, and when I replied that I was from Johannesburg he launched into a lament on the state of the country. “There are so many foreigners here,” he said. He pointed to a young man passing by. “See, look at him. He is a Somali and he is a tsotsi (thug).” (Somalis and Nigerians seem to attract particularly vitriolic sentiments.  Graffiti on a restroom wall near Cape Town reads “Fuck Somalis.”)

Maurice tells of having to be careful when riding taxis, lest he be harassed for speaking in his own language on his cell phone. But sometimes xenophobia goes beyond abusive words. Violent attacks against African foreigners are not uncommon; a particularly virulent wave of xenophobic violence swept the country in 2008, and many foreigners feel that they must constantly be on their guard.

Xenophobia has reared its head in many parts of the world, including Europe (epitomized by the ban on the public wearing of burkas by women in France, and Switzerland’s prohibition of the building of minarets.) In South Africa, though, xenophobia is particularly widespread, hostile, and violent.

Political freedom in action, Cape Town (August 2011)

As someone who grew up in South Africa during the apartheid era I grew up in an essentially monocultural environment, the predominantly English-speaking and white northern suburbs of Johannesburg. I experienced South Africa of 2011 as a completely different place, a truly multicultural society, where people of different ethnic, cultural, religious, and linguistic backgrounds socialize and talk to one another as never before. On my recent visit to the country with an American student group, I met and talked to people in Alexandra, Soweto, and spent two nights in Khayletisha (a ‘township’ near Cape Town.) I chatted with Zulus, Zimbabweans, Malawians, and white English speakers (among many others.) I visited a Shia mosque and the Jewish Museum in Cape Town, watched an Afrikaans-language movie about a repressed gay Afrikaner, and ate Cape Malay food In short, I found a South Africa has become an African country, part of a continent where a billion people of many races speak over 2,000 languages, where people move around, and where cultures are continually borrowing from one another. I found a South Africa which is an uplifting, exciting, and fascinating place precisely because it is so diverse.

The “New South Africa” came into being in 1994 against the backdrop of optimistic talk of a rainbow nation, a place where people of different backgrounds could live and work together. The country’s 1996 Constitution includes what it probably the world’s most progressive non-discrimination clause, prohibiting discrimination not only on the basis of race, but also ‘gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.’ The framers of this constitution realized that freedoms are inseparable, that discrimination remains discrimination regardless of what arbitrary criteria it is based on. South Africans who rail against the likes of Maurice and David betray the most noble ideals of their country.

Update: I was fortunate enough to visit Rwanda in March 2013; I have posted videos of rural Rwanda and the country’s capital, Kigali on my YouTube channel.


There are numerous resources available for those wanting to find out more about foreigners in South Africa, and xenophobia in particular. In addition to the links embedded in the text above, some good starting points include the website of The Southern African Migration Project, the Xenophobia Project, the African Center for Migration and Society, and the Mail and Guardian’s Special Report on Xenophobia.

The title of this blog comes from Exodus 2:22 (in the context of Exodus 2:16 – 22.)





  1. Dawn August 28, 2011
  2. Hannah Riddle March 11, 2013
  3. Arlete J. July 1, 2013
  4. Eric Greenlaw July 19, 2013
  5. Brittany McBride July 14, 2015

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