In America, we are adroit and professional when it comes to labeling, separating, classifying and naming. It’s part of our national pastime to categorize people, places or things and give them descriptive qualities. Doing so establishes a hierarchy and enables us to understand our place in the pecking order. Americans tend to find a fitting name and home for everything; it gives rhyme and reason to our environment, to our ordered world. One glance at social media is enough to see this in action.
In similar fashion, South Africa is predicated on categorization for the purposes of creating a hierarchy. The practice there lasted for hundreds of years and was given the name apartheid, a term coined by the White Afrikaaner settlers who colonized the country and desired to keep things separated or apart. Whites over here. Black natives over there. And everyone in between could find their place somewhere in limbo under the term Colored.
This worked (for the Whites anyway) for quite some time u,ntil the rest of the world caught wind of it and economically boycotted South Africa into integration. But their internal need to categorize, like ours, never really died. South Africa still suffers from identity issues and extreme bouts of pervasive racism outbreaks from time to time. The racism lead many Black South Africans to suffer from internalized issues of self hate, causing them to draw a line between themselves and other neighboring Africans on the Continent and in the Diaspora calling them “kwerekwere.”
Kwerekwere is a term in South Africa applied to Blacks from outside the country. It is a word said to have derived from the sound their foreign languages make when spoken to the ear of the average South African.
The current state of South Africa—with its high aspirations, brilliant rainbow nation propaganda and liberal-minded constitution—would cause Nelson Mandela to roll over in his grave with her recent actions. Post-Mandela, South Africa has often been embroiled in xenophobic violence and hate speech since as recently as May 2015 and as far back as 2010. In efforts to weed out the almost annual attacks, it seems the government has taken measures to rid themselves of any unwanted foreign occupation.
Enter Operation Fiela.
Launched in May 2015, Operation Fiela (meaning “sweep out dirt”) is aimed at combatting crime, but the vast majority of people detained during the nationwide operation were arrested on suspicion of immigration violations.
Deportation centers like Lindela in Krugersdorp are chockfull of illegal African immigrants and asylum seekers who await deportation, thousands of which have been forced to endure inhuman conditions, lack of legal representation and a series of human rights violations from bad nutrition to beatings. Yet under the umbrella of fairness, the government deems this fair treatment worthy of any criminal.
“If you are in the country without documents, it’s a crime and you are a criminal,” said Mayihlome Tshwete, spokesman for South African Home Affairs.
But in essence, this cracking down on the movements of individuals and equating crime with the presence of undocumented people in South Africa isn’t tackling xenophobia; it legitimizes it.
Which, finally, brings me to the current case of Yasiin Bey, previously known as Mos Def, who was recently detained in South Africa for traveling on a “world passport.” His arrest trended for days on #BlackTwitter’s South African channels, causing a rift and a paradigm shift, raising the question, “How could the Most Woke Human Being amongst us be detained by fellow Africans?”
Simple. He broke the law. He traveled on a world passport—which isn’t much of a world passport if most places in the world don’t recognize it.
But agreed, he had travel documents that are unrecognized by the South African government. The same government which once recognized Nelson Mandela as a threat to national security; the same government which once recognized Blacks as second class citizens; the same government which once criminalized and exiled freedom fighters from its borders to find solace in neighboring African countries. Okay, not the exact same government, but you get the idea. Because now Blacks are in power and the tables have turned. But have they?
In those moments of his arrest, blog posts and freestyle phone call to Kanye West, many things became clarified, categorized, labeled and named. It was clarified that as a Black man, you cannot just go where you want to go and live where you want to live based solely on your ideals alone. There are laws in place, and those laws are to be abided by. It was categorized that being Black doesn’t automatically make you welcome in a sub-Saharan African country.
Melanin is not a visa.
It is clearly labeled a crime to be in a country without the proper documents. Yasiin Bey was named a criminal in the eyes of South African law, and it is identified that those laws need to be changed. (But they once thought Mandela was a criminal too.)
In the current state of America, Black American men, women and children are persecuted due to the color of their skin. Flint, Michigan systematically poisoned their water supply, and many rogue cops across the country equate Blacks to animals worthy of eliminating without the threat of persecution. This current situation with Yasiin Bey illustrates that there’s no easy domicile for the African American—not in America, and not in South Africa. Where then can the African American find a home?
Perhaps the answer can be found in Julius Malema, a controversial South African politician and leader of the upstart pan-African Socialist party Economic Freedom Fighters, who penned a letter in response to Bey’s arrest.
“All African countries, and South Africa in particular, carry a historical obligation to be home of all Africans from the diaspora, because it was partly due to their efforts that apartheid was internationally condemned, sanctions imposed and apartheid South Africa isolated until the regime capitulated to a negotiated political settlement.
“It cannot be in the laws and practices of South Africa to criminalize, arrest and even deport Africans from the diaspora who made it their mission to visit and find home in South Africa. Africans in the diaspora, particularly from the U.S. and most parts of Europe are harassed, assaulted, arrested, discriminated, treated as sub-humans and even killed because of the color of their skin. It therefore cannot be correct that when these Africans come back to their origins and roots, they are subjected to the same treatment by a Black government.
“The EFF calls for the immediate repeal of laws and policies that give the State the right to arrest, harass and banish Africans for immigration purposes. Enforcement of immigration laws, particularly for Africans in the diaspora who do not pose any security threat to the country, must be handled in a far much more humane and acceptable way. As a matter of principle, the South African government and all governments in Africa should waive the visa requirements for all Africans in the diaspora who want to come home.
“The EFF will write to the Ministry of Home Affairs to immediately withdraw all charges brought against Mos Def, and propose that the ministry helps him and his family with administrative immigration issues that should be complied with. Banishment, arrests, and deportations of Africans from the diaspora cannot be done in the name of South Africans, because many other Africans wishing to visit the country will be discouraged.
“The EFF upholds and stands by progressive pan-Africanist perspective that seek to defend all Africans in the continent and diaspora because for many centuries, Africans have been on the receiving end of slavery, savage killings, savage drowning in the oceans, colonial dispossession, racism and now imperialist control by Whites.
Suede has spent a decade between the Americas, South Africa and Tanzania creating content for print, TV, radio and digital media. His interests include photography, pop culture, social media and travel. Follow him on Twitter @iamsuede.