Xenophobia begins with name calling

Monday September 16 2019


Foreign nationals sit and watch after their shacks were set alight by alleged looters at Marabastad, near the Pretoria Central Business District (CBD) in Pretoria, South Africa on September 2, 2019, during widespread attacks on foreign nationals and looting of their shops. PHOTO | PHILL MAGAKOE | AFP 

By The EastAfrican

Has enough been said about Xenophobia in South Africa? No. The troubling attacks spilled over into a new week with one person killed and five others injured.

Xenophobia has been raging for more than a decade. In 2009, South African Andile Mngxitama wrote: “In May 2008, Black-on-Black violence erupted in South African townships. At its aftermath 62 black people were killed, of this 21 were black South Africans.

The media, academics, and other public opinion makers called it xenophobia. But what kind of xenophobia is this which targets blacks only? Is xenophobia not the fear and hatred of foreigners? What actually happened here was an outbreak of Negrophobia or Afrophobia — the fear and hatred of black people.”


In 2006, I was in South Africa on a fellowship on building inclusive societies when a colleague, while discussing Nelson Mandela’s legacy, said “he held the country together at a difficult time and did not cling on to power. Shame though, he married a makwerekwere from Mozambique.”

I asked him what “makwerekwere” meant. Laughing, he said; “Makwerekwere are people like you from black African.” Shocked, I responded, “South Africa is black Africa too, isn’t?” He said no, the apartheid system referred to Africa South of the Sahara and North of the Limpopo as “black Africa.”


“Why are we makwerekwere? I asked.

“Because you speak kwerekwerekwere and we do not understand what you are saying.”

“Makwerekwere” therefore diminishes millions of Africans into a single identity speaking an unintelligible language.

I expressed my concern on this classification of “black Africans” by fellow Africans. It seemed the legacy of apartheid was being transferred to “black Africans.” Ironically, our work involved reviewing apartheid education legislation. Apartheid had legislated stereotypes and segregation of races.

Stereotyping is not unique to South Africa. In 2013, a study by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission of Kenya revealed every Kenyan linguistic community has ethnic stereotypes and coded language on other communities.

Other findings included use of stereotypes and coded expressions in reference to others and within — “intra-community, intra-clan, inter-region and even intra-village; almost every ethnic community has both positive and negative stereotypes on them and others.

The danger with stereotyping even where there is no undue threat or harm by the stereotyped is the invocation of hate, raising the possibility of actual violence. Xenophobia happens against the “makwerekwere,” classification.


Gregory Stanton’s widely accepted eight stages of genocide state classification as the first step.

The second, symbolisation, involves naming classifications such as during the Rwandan genocide, Tutsi or moderate Hutu.

Classification and symbolisation are part of all cultures but the third stage, dehumanisation as denial of humanity, transforms them into genocide steps. Target groups are called names like “cockroaches, weeds or diseases.”

Dehumanisation is expressed through public mutilation or killings using methods such as burning with tires or stoning.

The fourth, organisation is often collective, through mob killings and mass murder.

The fifth, polarisation, increases divisions and eliminates moderates.

The sixth, preparation includes identifying victims through lists and expropriation of their property.

The seventh, extermination, called so, instead of murder as victims are no longer considered human.

The eighth, denial includes dismissal as propaganda or alleged by those committing the crimes.

Panafricanism is an urgent conversation Africa needs to have with itself, in curriculum as an examinable subject and within it a topic of the root causes and solutions to xenophobia, Afro-phobia and genocide.

Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism, Mukami Kimathi: Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides. E-mail:  info@mdahalo.org