A Trini in Durban: A warm welcome?
By Natalie Williams
Nelson Mandela would be turning in his grave. And I do not say this lightly.
Imagine my shock when we arrived in Durban, South Africa, to be greeted by screaming headlines bacchanal on the streets and angry mobs telling foreigners “to go home”.
And worse: within hours of arriving at the home of our friend and host in Ballito, which is about one hour's drive from downtown Durban, to be bombarded by local TV news of horrific stories of foreigners being beaten and chopped to death, and the harrowing tragic death of one African national being burnt to death in his village, after an angry mob went wild.
His burning was captured on mobile phones and thus went viral on the world wide web.
“Welcome to Africa” would be said to us over and over – and for the first time ever on our travels here, it was tinged with disgust.
Meeting up or fleeing?
The Wise One and I were living history again. But good Lord: how many of these hair-raising, civil unrest, “should we bother unpacking our bags” experiences are we expected to live through?
Seriously? Xenophobic attacks against foreigners were taking place all over Durban as we touched down in African soil.
I had this surreal moment upon arriving on the African continent, thinking the world had officially gone mad.
Glorious, stunning Cape Town was to be our final destination, en route to keep up a tradition of “meeting up in the Cape” to visit one of my dearest friends, Raenette, a soul sister from my London university days and her darling husband Lucio.
We were on a four-day stopover in Ballito, Durban, to “break bread” with one of our newest friends, Richard – a kind soul we have nurtured in our newly adopted home of Cairo – who is of Trinidadian parentage and who runs a charming guest house in SA.
By the close of play, all hell was breaking loose in Durban. President Jacob Zuma had addressed the nation, Winnie Mandela was on
television appealing for calm and our suitcases remained zipped up.
These xenophobic attacks on “foreigners” left seven Africans dead and saw several others run out of their homes after an angry minority, no doubt with criminal elements, swept through Durban and its surrounding areas.
As I write, life on the ground was a mixed bag, with hundreds of African nationals fleeing their homes, choosing to return to their native African countries, while others were trying to pick up the pieces of their destroyed homes and lives, under the watchful eye of South African police and the military personnel on standby in Durban, a coastal city in the Zulu heartland.
Something was horribly wrong with this picture.
How could Africans living in South Africa on the African content be considered foreigners?
How could there be violent anti-immigrant attacks against their own African people? Even if they were illegal immigrants, which seemed to be at the crux of this wave of xenophobia. Locals and our South African friends were ashamed of their country.
Official figures conservatively estimate that South Africa is home to 1.7 million “foreigners”: Africans looking to better their standard of living.
Mandela would be turning in his grave.
Mandela would be turning in his grave.
Many were quick to warn that these xenophobic attacks had the potential to hurt South Africa's foreign tourism industry - the one industry the pundits predict will continue to show positive growth, create jobs and wealth for the SA economy.
And I tell you, the headlines which went global were frightening.
Until one realised or took the time to double-check that the “foreigners go home” headlines and the violent attacks were actually aimed at illegal African immigrants, which was bad enough, SA seemed very scary.
And one could easily argue that the average tourist out there, looking to plan their next holiday or break, would not delve too deeply into the nuance of what was actually taking place in Durban.
And with the Wise One and me now living in Egypt - a country with not one, not two, but three violent uprisings, revolutions and government overthrows - we know first-hand how any whiff of trouble puts visitors off and sends tourism in to a free-fall nose-dive.
And this is to say nothing of fellow African tourists who flock to Table Mountain and the wine lands of South Africa in their thousands every year, pumping their hard-earned African money into the local economy and domestic tourism.
Mercifully, the anti-xenophobic campaigners were swift in their condemnation of these attacks and in their actions to unite South Africans and the wider continent.
On our second day in Durban, down at Durban Harbour taking in some South African jazz and speakeasy creativity, I sat again in awe enjoying musicians and singers from Malawi, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Mozambique and Namibia, to name a few, holding hands, singing, dancing, orating and performing their hearts out together to tell the world Africa is united.
Time and time again, people would tell us real South Africans love diversity.
The Wise One and I felt poignantly happy to be here as the nationals came together to celebrate Freedom Day - ironically in the aftermath of these xenophobic attacks - the day when thousands marched through the streets to celebrate 21 years of democracy.
This 2015 Freedom Day was also the 60th Anniversary of South Africa's Freedom Charter, the historic roadmap to end apartheid and vote for democratic ideals. But this ad, devised by an east coast radio DJ, was the one that hit home:
Your coffee is Ethiopian, your car is German, your vodka is Russian, your pizza is Italian, your kebab is Turkish, your democracy is Greek, your movies are American, your tea is Tamil, your shirt is Indian, your oil is from Saudi Arabia, your electronics are Chinese, your numbers are Arabic and Latin and you complain that your neighbour is an immigrant (here I would have said foreign): pull yourself together! Say no to xenophobia.
Every local we chatted to during this turbulent time told us that real South Africans, ordinary men and women that you see walking the streets of this amazingly beautiful country, love diversity.
Plain and simple: everywhere we travel through this great land, the creativity astounds me, leaves me breathless, if I am honest.
What South Africans are able to turn into art, craft, jewellery, clothes, food and music is just incredible.
I do hope they will be able to turn around, if not away from, this turbulent, sad time in this country's profound history as quickly as they turn bottle caps into souvenirs for “foreigners” to take home.
Check out other columns from Natalie's travels on our Buzz page.