Unsettling old assumptions about xenophobia—Read an excerpt from I Want to Go Home Forever: Stories of Becoming and Belonging in South Africa’s Great Metropolis

The JRB presents ‘On Patrol in the Dark City’, an excerpt from I Want to Go Home Forever: Stories of Becoming and Belonging in South Africa’s Great Metropolis.

I Want to Go Home Forever: Stories of Becoming and Belonging in South Africa’s Great Metropolis
Edited by Loren Landau and Tanya Pampalone
Wits Press, 2018

Read an excerpt—and see below for praise from Jonny Steinberg and Sisonke Msimang, plus more on the book.


On Patrol in the Dark City

Ntombi Theys

Age when interviewed: 48
Born: Alexandra, Johannesburg, South Africa
Interviewed in: Alexandra, Johannesburg, South Africa
Interviewed by: Ryan Lenora Brown
Photographed by: Madelene Cronje

Ntombi Theys is a lifelong resident of Alexandra, one of Johannesburg’s oldest black townships. Her childhood sprawled across one of the most violent times in the neighbourhood’s history, as it became an epicentre of protest and resistance against the apartheid regime. For much of her adult life, Theys has been deeply involved in city politics as a ward committee member and community organiser, working to reduce the neighbourhood’s high rates of poverty and unemployment, and to fight crime in the area. She told her story at the offices of the Alexandra Stadium, where she works as an administrator, and at her home in Alexandra.

You know those black, black winter nights, the kind when you put your hand out and can’t even see your fingers? That’s how it was. Very dark and very cold. I’d been calling the city for months complaining about the streetlight outside. People could fall, I told them. People could be robbed. It’s not safe for a street to not have light, I said. But in actual fact, things can take a long time to get fixed in Alex, things can take a long time to change, and so that night the light was still off.

My little house is attached to my mother’s, and she has the tub, so when I woke up, around 5 am, I went around to her side to bath there. Only when I got close, that’s when I could see something was really wrong.

Her door was open and the bars on the window were all twisted up. When I looked in, it was like the place was full of holes. A hole where the TV was supposed to be. A hole where the heater was supposed to be. The microwave was gone; so was the kettle. They’d even dragged our fridge halfway from the kitchen to the front door, but I guess that one was too much, or maybe they got spooked, because they left it right there next to the couch.

At first, I was afraid to go any further. My mother and my daughter were inside, neh? And it wouldn’t be the first time you hear of someone being shot and killed for a television in Alex. In actual fact, that’s how it often is.

But I made myself do it and thank God, they were alive and asleep on the bed. They’d slept through the whole thing. The guys even took their cellphones from the bed beside them and they didn’t wake up once. Thank God, I kept saying. Thank God.

Once we’d all had a look around, I went to the police station. It was maybe 6 am then, just starting to get light. Two cops came back with me to the house and started asking me questions: ‘Is there anyone you suspect? Did you hear anything? What’s missing?’ They wrote all the answers in a tiny notebook, then one of them started dusting for fingerprints. He dusted on the door they broke through, and on the fridge, and around the countertop. Then they were gone.

Those cops never came back. When I called about the fingerprints, they said, ‘We didn’t get any hits. We can’t find them.’ They didn’t sound surprised at all. So then I said, ‘How come you can’t find them?’ And they just said, ‘These people whose fingerprints we took: they’re not in our system.’

Now why would someone not be in the system? There’s only one reason I know. They’re foreign. They don’t have an ID. Those guys come here to do crime because they know our police can’t find them. They know they can get away with it. I’ve seen it happen so many times, and it’s always the same story.

Old Alex

When the businessman Stephen Papenfus bought a large tract of farmland north of Johannesburg in 1904, he originally hoped to turn it into a white neighbourhood. But when prospective buyers complained that it was too far from the city centre, he began selling to black families instead. A decade later, in 1913, the government passed the Natives Land Act, severely restricting where black people could buy and own land, and leaving Alex one of the few freehold black settlements in the city.

My family is old Alex. We have been here from the start, from the time when it was just farms and there was no city up here at all. That was back in the 1920s and my grandfather was working as a farmhand in this area when he caught word that someone was selling plots of land nearby. He was just an ordinary gardener in those days, looking after the crops and the cows and what have you.

But land wasn’t so expensive then as it is now, and he was able to save enough to buy himself a little plot. And once you have land, so many things become easier. My grandparents built a house on that land, and then some rooms outside it that they rented out. In actual fact, this land thing made them business people. So that’s how it started for my family. We’ve been here ever since.

In all the time I’ve known it, Alex has been a mixed-up kind of place. For a long time, before the apartheid government got to us, we had all kinds of people living here—there were Chinese married to Coloureds, Coloureds married to blacks, blacks married to Indians. My own mother is a Khoisan lady from the Northern Cape. She’d come to Johannesburg after she finished school to look for work, and she was staying with her sister on 14th Avenue.

She met my father at a garage in Orange Grove and they married young, young, young—maybe 18. That’s just how it was in those days. His mother didn’t approve, really. She probably wanted an African lady, a Xhosa like them, not some Coloured girl from Northern Cape. But what could she do? That was Alex. You met everyone here. That was just how life was.

I was the first child, born in 1968, and then after me came four boys. Four! My mother hoped and hoped for another girl, but I was it. We stayed in the yard outside my grandparents’ house—all seven of us in one little room that was our bedroom, kitchen, sitting room, dining room, everything all at once. To get to the toilet, you had to walk outside. At night, especially in winter, you just prayed you wouldn’t need to go.

Still, I was a child then, hey, so most of the memories I have are good. They called Alex ‘the dark city’ in those days because we didn’t have electricity, but there was something homey even about that. Your mother would keep the house warm in winter by cooking something on the stove, so that the whole place stayed cozy and nice all night. And we used to say back then that we all knew each other even in the dark. We could identify our neighbours by their walk or their shape or their voice. You used to know, even before you got close, that this was Ma Moloi, this was Ma Dlamini, this was Ma Ntuli. There were trees all around—fruit trees—and as kids we used to go up and down picking figs and apricots. Sometimes when we were good, our mother gave us money to go to the shop down the road and buy the thing we called atchar bread—atchar and polony on a thick piece of white bread—or else peanut-butter sandwiches. That was our menu, and we loved it. You know, Alexandra was so nice then.

So we kids, we were happy, but for my parents, things were getting tough. In 1974, the city council came to us and said, we are buying your house. They didn’t ask us, they told. Your choices were either you forfeited the land and took nothing, or you kept the small money they felt like paying you and then became a tenant in your own home. So that’s what we did. My grandmother started paying rent on a house she’d owned for fifty years. Like it or not. That was life in Alex too.

And around that time also, my parents’ marriage was breaking up. When they first got together, my father was this very proud father. He’d get up early every morning to wash my nappies. He was so excited to have me, his first child. But by the time I was a little older, that was changing. They were fighting a lot and he was cheating and becoming abusive. He would say things like, ‘My family have property here, you’re nothing without us. You don’t even have a family in Alexandra.’ And he would hit her. He hit her so much sometimes that she went to sleep outside in the toilets. Finally, she had enough, and she took us kids and she left for the other side of Alex. She worked then in one of the first shoe stores in the new Sandton City mall, so she could be independent from him. She was a tough, tough lady.

Like a Piece of Paper Tearing in Half

On 16 June 1976, South African police brutally put down a peaceful protest by high-school students in the township of Soweto, south of Johannesburg, killing hundreds. News of the brutality circled the globe, and in the days that followed, the protests rippled outward to other communities nearby. On 18 June, students in Alexandra began a solidarity march with the Soweto students, prompting violent reprisal from the police.

I was still very young then. We saw the protests starting from the windows of our school. We were so afraid. At some point, the teachers told us they wanted to attack our school and we must get out and run home as quickly as we could. But when we got into the street there were people everywhere and police were shooting and teargassing, so there was no time to go home. I knew an auntie who stayed nearby, so I ran to her place and the two of us hid under her bed. I don’t know how long we were there, but eventually my mother showed up to take me home. She was so shaken. On the way there, she watched a woman get shot while she was out buying a tin of milk, a young mother from down our street. ‘That AK-47 ripped her skin open like a piece of paper tearing in half,’ she told me later. I can’t forget that.

Outside it was still hectic, but my mother wanted to get me home, so she grabbed my hand and we went. On the way, we saw the Chinese man who had a shop in front of the school, selling snacks to the kids and all that. He used to always yell after us, ‘Schoolboys, schoolboys, come back here,’ so that’s what we called him too—Schoolboy. For as long as I can remember, he was there in Alex. Well that day people around could see that Schoolboy’s life was in danger. He wasn’t white, but he was close, neh? That could be trouble. So some guys had smeared his face with black shoe polish and then stuck a balaclava over him. They were holding him as if he were drunk, walking him away from the township as quickly as possible like he was a sick uncle they had to get home. In actual fact, they saved his life. We never saw him anymore after that.

We Aren’t Going Anywhere

Over the course of its history, the city tried repeatedly to uproot and relocate Alexandra residents from their plots on prime land—usually with little success. In the 1960s, they tried a different tack: to turn Alex into a ‘hostel city’ where workers could be housed in boxy, single-sex dormitories. All family houses would be eliminated. In the late 1970s, a local Dutch Reformed Church reverend, Sam Buti, started the ‘Save Alex’ campaign to fight forced removals to Soweto and Tembisa.

That was my first time becoming an activist. My mother was very involved in the campaign and she brought me along as well. We wore these white T-shirts that said save alexandra across the front, and we would go with the reverend to different houses where people were being removed, where their stuff had been put out on the streets. Sometimes they even took their doors and windows off, just to make sure they’d really go. So we went to those houses and we brought it all back in. When they put us out, we put ourselves back in. That was how we did it.

I look back on those days as the beginning of my time organising for the community. I still remember the day we found out we’d won, that the city wouldn’t be moving anyone anymore. It was the most exciting day of my life. Just imagine—we were all in the street, screaming, crying, singing, singing, singing until midnight and beyond. ‘Our Alex has been saved by God,’ people were saying. ‘We aren’t going anywhere. We’re going to stay.’

A few years later, in 1987, I finished school and went to work. By that time, my brother, who had been a student activist, had been arrested and tortured. It turned him somehow. He’s never recovered. Anyway, that same year, I fell pregnant. I was so embarrassed—I was so young! It was supposed to be different for me. But luckily for me the baby’s father was 100 per cent involved. We named our daughter Dimakatso—Maki for short—it means ‘surprise’. He was a taxi driver; he ran the first taxi business in Alex. And he loved us and cared for us every second of his life, until 28 July 2001, when he was shot seven times in a taxi shootout.

I can remember a few years after Maki was born, how Alex was starting to change. Now, Alex has always been a very diverse place. Those Chinese I mentioned, they were always living with us, talking in Zulu and Sotho and Afrikaans, and we loved them so much. And there were Indians and coloureds like my mother and all of that. We valued that diversity. There were even a few from foreign countries—these Zimbabweans and Malawians who got work in white people’s gardens in Joburg and then came to stay with their girlfriends in Alex. But the number wasn’t too much, neh? Only a few.

It’s after Mandela came out that that started to change. I still remember him coming on TV and telling us that we’re not going to have electric fences on our borders anymore. People aren’t animals. They shouldn’t die like animals trying to make a better life. But yoh, once that fence was gone, things got too easy for those people coming over.

And bit by bit after that, they began coming here, to Alex. That’s when the influx began, and then it became uncontrollable. Why I say uncontrollable is: Alex, all through my life, has been full of people without jobs, without good shelter, without enough food to eat. And all my life, we’ve been waiting for a government that understands. When the African National Congress (ANC) came in, we believed we had one, neh? But then all these foreigners started coming here and offering to work for less than Alex people would. A construction company would say, ‘We can pay you this much to work,’ and South Africans would say, ‘No, no, it’s not a living wage, I can’t accept it.’ But the foreigners accepted that yes, this is not good, but it’s better than the situation in my country so I’ll take it. That made us feel like our human rights were meaningless, you know? If the Constitution says a man must be given a dignified wage and then a foreigner comes and says he will do it for less, then what does that right mean at all?

The Government Lets Them Have the Jobs and the Houses We Have Been Waiting For

It was a few years after that that I decided to get into politics. I’m not sure why then, I guess I just couldn’t take it anymore. Everywhere you looked in Alex, you saw that the place and the people weren’t being developed. Imagine. People living on the streets. People smoking nyaope and stealing to pay for it. People dying from HIV, leaving tiny babies with no families. People being burgled by foreign gangs. And you know, if you look at the history of Alex—so many of our best-known politicians got their start here. And yet, this place is not at all developed; it’s not at all what it’s supposed to be. So I started organising for the ANC, because I thought these are the people who can make this better for people, but only if we make them to do it.

But we were still having so many problems with the crime. And when my own place got burgled in 2013, that was a real wake-up call for me. It wasn’t just my house either; so many people on my street were being robbed those days. And the police were always telling them the same thing as they told me—we can’t find these guys. They’re not in our system. They’re foreign. Sometimes someone would even interrupt a robbery and hear those guys speaking a different language—one that doesn’t come from South Africa. So that’s how we knew it too.

That’s when I decided we can’t rely on the police anymore to keep us safe. They aren’t coming fast enough, and they’re not finding these guys. We have to get a community patrol together. I organised all the leaders in my area and we made a plan. We would send out these volunteers in the night, walking door to door and keeping an eye out for these criminals. And then some of us stayed up at night and made them soup and toast and tea and kept an eye on them. Sometimes they’d come across the guys and chase them away. Sometimes they’d shoot at them; whatever they had to do.

But after some months, we had to stop those patrols. We just didn’t have the money anymore. That’s when I really started to feel so frustrated about what was happening here. These guys were coming here to do crime, neh, because they couldn’t get what they wanted from their own governments. But in actual fact, our government has to first look to its own citizens. Do you get my point? And we are still such a young democracy.

Our people are frustrated because there was this better life they were promised and instead the government keeps letting in foreign people, letting them have the jobs and the houses that we have all been waiting for.

Sometimes I would walk down the streets in Alex and look at all the shops owned by Pakistanis and Nigerians. I would see those Mozambicans running hair salons. And I just knew, they’re taking the money they make and sending it back home, while meanwhile there are South Africans all around them who are starving, who can’t find a single job that will take them. It’s a burden for us. It’s not an easy thing. It’s just not.

Still, my heart breaks sometimes for these people, the ones who just want a better life. There was a Mozambican man who used to sit on a corner not far from here, selling sweets and cigarettes. Every Sunday my mother and my granddaughter would walk past him on their way to church, and my granddaughter would say, ‘Please magogo, can I buy some sweets?’ And she would give her a rand or something for a Chappie.

But then in 2015, in April, I turned on the news one day and I was shocked. There were photos of this same man being stabbed by a group of tsotsis, right in the middle of the day, while people were watching. Right away, my granddaughter and my mother knew who it was. ‘That’s Sithole,’ my granddaughter said. Emmanuel Sithole [also known as Emmanuel Josias]. A man who had been staying here for so many years. A quiet man. He just sat quietly. He didn’t bother anyone. It made me so cold to think of this man dying in the street. So that was a criminal act. You can’t call it xenophobia if people kill a man like that. It’s just crime. They’re just hooligans taking advantage of the chaos.

Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot to myself. What can we do now? This problem has gotten so bad. People are killing their black brothers and sisters—Africans like us. But at the same time, there is a real burden for us, the ones who grew up struggling, the ones who are watching those people all around us still struggling. There are people living in Alex who have a historical background here, who want to live and die here because that’s what their families have always done. We cannot deny them this feeling, this wanting to belong in a place that is theirs.

It’s not easy to be a leader now, at a moment like this. In actual fact, it’s hard, really hard. It’s so complicated.


Praise for I Want to Go Home Forever

Like all excellent ideas the one that animates this book is both disarmingly simple and powerfully original. So much has been written on xenophobia in South Africa, and yet so few have listened with care and precision to the voices of the ordinary people at the coalface. This book unsettles so many old assumptions, like who is host and who visitor, who belongs and what indeed it might mean to belong at all. It does this simply by creating a space in which people bare witness to their lives.

—Jonny Steinberg, South African writer and scholar and author of A Man of Good Hope (2015)

These are raw, honest personal stories—some heartbreaking, some uplifting. Beautifully told, each story is a study of journey-making. No matter where we may have been born, each of us seeks a place where we will be safe and respected for who we are. The stories in this collection illustrate that no journey is easy—each act of leaving and each attempt to begin again is tough. At their core however, these stories grapple with the making of a nation. Taken together, these narratives illustrate the quest for dignity and so they tell the story of humanity and striving, and ambition in the midst of profound difficulty. This book speaks to South African and African concerns but at its heart, it documents a set of global phenomena that are important to anyone who cares about the state of the world today. 

—Sisonke Msimang, activist and author of Always Another Country

About the book

Generations of people from across Africa, Europe and Asia have turned metal from the depths of the earth into Africa’s wealthiest, most dynamic and most diverse urban centre, a mega-city where post-apartheid South Africa is being made. Yet for newcomers as well as locals, the golden possibilities of Gauteng are tinged with dangers and difficulties.

Chichi is a hairdresser from Nigeria who left for South Africa after a love affair went bad. Azam arrived from Pakistan with a modest wad of cash and a dream. Estiphanos trekked the continent escaping political persecution in Ethiopia, only to become the target of the May 2008 xenophobic attacks.

Nombuyiselo is the mother of 14-year-old Simphiwe Mahori, shot dead in 2015 by a Somalian shopkeeper in Snake Park, sparking a further wave of anti-foreigner violence. After fighting white oppression for decades, Ntombi has turned her anger towards African foreigners, who, she says are taking jobs away from South Africans and fuelling crime. Papi, a freedom fighter and activist in Katlehong, now dedicates his life to teaching the youth in his community that tolerance is the only way forward.

These are some of the thirteen stories that make up this collection. They are the stories of South Africans, some Gauteng-born, others from neighbouring provinces, striving to realise the promises of democracy. They are also the stories of newcomers from neighbouring countries and from as far afield as Pakistan and Rwanda, seeking a secure future in those very promises.

The narratives, collected by researchers, journalists and writers, reflect the many facets of South Africa’s post-apartheid decades. Taken together they give voice to the emotions and relations emanating from a paradoxical place of outrage and hope, violence and solidarity. They speak of intersections between people and their pasts, and of how, in the making of selves and the other they are also shaping South Africa. Underlying these accounts is a nostalgia for an imagined future that can never be realised. These are stories of forever seeking a place called ‘home’.

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