The South African Art World Must Fight Back Against ‘Afrophobia’

With violence on the rise against Nigerians and other foreign nationals, artists are struggling to find ways to respond

On 13 September, visitors to FNB Art Joburg, the Johannesburg art fair, passed an empty booth, its walls painted with a blunt message: ‘Thanks, xenophobia’. A statement by Nigerian artist Sheila Chukwulozie, it was meant to stand in for two Lagos-based galleries, 16/16 and hFactor, that had pulled out from the fair at the last-minute, for fear of mounting violence against foreigners. But it also referred more broadly to the increase in xenophobic attacks across South Africa since April, when a Zimbabwean man, asleep in his truck outside the port of Durban, was petrol bombed. He sustained severe burns, and his asylum papers, driver’s license and passport were incinerated. ‘No foreigners on our trucks,’ a Malawian driver was told a month later during another armed attack on drivers, this time in the province of Mpumalanga. More than 200 people, mostly foreign truck drivers employed in South Africa, have been killed since March 2018 – a preamble to even greater horrors.

The 16/16 and hFactor booth at FNB Art Joburg. Courtesy: Stevenson Gallery

In August, Uyinene Mrwetyana, a 19-year-old university student, was raped and then bludgeoned to death by a postal employee while collecting a parcel from a Cape Town post office. Her body was later dumped in a neighbourhood ravaged by economic hardship and crime. Citizens raged. The country’s recently re-elected president, Cyril Ramaphosa, left a meeting of African leaders to address black-clad protestors gathered outside the country’s parliament. ‘I agree with you that enough is enough,’ he said. A 2016 World Health Organisation report on femicide ranked South Africa fourth in mortalities behind Honduras, Jamaica and Lesotho.

During the much-publicised search for Mrwetyana, a taxi driver in Pretoria was shot and killed in an altercation with an alleged drug dealer, said to be a Nigerian national. More than 12 people have died in reprisals against black African nationals and businesses involving similar incidents. Nigeria has since evacuated over 500 of its nationals in two coordinated airlifts. Protestors in Nigeria have targeted South African businesses.

A woman sings as she holds a banner during a civil society groups march against the recent rise of xenophobic attacks in South Africa, on September 14, 2019, in Johannesburgs Central Business District. Courtesy: Michele Spatari/AFP/Getty Images

A woman sings as she holds a banner during a civil society group’s march against the recent rise of xenophobic attacks in South Africa, on 14 September, 2019, in Johannesburg’s Central Business District. Courtesy: Michele Spatari/AFP/Getty Images

During the August attacks, Oby Ezekwesili, a prominent Nigerian economic advisor attending the World Economic Forum confab in Cape Town, characterised South Africa’s recurring anti-African pogroms – there have been two notable flare-ups, in 2008 and 2015 – as evidence of ‘afrophobia’, rather than xenophobia. Hers is not a new analysis. The African immigrant has long been an ambiguous cipher in South Africa. Ever since the fall of apartheid, writes Mozambican-born sociologist David M. Matsinhe in his 2011 essay ‘Africa’s Fear of Itself’, African migrants have been constructed and deployed in and through public discourse as the ‘nation’s bogeyman’.

However, South Africa’s disregard, and even hatred, of its continental neighbours predates the end of apartheid. This insight was central to curator Rory Bester’s important exhibition series ‘Kwerekwere: Journeys into Strangeness’ (2000–03). The exhibition series derived its title from an onomatopoeic slur used to describe African migrants. Bester cast his net widely, but his exhibition was most eloquent in showing how contemporary news photography reiterated colonial and apartheid tropes of otherness and black criminality that have shaped contemporary attitudes towards African migrants.

Zanele Muholi, Boitumelo Mnguni, KwaThema, Gauteng, 2017, silver gelatin print, 86.5 × 60.5cm. Courtesy: © Zanele Muholi, Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg, and Yancey Richardson, New York

Zanele Muholi, Boitumelo Mnguni, KwaThema, Gauteng, 2017, silver gelatin print, 86.5 × 60.5cm. Courtesy: © Zanele Muholi, Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg, and Yancey Richardson, New York

Individual artistic responses to South Africa’s epidemic of femicide and Afrophobia are numerous and varied. At Art Joburg, painter Lady Skollie, aka Laura Windvogel, presented a new suite of ink, watercolour and crayon works that included an untitled painting referencing the murder of Mrwetyana. ‘The South African government hates women,’ read a statement incorporated into her composition, which also featured the postal service’s logo. Shortly before the fair, as Johannesburg burned, photographer Zanele Muholi exhibited the latest instalment of ‘Faces and Phases’ (2006–ongoing), an evolving portrait archive of LGTBQI subjects, some now dead following brutal attacks, at Stevenson Gallery.

The crisis South Africa finds itself in won’t be solved by art alone. Artists are citizens first, bound by duties of care and hospitality, as demonstrated by a spontaneous 2011 action by Johannesburg artist Serge Alain Nitegeka. Nitegeka, a refugee from Burundi, delivered 100 wooden stools to asylum seekers queuing outside an immigration centre in Pretoria, near where the recent xenophobic outburst occurred. His direct action is a model of what is possible, and also an indictment of the stunned silence that has mostly greeted South Africa’s national shame.

Main image: Tushar Hathiramani and Sheila Chukwulozies statement at 16/16 and hFactor’s booth at FNB Art Joburg. Courtesy and photograph: Sean OToole

Sean O’Toole is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

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