Marinda Van Zyl

Words & photos:

Published on 29 April 2015

Who is the Foreigner?

I wonder if you will see what I see when you look at these photos? Will you see people who have genuine friendships and who love spending time together? Or will you see one person who stands out, who is unwelcome, who doesn't belong? In the light of the recent spate of xenophobic attacks, I wondered if I could find South Africans who have close friendships with foreigners who live here, and what their stories could tell us. We approached strangers in Braamfontein and asked them if they're South African or foreign. Many of them reacted with genuine fear, so much so that we changed our opening question to put them at ease.

When we explained that we were doing a photo shoot to highlight the issue of xenophobia, everyone we approached opened up to us and shared their stories with us. We encountered warm people with a genuine love for our country. I found that love transcends borders and bridges gaps between cultures. When you read these stories, you often won't be able to tell who the foreigner is, and that's precisely the point. We're all human, we all have hopes and dreams of a better future, and there is hope for our country if we embrace love.

Bronwyn & Odellia:

When you meet Bronwyn and Odellia, it's easy to tell that there's a genuine mutual liking. At ease with each other, the banter flows naturally. Odellia is a student at Wits. She met Bronwyn playing basketball, and the friendship grew from there. Pointing out the cultural diversity, Odellia says that, even though she likes it, she also finds it difficult to deal with. South Africans easily take offence when you're not able to speak their language, and she's been shouted at many times because of this. Slowly she has learned to understand, even though she probably won't be able to identify the language being spoken.

"We've lived totally different lives, but we understand each other. If she doesn't sleep, I don't sleep. It's like we're in sync" says Odellia. Having lived in the United States for the past ten years, Bronwyn feels that her perspective has changed. She likens it to South Africans thinking in boxes, and her time abroad has given her a broader outlook on the world. Finally, she says that she has a lot of faith that we will get through this as a country. 

Nicolas and his friends:

Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nicolas has been in South Africa for 14 years. He is here to study, and emphasises that he's not in the country to steal anyone's job. Whether he stays or goes back will depend on what happens in future. "I want to learn from everybody, I love people from every culture" says Nicolas. 

Staying in character, the hip-hop duo kept their masks on throughout the interview. They were performing at a hip-hop event at Newtown Park later that afternoon. "My South African friends are like family to me. Even though the xenophobic attacks are happening, they accept me and don't feel the same way" says Nicolas.

Kgotso and his friend:

Half South African and half Congolese, Kgotso feels that people are being judged because of their heritage, despite the fact that we're all from Africa. Even though he feels like a South African, he feels victimised by the recent spate of attacks. "I know I just have to ignore these people. It's just a portion of people, not everyone" he says. Talking about their friendship,

Kgotso says he recently moved to Braamfontein, and his friend is the only one who is looking out for him. His friend weighs in "He is my best friend. He makes my day every time. He's so random, it's always good to spend time with him". On their way, Kgotso tells us that he loves talking and his friend is a good listener. That sounds like a winning combination to me.

Axel's parents came to South Africa when he was three years old. Within his circle of friends, he is seen and accepted as South African. His home language is French "but I can hold my own when I need to speak vernac" he says. Axel joined the soccer team at the Wits where he's studying Civil Engineering, and that's how he met these friends. He loves the country's diversity, despite different cultures having different issues. He feels that the xenophobic attacks are perpetrated by a group of uneducated, ignorant people. Family from abroad keep phoning to make sure they're ok. "It's not as bad as it looks from the outside. I haven't experienced it myself, I haven't physically seen it" says Axel. He believes a group of lazy, unemployed people are worsening the situation for everyone.

Axel, PS and Phemelo:

He has many friends from different cultures. His parents lived in France, and when they moved here, his mom brought him up to communicate easily with people from different races and backgrounds. He adds that even among his South African friends, there are Muslims, Afrikaans people, and many others. "If you're born in South Africa, you're South African. If you've been living in South Africa, you're South African" says his friend PS. He fears that the attacks are giving the country a poor image.  Phemelo agrees, saying "We as South Africans should change our mentality and accept our foreign brothers and sisters so that we can unite and stop this violence".

Jessy and Luleka:

From Cameroon, Jessy has been in South Africa for eight years. She has a home here and in Cameroon, and travels back and forth frequently. Jessy was looking for an employee, and a mutual friend put her in touch with Luleka. Even though their working relationship is relatively new, they've built a good friendship in a short time. Luleka doesn't like talking about the xenophobic attacks. Jessy says that thugs look for the weakest link, and take advantage of that, venting their anger. "They use it to settle scores with whichever foreigner they have issues with" she says.

She loves almost everything about South Africa but is freaked out by the violence. "I don't have a problem being told foreigners are not wanted, but you don't have to kill us to tell us this. You can steal from me, but don't kill me, don't shoot me, don't stab me; just take the phone and go" she says. She raises the point that the South African government hasn't reacted fast enough, and she feels they took their time to see how many people would be killed before stepping in.

Khululekani is Zimbabwean and moved to the country with his parents five years ago. He's studying BSC Molecular Science and met his friends at university. He says South Africa is a good country. One of his friends said that he's one of them, and they've got his back. "He has the ability to make me laugh when I'm sad," the friend said.

Khululekani and his friends:

Christelle and Tsolofelo:

Christelle owns a hair salon in town. They met when she started doing Tsolofelo's hair in 2012, and they've been friends ever since. Christelle introduced Tsolofelo to the Braamfontein area. She now has her own business, crediting Christelle for motivating her to take the plunge.  "If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't be here", Tsolofelo says.

She loves the country and its beautiful people. She moved here from Cameroon five years ago. Making her own money, she has a family and is expecting another baby, so she has decided to stay. She feels that Christelle has encouraged her in many ways, and adds "I even have a boyfriend from Congo because of her". 

Ivin and Thumeka:

Originally from Cameroon, Ivin has been in South Africa for three years, having studied accounting when he first arrived. He's planning on staying. He loves the beautiful South African girls and adds that South Africa is a beautiful place. "I know people think South Africans aren't very friendly, I think it just depends on where you come from. In my country, not everyone is friendly", he says. Ivin met Thumeka through his flatmate.

She believes the world has a perception that all South Africans are xenophobic when, in fact, it's the minority. She feels it's being driven by crime, not by any particular social predicament. She adds "You must also look at the targets. If you go to town, they're attacking Somalians because many of them own businesses, and it gives them a platform to steal".