Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Xenophobia at home

In the aftermath of the violent attacks on foreigners in Gauteng, a domestic confrontation reminded me how easily the seeds for such violence are sown. And more important perhaps, how this kind of pogrom takes on a life of its own and spreads through imitation beyond control.

On a sunday night, Silas, the security guard who lives on the property next to my cottage, and which he also guards, came to see me and said how upset he was about the domestic worker, Precious, who looks after the main house and also after my cottage.

He said that she was untrustworthy, and that it was now too much, it was either him or her, one had to go. While he was working hard to secure the premises, she was having friends over at the main house, eating and drinking. Further, she was not respecting him, she was rude to him and she was not doing her job properly. And finally, she may be planning to poison him for she let his meat go rotten by deliberately putting it in a fridge that was not working.

I thought that this was quite a tall order and said that I was confident a way could be found to resolve the issue in a satisfactory way for both.

He then said that I could not quite understand for I was white. She was Zimbabwean and she would be capable of killing him, of poisoning him. While he would always be able to sort out an issue with a white man like me, with a black woman from Zimbabwe, it was another story. No middle ground could be found, it was about life and death.

Silas was from the Eastern Cape, leaving two young children behind while seeking a living in Johannesburg. His wife was with him, working as a domestic. He is trying to improve his employment situation by getting a driver's licence and seeking better paid work.

He is, as Deon Du Plessis, the editor of the Daily Sun, writes, the typical blue collar South African worker, trying to improve his lot, through saving and seeking opportunities in a harsh environment and there is not much sympathy for others, from other countries, in similar positions.

Precious had left her children in Bulawayo, and worked in Johannesburg as a domestic to support her three children and her family in Zimbabwe. She is articulate and writes well - she was cooking in the house because she was learning how to cook. Her employer trains her because he wants her also to cook for him.

In the final analysis, what triggered Silas' ire was that an apparent outsider appeared to move ahead and over him, over what he was entitled to: a better life. And, in a climate of fear and hatred of foreigners, it was easy to adopt a xenophobic discourse. Envy and jealousy came into the open.

Precious seemed to enjoy a better relationship with her white employer: she would be trained by him and had access to the entire house. She seemed comfortable in the presence of her white employer(s) while he was struggling to find a way to relate to and confer with them.

In the small space of the setting of my home was the tragedy that had gripped the country over the last few months.


Kevin Murray said...

Thanks for the story. This kind of observation is worth a hundred sensationalist photographs or catch phrases. It would be interesting to learn how you deal with this situation and what the perspective of Precious is.

Thomas Blaser said...

Thank Kevin, for your generous comment. As often, it is easier to write about these things than to actually act on it. It seems to me that Precious has quite a well-established network of support, including her past and present employers. I try to do things with Silas that benefit him - it is, after all, his feeling left behind that motivates his xenophobia.