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Video

You Look Illegal

A mediation on skin, violence, and the limits of citizenship in a country where black lives have long been brutally (mis)handled by Paula Ihozo Akugizibiwe.

Photo: Alfredo Jaar

On a sunny Cape Town morning in early 2008, I am enjoying my daily 10-minute stroll to work. I cross the street outside my apartment building and enter the Company’s Gardens, a sprawling park with lush foliage and a fountain, artwork and al fresco dining. It is almost picture perfect, except for the faded, rusting, birdshit-splattered statues of Jan Smuts and other colonial masters of the past casting ugly shadows over the present.

I exit the park at the top of Adderley Street, two blocks away from my office, and come across a small group of police officers surrounding two men. Based on their facial features and skin tone, an admitted stereotype, I assume that the men are Somali traders, many of whom run small businesses in the area. One of the officers is going through their wallets. The others guard the men, not that it is necessary, they keep their hands by their sides, their backs against the wall. The officer finds cash in one of their wallets, hardly a suspicious discovery, but waves it accusingly in their faces: “Where did you get this?”

Torn between the impulse to intervene and a sense of powerlessness, I glare at the police from a few meters away. One of them catches my side eye. He calls for me to stop, and two officers approach. They ask where I’m from and what I’m doing in South Africa, then demand to search my handbag. I want to challenge this extension of the harassment to which they were subjecting the two men, but I also want as little trouble as possible. I hand over my bag and glower in silence as they rifle through it. When they’re done, they speak among themselves then instruct me to follow them to a container in the Company’s Gardens. For a search, they say.

“But you’ve already searched me,” I protest.

“We’ve only searched your bag. We want to search you. Everywhere.”

I ask to know why. His response is vague, but like his leer, its meaning is crystal clear.

“You look illegal.”

–o–

As a woman of Ugandan and Rwandan heritage growing up in Southern Africa, my facial features and skin tone distinguished me on sight. Long before I knew what racism was, my earliest encounters with anti-blackness came from fellow Africans.

“Why are you so black?”

“It’s because she’s from the equator. There’s too much sun there.”

The first time I told my mother about the colour commentary from fellow schoolchildren in Swaziland, she discredited their intelligence so convincingly that I dismissed all future teasing with unflinching self-assuredness. The way I understood it, people who took issue with my complexion were, sadly for them, rather stupid. It was only after reading about the struggles of dark-skinned women around the world, over a decade later, that I began to grasp the depths of colourism and its roots in racism. But throughout childhood, I was unaware and unbothered.

I was similarly dismissive of the occasional calls of “Shangaan!” that would float into earshot in some public spaces in eSwatini, then known as Swaziland. Originally referring to people from neighboring Mozambique who had crossed the border to escape civil war, over time “Shangaan” had also become a label for anyone who looked too black, too other. I’m not Shangaan, I wanted to explain to them. I’m from the equator. When, a few years later, we moved to Botswana, a sparsely populated country that is one of the world’s largest producers of gem diamonds, I encountered a new label: makwerekwere. Unlike Shangaan, which I had brushed off as more of a misnomer than an insult, makwerekwere was specific in its intent to express contempt towards outsiders.

African outsiders, to be clear. Because that was also where, nearly four decades after Independence, the British national anthem was still played right after the Setswana one during assemblies at my “international” primary school. God save our gracious queen, we sang, as if the Queen had ever been ours, or her empire gracious. It was my first lesson about a pattern that I would come to recognize across the continent: the “higher” the class, the tighter the embrace of whiteness. I noted, and intuitively understood, that white people are never seen as makwerekwere. As has often been pointed out, what we term xenophobia in African countries is more accurately described as afrophobia—animosity specifically directed towards other Africans.

By the time I left Botswana for boarding school in South Africa at the age of eleven, I’d had enough experience with being othered by fellow Africans that the thought of moving to a country with a notorious history of racism did not disturb me. It had been less than three years since the day my mother kept my sister and I home from school so we could watch Nelson Mandela’s inauguration on TV. At that time, I was too young to grasp the full depth of what I was witnessing. Still, from her and our Ghanaian neighbour’s emotional responses on 27 April 1994, I could sense that this was a monumental moment for the entire continent, which had wholeheartedly thrown its weight behind the South African liberation struggle. Finally, blackness had triumphed over whiteness. Or so we thought.

Now, I was to be part of this self-declared Rainbow Nation.

–o–

Our boarding school in KwaZulu-Natal was built on a huge spread of land, more than it knew what to do with. Founded by Scottish missionaries in 1898, it still bore the name of their town of origin, but at least we did not sing God Save the Queen. Instead, we memorised the multilingual lyrics of the new South African anthem. An Afrikaans verse was carried over from the apartheid anthem, its awkwardness accentuated by the change of musical key required to transition into it after the opening stanzas in isiXhosa, isiZulu and Sesotho. The final verse offered a hopeful benediction in English: “Sounds the call to come together, and united we shall stand…”

All of our teachers, even the isiZulu teacher initially, were white, as were almost all of the students. A few weeks into my first term, we were assigned an essay for English literature class. Having been a bookworm throughout childhood, I was in my element. I submitted what I thought was good work, but did not get the grade I expected, or any grade at all. The teacher paused by my desk, a wrinkled Englishman whose thin lips curved downwards at the corners, giving the impression of a perpetual sneer. “See me after class.” 

According to him, my essay was not just good. It was too good, and he wanted to know from whom or where I copied it. My insistence that I wrote it aggravated him. “You’ll only make it worse for yourself if you don’t tell the truth,” he warned, supremely confident in the rightness of his wrong assessment. He was going to report me to the headmistress. I was in Very Big Trouble.

I called my mother, over one thousand kilometres away in Botswana.

“My English teacher thinks I’m too young to write properly,” I lamented. I was two years younger than most of my classmates and assumed this was the cause of his suspicion.

“No,” she was adamant. “He is a racist.”

I felt the heat of her fury steaming through the phone line and was mildly perplexed. This was not the racism I had seen on TV or in history books—black bodies crumpling under a storm of police batons, “whites only” signs. At the least, I expected racism to present with obvious hostility or contempt, not the genteel graveness with which my English teacher had insisted, “This is not your work.” My mother, however, could read between the lines. She spoke with the headmistress, and I promptly received my A+, along with a transfer to a different English teacher’s class.

Having survived my first direct confrontation with A Racist, I proceeded cheerfully with the rainbow nation mirage. Its cracks kept revealing themselves, not least in a curriculum that briskly described colonial massacres of Africans as just another battle, that summarised apartheid in dispassionate tones. Yet, on a personal level, I did not register much racism. Which is not to say that I didn’t experience it, just that my consciousness of its more subtle codes had not yet developed.

Meanwhile, repossessions of white-owned farms in Zimbabwe were underway. One Sunday evening before chapel, a student broke into sobs, cheeks red, chest shaking. Her family friends’ farm had been targeted the previous night. Later, in chapel we said a special prayer for the farmers of Zimbabwe. That they may be comforted, that they may have peace. My “Amen” was without reservation, no footnotes for God, I did not yet understand about these farms—not until a group of us were invited to spend the weekend at a white teammate’s family farm.

Stepping into their home, I was instantly uneasy. It felt like the colonial museums that we had visited for history class. The walls were adorned with hunting trophies, assorted animals staring through glass eyes as we sipped tea in an ornate parlour. They breathed a quiet violence into everything, or perhaps everything breathed the quiet violence made visible in those hanging heads. The supercilious tone in which our hosts addressed the only other black people in the house, women old enough to be my mother, who waited on us hand and foot. The framed photo of white boys dressed up as “Zulu impis” for a costume party. The books about the “natives” and the “Bantu”; the night drive through the farm.

At first, our hosts’ excitement about the night drive seemed unwarranted to me. I had seen farms before. But, oh, I had not seen farms like this. After what felt like an hour of bumping around in a 4×4 with our guides pointing out a surprising variety of animals, some of whose heads would no doubt end up on the wall one day, I asked if we were still on the farm. Oh, we were. Our host proudly announced its full area, drawing an impressed reaction from those who knew spatial metrics.

Although I did not yet understand the language of hectares and acres, I started to understand the unspoken prayer within the prayer that we had said in the chapel. A prayer for white farmers’ comfort and peace was also a prayer for the dispossessed to suppress their discomfort, to hold their peace. An Amen to the status quo.

The next day we headed to the communal beach. I didn’t see “whites only” signs, but I saw whites only, except for the “help” they had brought along. I avoided the water. The previous morning, at a deserted beach closer to the farm, my chest had closed down as soon as it met the sea. There were none of the warning symptoms that I associated with an impending asthma attack, just abrupt asphyxiation—though in retrospect the triggers are obvious, I was waist-deep in them, mounted heads and stolen acres crashing in the waves. Desperate for air, I gulped at the wind, but it stuck in my mouth. My teammates helped me back to shore, where my breath returned as casually as a gaslighting colonial, as if nothing had ever happened.

So, when we got to the whites-only beach, I stayed on the sand. While my schoolmates splashed in the surf and roared around on jet skis, I chatted with a Zulu woman who worked for another family there. She had many questions: Where are you from? What do your parents do? Why did you come to South Africa? Something about her tone made me feel like I should say sorry, but I wasn’t sure what for.

Back at school, my friends asked about the weekend. “It was weird,” I said.

–o–

Eight years later, I landed in Johannesburg the day after the Methodist Church raid.

By then I had spent nearly half of my life in South Africa: five years of secondary school followed by four years of university. I left after graduation, but less than two years later I was recruited by an international organisation and seconded to its office in Cape Town. Though I had not harbored a specific intention to return to South Africa, I had no aversion to it either. I had good friends there, good memories. It was not home, but it was as close to home as I had experienced in a nomadic life. It was familiar.

Shortly before midnight on Wednesday 30 January 2008, police stormed into Johannesburg’s Central Methodist Church, a haven for asylum seekers and homeless people. With batons, pepper spray and no warrant, they violently cleared out the people sheltering inside. According to reports issued after the incident, the police cited weapons, drugs and “illegal foreigners” as the reason for the raid. No weapons or drugs were reported, but hundreds of immigrants were arrested for lacking adequate documentation.

Some of them would be imprisoned for weeks while the legal system dragged its feet, until an urgent application was made to the High Court. Justice Roland Sutherland ruled in favour of the migrants, decrying the “grotesque obscenity” of the police raid and subsequent mishandling by the courts, which he likened to the actions of apartheid police against black South Africans:

The irony, a decade after democracy, is to witness in courts in our country such brutal, indifferent and, indeed, cruel treatment of human beings… It is hoped that by bringing the atrocity of this case to public attention the risk of it recurring might be minimized.

When I arrived in the country on 31 January, news of the raid was everywhere. I absorbed it from the safety of my hotel room. Those condemning the action kept using a word that would soon establish itself firmly in my vocabulary and experience, and a sense of foreboding wrapped around me. Xenophobia. Xenophobic. Xenophobes. Suddenly the country felt far from familiar, unfriendly, a fist poised to punch me back to where I came from. Yet, it was not the country that had changed, but me, finally stirring from the oblivion of privilege that had insulated my younger days.

At the hotel reception, disoriented and paranoid a few hours after arrival, I asked if it was safe for me to go to the shopping centre across the street. The afternoon was bright with sunlight, the street bustling with activity. The receptionist assured me that it was safe, but I could tell that he did not understand what I meant. I had to be more explicit: with everything going on, was it safe for me, a foreigner, to wander the streets outside the safe confines of this hotel? Now he got it, and laughed, assuring me that I had nothing to worry about.

“There is no problem for foreigners like you,” he said.

–o–

“You look illegal,” the police tell me, insisting that I follow them to the mysterious container in the Company’s Gardens so they can search me, everywhere. It is a couple of months after the Methodist Church raid, and xenophobia is trending. The South African civil society organisations with which I share office space have accused the police and Home Affairs department of fanning afrophobia. They are not wrong. Outraged by the suggestion of a strip search, I refuse to comply. The police give me an ultimatum: either we go to the container, or they will take me to the police station. The station is fine with me. I just need to make a phone call.

They don’t seize my phone or physically manhandle me as I saw them doing to the two men, of whom I have lost sight while distracted with my own wahala. The police can probably sense from my work attire, my demeanour, that I am not as vulnerable as their previous targets. Still, I provoked this power battle when I side-eyed them instead of minding my business, and they will not back down.

I make my call as we walk to the station, which is just a few minutes away. By the time I arrive, a lawyer is on the way. His boyfriend, who works in my office building, is already there and has alerted other colleagues. Soon, more than a dozen people have arrived at the station. They are not foreigners, unlike me. They speak loudly, without hesitation, demanding answers: Why are you holding her? What’s this about a container?

Taken aback, the officers order me to wait and disappear into the building. They do not come back. A few minutes later the chief of the station emerges, all smiles and handshakes, pre-empting our complaints with performative remorse. Such a shame, yes, such terrible conduct. Not acceptable, no, not acceptable at all. The officers will be reprimanded and re-trained. He apologizes profusely and sends us on our way.

There is no problem for foreigners like you. The hotel receptionist was not right, but not entirely wrong. I know what he meant about foreigners like me—foreigners with more privilege than the average black South African, with nice jobs and nice flats and lawyers a phone call away. The problem for foreigners like me? Is that we are still foreigners. But unlike some fellow Black immigrants, I will not often have to deal with this problem—and when I do, it will likely be resolved quickly and without bodily harm—because foreigners like me have resources that make it easier to survive in a country where black lives have long been brutally (mis)handled.

–o–

A few weeks after my run-in with police, civilian violence against African immigrants erupts in Johannesburg. It is largely limited to townships and informal settlements: areas to which black South Africans were displaced during apartheid, and where the deprivation of that time continues to this day. Over several weeks of explosive attacks, African immigrants living in these areas become scapegoats for citizens’ frustration with their socio-economic circumstances. Dozens are killed, thousands displaced.

As ghastly images of the mob violence in Jo’burg fill our screens, the South African Human Rights Commission convenes ad-hoc committees in Cape Town to develop a contingency plan in case similar violence breaks out this side. The organisation I work for is invited to participate. In the Commission’s offices overlooking the street where the police accosted me, I sit with representatives of the police and other groups, discussing hypotheticals and sketching out tactics over snack platters, cradling steamy beverages to keep warm. It is May. Winter is coming.

The violence in Cape Town begins on a Friday. The official response does not. As thousands flee, finding themselves literally out in the cold, the City’s institutions ignore the carefully crafted contingency plan and remain aloof throughout the weekend. Civil society organisations leap into action, supported by donations from the broader Cape Town community. When I arrive at the office on Saturday morning, the usually quiet room that I share with two colleagues is a hub of frenetic activity. For the next few weeks, it will host central operations for a spontaneous humanitarian response.  

Initially the displaced immigrants, who are estimated to number more than 20,000, are placed in scattered shelters offered by concerned citizens: mosques, churches, community halls. As the City of Cape Town’s response reluctantly grinds into motion, they are moved out of these shelters and consolidated into a few large camps. The CSOs scale back operations, assuming a more intermediary role. I am tasked with monitoring health needs in the camps and coordinating with the City’s health department to deliver the appropriate medical services.

It is a frustrating task. The under-resourced public health system, already overwhelmed with citizens’ unmet needs, is hardly enthusiastic about straining itself further with the needs of foreigners—some of whom, the City keeps hinting, are surely “illegal”. Various organisations try to bridge the gap for the most urgent cases—rushing women in labour to hospital and providing emergency supplies of ARVs—but their capacity is far exceeded by the needs.

Winter has come, all howling wind and lashing rain. One camp on the outskirts of Cape Town, located beside a beach, is exposed to the harshest impact of the elements. They are phoning with increasing frequency and urgency. The doctors haven’t come. The nurse came, but brought no medicines. The children have diarrhoea. Eventually, I organise for a group of private doctors and final-year student medics, who have volunteered their time, to spend a day at the camp providing free medical care.

After getting permission from the relevant authority, we head there on a Saturday morning. The officials at the gate deny us entry. We explain that the doctors have brought their own supplies, and only need space inside to set up. They flatly refuse, insisting that they know nothing about this visit. We attempt to contact the higher-up who had given permission. Their phone is off. Nobody says the word makwerekwere, but it hangs heavy in the gloom. Getting the message, we decide to set up clinic outside the camp gates, using the minibus in which we travelled as an examination room.

As though in on some hostile conspiracy, the sky that has been pregnant with clouds chooses this moment to break water. Even after the violence of the preceding weeks that led us here, I find myself astonished by the stoniness of camp officials, all fellow Africans, who watch from the shelter of their office as parents are forced to bring their sick children out into the rain. They line up for care, coughing and shivering in the chill. These are innocent children, but first, they are guilty of being foreigners.

–o–

The unsettling contradiction of my class privilege soaks in as I contemplate the officials’ impassive stance. I know that they, too, might struggle to access healthcare, and never have a minibus full of doctors arriving in their neighbourhood to offer free care. Structural violence claims its own casualties daily, only without headlines. Were a divine side-eye to sweep this scene, I—the do-gooder who will later retreat to my comfortable flat to drown my discomfort in Pinotage—would not be exempt from its judgement. Even my introspection is itself an aspect of privilege, a self-indulgence in the middle of the storm, and I find myself tired of myself, of everything.

Yet, this same privilege instils the certainty with which I assure my family in Uganda and Rwanda that there is no need to worry about my safety. “Let me get you a ticket,” my father urges. “Just abandon that place.” I try to convince him that there will be no attacks in the part of town where I live and work, but he is sceptical. All he sees in the news is violent anarchy, not the invisible walls that keep it contained, not the imperviousness of whiteness.

I know that even if angry hordes decided to descend on these neighbourhoods dominated by settlers with generational wealth—to tell them that they, too, should go back to where they came from—they would be shut down so rapidly, so ruthlessly, that it would leave us all breathless. There is no problem for foreigners like you. The hotel receptionist was more right than wrong, because proximity to whiteness offers protections. Unless what you need protection from is whiteness itself.

–o–

Sometime later, after winter has passed, after the afrophobic violence has died down (or as we will come to see, merely taken the first of its periodic naps) I move to a street on which my housemate and I are the only black residents.

The neighbour to our left calls the police on us more often than we can count. He informs them, with the confidence of a prosecutor backed by indisputable evidence, that I am a Nigerian sex worker and my housemate is a drug dealer. Eventually one officer, who has responded enough times to decide that we are harmless but clueless, offers what he considers helpful advice: either move to a different part of town, or learn to be seen but not heard.

Meanwhile, our neighbour’s rants escalate in volume and virulence. “I’ll send you back to where you came from!” he yells from his balcony. He is from Turkey. It makes sense that he would not see the irony in making such a threat—or would not care. After all, generations of Europeans before him have successfully evicted Africans from African soil.

The geriatric woman across the street spends most of the time gazing out of her window. Her blank stare scrunches into a scowl every time she sees us, and she occasionally shuffles outside to hurl abuse. “You disgust me!” she screeches unprovoked as we leave for work one Monday morning. “You’re disgusting!” I am rattled, but the friend I am with, a black South African man who has seen more than I can imagine, makes a point of laughing in her face.

In a post office queue at the nearby shopping centre, an elderly white man tries to cut past me with the type of brushing motion that one would use to clear a stray branch from their path. I refuse to move. He grabs my shoulders to steer me aside—“Move, girlie!” I plant my feet firmer, and he gives up, but explodes upon crossing paths with me in the supermarket a few minutes later: “Bitch!” he snarls. 

I am invited to give a seminar at the University of Cape Town, where a senior professor berates my views then loses his temper when I push back. “I will take you on!” he yells, rising to his feet, red in the face. His colleagues watch in silence, including the two white women who had asked me to present. As soon as I have left, they send an email expressing their outrage, eager for me to understand that they are allies—but only in private.

When I tell a lawyer friend about these and other incidents, she urges me to report them. I cannot muster the energy. My experiences feel trivial compared to the harsher manifestations of racial violence that others are grappling with. In any case, it is difficult to have faith in a law enforcement system that, over the years, has delivered more harassment than protection.

Landing at Cape Town airport one morning, I am called aside after baggage claim by two black policemen. They take me to a private room for questioning about my status in the country, then go through my suitcase. When they find my underwear, they slow down as they pick through it, pointedly dangling each item between thumb and index finger. Afterwards they heap the disordered contents back into my suitcase and force it shut, breaking the zip.

It is a deliberate psychological affront, and although they have not touched me, I feel violated. I go straight to the police station and lodge a formal complaint with their supervisor. Several weeks later, I receive a letter of apology. It does not ease the new dread that grips me whenever I go through the airport.

Someone asks me: “As a Black non-South African woman, which do you think is worse – racism, xenophobia or sexism?” I just shake my head. It feels like the old trick question: which is heavier, a kilogram of feathers or a kilogram of stones? They are all heavy, their roots tangled in historical anti-blackness.

Until 1994, most Black South Africans were technically foreigners in their own country, explains Panashe Chigumadzi in an essay for The Guardian. They were classified as citizens of the marginalised “homelands” or “Bantustans” to which the apartheid government had resettled them. Post-apartheid, she points out, justice continues to elude the black majority: “A black-led government presides over an economy that is white-dominated, and which frequently ranks among the most unequal in the world.”

Visiting the Cape winelands, I am reminded of my schoolmate’s family farm, its endless fields tilled by black workers from whose ancestors that land was violently stolen. I can finally understand the subtext in the questioning I received that morning at the whites-only beach. Why did you come to South Africa? – What are you doing here, claiming spaces that we are yet to reclaim ourselves? I can grasp how history’s ugly shadows have sharpened the struggle for resources, for survival, into cruel afrophobic blades. I understand the transference of engrained violence onto the most vulnerable, the misdirected rage.

It doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.

All my encounters with racism and xenophobia blur into a murky cloud that saps my energy. I know it’s not that bad, for foreigners like me. My privilege cushions me. I enjoy a more comfortable life than most. Some of my best friends are South African. My good experiences outnumber the bad. So, why am I so tired?

It will take me years, and a radical change of environment, to fully process this mental and spiritual toll. At the time, all I know is that my blackness is not welcome here.

I quit the job that I have come to understand as a playground for white privilege and leave the country. My Master’s degree is left hanging, dissertation having been on hold for 18 months since Home Affairs renewed my work permit, but not the student authorisation linked to it, making it illegal for me to continue my studies. After a year’s hiatus, I return to tie up unfinished business.

Unlike my earlier years in Cape Town, no particular incidents mar my final year in this city built on graveyards. I take up residence in my former neighbourhood, but on a different block, and my new neighbours leave me alone. There are no run-ins with police, no outbreaks of afrophobic violence in the news. Still, my spirit feels more ill at ease than ever. One night my sleep is punctured by what sounds like screams mangled with clashing metal. I leave my bed and go to the balcony to see what is happening.

Nothing is happening but the usual. On the other side of the well-lit street below, perfectly manicured grass curves around the seaside promenade that stretches from Bantry Bay to the Waterfront. During the day, the promenade is filled with people walking their dogs, jogging, playing games on the grass, relaxing. A certain kind of people, that is. Several years later, a black South African woman will be arrested while she takes selfies on the promenade on a Sunday morning. She will miss her job interview at a nearby hotel, instead spending the night in a holding cell on baseless suspicions of criminal activity. You look illegal.

In the middle of this night, screams echoing in my ears, there is nobody in sight. Behind the promenade, the Atlantic Ocean smashes into rocks, a timeless witness to battles whose unsettled dust still clogs our airways and clouds our vision. If these waves could talk, we might drown in their words. Robben Island floats in the distance, invisible in the dark. All my neighbours seem to be sleeping. The war-like sounds that have woken me fade into the hush of 3am, and I wonder if I am dreaming or just going mad.


You Look Illegal forms part of the Chimurenganyana Series, a pavement literature project consisting of serialized monographs expanding on themes developed in Chimurenga’s periodicals.

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