A Man of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg is the kind of book that all South Africans need to read. It is a story about the odyssey of one man, Asad, who joins thousands of Somali migrants in their diaspora to the south in search of a better life. It is a story about hardship and survival, and reading it gives one a glimpse of what it is like to be an African migrant on South African soil.
A few weeks ago in Cape Town, three Somali shopkeepers were murdered just minutes after one another in the heart of Khayelitsha. A 27-year old man was shot at 21.45. Five minutes later, at 21.50, a 22-year old man was killed inside his shop, and around the same time, a 28-year old man nearby was shot dead, too.
22 years old. That is practically my age. For many, this will bring back memories of the 2008 xenophobic attacks, when men were burned alive on the streets and the violence seemed to sweep through the nation like wildfire. We saw it again in 2015, when the image of Emmanuel Sithole being stabbed in public made the front pages.
What kind of barbaric behaviour is this? I am South African. I am also African. To see my own people acting out in such violent hate only brings me shame. The xenophobia in South Africa is about more than just a confrontation with strangers who come here with their own languages, cultures and values. There is a jealousy that runs deep in the heart of some people – umona is the Xhosa word for it. It is the kind of jealousy that cannot stand to see people enter your community with absolutely nothing and prosper before your eyes. It is the kind of jealousy that is nurtured over time in the dark and hidden places of your mind, poked and prodded every now and again with a quiet comment, a glance, or a slight feeling – subtle enough for you not to know that it is there, yet severe enough for it to embed itself into your subconscious. It feeds on lies and assumptions, distortions of the truth that are convenient for you to digest. Before you know it, this cognitive illusion has coaxed you into believing that what they now have once belonged to you.
In an apt image, Asad captures the mindset of many South Africans. An incident happens – one which Asad and anyone like him must almost expect to experience. The community has just witnessed him and his friend being assaulted on the cement floor of their little spaza shop. They are lying there bleeding while these men kick their faces, and their regular customers simply stand and look on. Then one of the robbers tells these idle customers that they should take whatever they want. They step casually over the bruised and battered bodies of the two Somalis and start helping themselves to bags of mielie meal, frozen chicken and cigarettes. The next day, this is what Asad says to one of the women as she steps up to the counter as if she had not stepped over his bloodied body the previous day: “You are abris, a kind of snake. Abris has two mouths, one in the head, the other in the tail. It bites you when you think there is no danger.”
Steinberg writes, “He felt a surge of hatred … for every single South African with black skin. They were something less than human. He did not know much of the history of southern Africa, but he guessed that for generation upon generation, their ancestors had been slaves. Their masters had beaten them into a new shape, a subhuman shape. They had become submissive, treacherous slave-beings, beings without self-worth, without honour. And then the whites had come and made them slaves again. Now they had been freed, but such beings could not handle freedom.”
To see one’s country through the eyes of a foreigner is a strange experience.
Steinberg goes deeper, however, than merely retelling the story of one man. He provides his own commentary for the 2008 xenophobic violence, drawing parallels between apartheid’s categorisation of people and the thinking that now clouds the minds of mainly, poor, black South Africans. Very poignantly, he points out that foreigners and South Africans living in South Africa’s townships enjoyed a far more harmonious existence for much of the 20th century than they do now. Back then, it hardly mattered where you came from; everyone was black, and so suffered equally at the hands of the oppressive white government. But with freedom came rights and entitlement. Citizenship bestows a sense of birthright and belonging; but it also pronounces judgement upon those who do not belong. Gone is the solidarity amongst Africans, and in its place, there exists a toxic reincarnation of the cruel treatment of “the other” that South Africans themselves suffered for centuries.
At the end of the book, one is left in wonder at how Steinburg actually wove this story together. To write so insightfully about the deep physical, mental and emotional experiences of another is one thing, but to do so knowing that it exposes him and leaves him vulnerable is another. Towards the end of the book, Steinberg observes, “Seeing his life in this way is breaking his heart … He is afraid to read further, lest the lost boy on the page creep inside him and install himself forever.” One senses that Steinberg gradually begins to wrap up the book because his muse is slowly detaching himself from the task for the sake of his own sanity.
One of the final passages strikes me particularly; “I think of Asad … staring at the space where his shop once stood. The walls are gone; only the concrete floor remains. He gasps when he takes this in. Around him is evidence of a will to obliterate him, to scorch him and burn him until he no longer has a presence on this earth.”
Words cannot describe what these people go through on a daily basis. The absolute lack of humanity with which foreigners are treated in this country is horrific. Although Asad’s story is recounted by Steinberg, as I read it, I too begin to feel the fear spill over into me. It is a strange feeling – a slow, creeping, cold realisation that the words before you are real descriptions of real experiences. And these are experiences of not just one or two people, but of hundreds, thousands of people. Neither is each individual targeted merely once or twice. There is a ceaseless threat, a never-ending menace that haunts them every waking minute of their lives. Can you imagine how it must feel to know that there is “a will to obliterate you, to scorch you and to burn you until you no longer have a presence on this earth”?
For me, this book was a shaking experience. It ripped off the veil of ignorance and privilege through which I so often comfortably view my surroundings, and shoved into my face the stark reality of the society in which I live: it is violent, it is unjust, and it is cruel. Never, for a second, must I think that because I do not experience these things, they are not there. They are, but the people who experience them tend to be the most vulnerable. And so the rest of us go on about our lives in a comfortable oblivion that allows us to shake our heads at the 7pm news, yet never get close enough to feel that this is our problem too.
A Man of Good Hope is the kind of book that will transform your perspective of our country and your place in it. If you are privileged enough to be the kind of person who has access to a book, to sit down in a comfortable space, in your own time, and to drink in the experiences of others as a leisure activity, then you are left evaluating your own life – measuring it up against the lives of people like Asad, Hassan, Kaafi, Uncle Abdicuur, Foosiya, Sadicya, and millions of others.
Suddenly, the roof over your head seems special. You are grateful that you had the freedom to go for a jog this afternoon. You open the tap and marvel that clean water comes out. You look at your family playing board games – board games! – in the evening light and think how ridiculously, scandalously, disgustingly kind the universe has been to you. All hardships and difficulties that ever blighted the course of your existence now fade into complete oblivion. Suddenly you think, “By what fate did I end up in this body, in this life?”
You cannot answer this question. And so your resolve is found only in the thought that “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”