Afrophobia: Language does the dirty work

21 May 2019 | Story Carla Bernardo. Photo Brenton Geach. Read time >10 min.
PhD candidate Ivan Katsere’s research has seen him make rich findings on language as a means to discriminate against African immigrants.
PhD candidate Ivan Katsere’s research has seen him make rich findings on language as a means to discriminate against African immigrants.

While language has the capacity to engender great pride, it too often also “does the dirty work of boundary creation and maintenance”, setting the stage for Afrophobia.

That is the warning from University of Cape Town (UCT) PhD candidate Ivan Katsere, a lecturer in the Department of Psychology, whose research into the “politics of language” has alerted him to its potential to entrench a harmful “us and them” scenario.

His work is focused on African immigrant families in South Africa, examining how their identities are impacted as they move through informal spaces such as taxis and shops, as well as more formal spaces like hospitals and schools.

“Language … does the dirty work of boundary creation and maintenance,” said Katsere, quoting Nira Yuval-Davis, honorary director of the Research Centre on Migration, Refugees and Belonging at the University of East London, UK.

“And while there is a sense of pride in language, it has the ability to create an ‘us’ and ‘them’ [scenario].”

Katsere, who is Zimbabwean-born, began working with his focus group of black Zimbabwean families in 2016 while pursuing his master’s at the University of the Witwatersrand. These initial conversations highlighted the particular plight of women and children in terms of their vulnerability to Afrophobic violence, so he chose to spotlight them specifically.

He interacted with eight black African immigrant women, finally documenting the experiences of five of them and their children. His research spans Johannesburg and Cape Town, and concentrates on middle-class, multiracial communities.

Interestingly, as he investigated the role of children as language brokers for their Zimbabwean families, Katsere made the significant observation that children use language to protect and survive.

Marking identity

“Language brokering is them translating, mediating and intervening when their parents are occupying spaces in South Africa,” he explained.


“While there is a sense of pride in language, it has the ability to create an ‘us’ and ‘them’.”

Yet why is language brokering even necessary for Zimbabweans who, unlike other African immigrants, share a lingua franca – English – with South Africa?

Why do they struggle more than, for example, their Cameroonian counterparts who speak French, when it comes to navigating social spaces in this country?

This line of questioning led Katsere to answers that lay in issues of identity, the politics of language and how language leads to Afrophobic violence – physical or otherwise.

Initially, he believed the resistance from South Africans to black African immigrants speaking English was about the preservation of language. After all, English is widely regarded as the killer of indigenous languages.

But rather than the issue being about hearing the language, he suggested that it’s because “language is the easiest marker of identity”.

“When you open your mouth, I can instantly locate you. That is one of the most important qualities of language.”

Avenues for “othering” can happen in a simple greeting. When a South African greets a black African immigrant in isiXhosa, there is a lot happening at that moment, Katsere explained.

“It’s not only a ‘How are you doing?’. It’s packaged with where are you from, identify yourself, can we proceed further, can we open the gates to our community or do we have to close them?”

But it also occurs frequently in more serious situations. Interviewees told Katsere of incidents with the police and in public hospitals where language was a clear determinant of the treatment they received.

Problematic places

Public hospitals, in particular, emerged as a problematic space for black African immigrants.


“They are just trying to identify you as the ʻotherʼ, not to identify if you are legal or illegal.”

Three of the five women had had traumatic hospital experiences. One interviewee recalled being in labour and in need of medical assistance. She was ignored by the nurses who made it clear that this was because she spoke English. She was only helped when a sympathetic doctor stepped in.

The women all said they would no longer visit public hospitals, or at least not alone, for fear of further violence.

Similar unpleasant instances occurred with police, including the immigrants being asked for their permit or identification document and being questioned in isiZulu to expose their status.

“They are just trying to identify you as the ʻotherʼ, not to identify if you are legal or illegal,” said Katsere.

Taxis and taxi ranks are equally problematic.

Katsere’s own experiences have led him to avoid travelling by taxi “at all costs”. Should that be impossible, he refuses to answer his phone inside the taxi for fear of revealing his immigrant status.

For the children, Katsere found that schools can be particularly “cruel” places.

Some of the children admitted they did not identify as Zimbabwean for fear of attack. Other learners were the main perpetrators of violence, but teachers were complicit, rarely stepping in to assist the immigrant child.

They would be called names like Mugabe, AmaZimbabwe and makwerekwere.

“If you call someone Mugabe, you are not praising them. You are attaching all the bad connotations, the failures of Mugabe,” he said.

Negative connotations

Of interest to Katsere is the use of “AmaZimbabwe” as opposed to “AmaZimbabwean”.

He likened it to being called “African” rather than “Africa”. The former evokes pride, a connection to the land and to heritage. The latter is loaded with negative connotations and removes the labeller from the labelled.

Calling someone “AmaZimbabwe” connects the individual to “a failed political and social system, a system which is almost beyond repair”.

“It’s a place that is so dilapidated that no one even wants to be associated with it”.

His research also revealed that South Africans were using a similar tactic to that seen prior to and during the Rwandan genocide. Like the Hutus who had labelled Tutsis “cockroaches”, locals were using the term “rodents” to dehumanise black African immigrants.


“Like the Hutus who had labelled Tutsis ‘cockroaches’, locals were using the term ‘rodents’ to dehumanise black African immigrants.”

“And what do you do when a rodent comes into your house? You kill it,” he said.

Katsere found that media and politicians have a significant role to play in bridging the gap between prejudice and discrimination. What they say can reaffirm negative stereotypes about foreign nationals, prompting locals to act violently on their prejudices.

Examples include media referring to Zimbabweans entering South Africa as a “flock of immigrants” or focusing on stories of Nigerians only as drug lords, or when politicians suggest foreign nationals own too many shops.

Another important finding related to the children taking on adult responsibilities and acting as shields.

They were performing the role of the parent because their mothers and fathers needed their help to navigate social spaces. This included missing school to accompany parents to and through places known to be problematic, and answering questions from officials such as police because the parents were unfamiliar with local languages.

The children were multilingual, fluent in local languages, English and their native tongue.

At school, they also often took on the role of parent to other young foreigners, to protect them against being attacked for their nationality.

“But the thing that pushes them is survival... It is a skill that they have gained for survival,” said Katsere, adding that this survival was not only personal but also included their families, friends and immigrant peers.

He found that the children were not aware they were assuming this role. It was only through the interviews that this became apparent to them.

“They are doing a great service and they are actually the heroes of their families because they shield their families from these attacks.”

Patriarchy in the system

As Katsere fleshes out his PhD research, his focus is shifting to gendered violence.

“The lives of black African immigrant women are run by patriarchy,” he said.

In addition to navigating the politics of language, black African immigrant women contend with the patriarchy of their own culture as well as that of the space they’re in.

The female immigrant must conform to her native form of womanhood and then, as she is transitioning spaces to get to South Africa, change her identity.

Katsere is looking to answer several questions: “When do they change their identity? How do they change it and survive with those changes? What do they identify as womanhood? What do they identify as a home?”


“It is assumed that a woman should not work; she should just stay at home.”

If a man comes to South Africa, he pointed out, he can apply for a spousal permit. This allows the woman to enter and live in South Africa but does not allow her to work.

“That’s patriarchy in the system. It is assumed that a woman should not work; she should just stay at home.”

This leaves the female immigrants with few options; many turn to hairdressing even if they’re qualified to do something else. This in turn feeds negative stereotypes of immigrant women as being in South Africa illegally and taking advantage of the system.

Women travelling alone have to contend with other conceptions as well, often being accused of selling their bodies or abandoning their men.

“What is the perception we are creating of womanhood, especially of African womanhood? We are continually oppressing them wherever they are, particularly if they are transitional spaces,” Katsere charged.

“It’s very hard, to say the least.”

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.