“I’m a foreigner, and I’m afraid”

The reality is this: foreign students feel uncomfortable.The question is why, and what it means for where they position themselves amid all this talk of “transformation” at Rhodes University.

Zimbabwean brothers Ashraf* and Bhanir* moved to South Africa to study. Ashraf decided to do Law and Journalism at Rhodes University, and his brother went to the University of Cape Town (UCT). Lately, they’ve been speaking to each other almost every day, but this time it isn’t because they’re homesick.

Recent events regarding transformation have left Ashraf fearing that should “Rhodes” fall, they will go down with him, and be buried beneath the rubble. Over Skype, he begs his brother: “Please, say you’re from Durban, or Johannesburg. Just do not tell them you’re from Zimbabwe.”

This extends to how many foreign students at Rhodes University feel. Seeing one fist raised, uniting a country towards transformation, while the other struggles to force down the lid on a simmering xenophobia, it’s no surprise that many of them are at a loss for what to do, and how to help. And this is only the start.

xenoA few months ago, the transformative movement around #RhodesMustFall and #RhodesSoWhite integrated all students, including foreigners. As opinions spread and intensified, the open-arms quickly became plagued by divisive xenophobic attacks, causing international students to no longer feel welcomed into the discussions.

As a result of hype such as the radical protest-posters around campus, they took a step back from social media platforms and the public eye. They were only ever shot-down point-blanc for having varying opinions, and didn’t know where – or whether – they were wanted anymore.

Ashraf remembers seeing – for the first time – the abrasive side to people on campus, and can recall posting an innocent Facebook status and returning to a mob of pitchforks waiting in his notifications. Naturally, foreign students’ survival instincts kicked-in. This explicit unwillingness from their South African peers to engage with opinions, left foreign students fearing the loss of their student visas. More than their studies, seeing “necklacing” in other parts of the country meant they felt a very real danger in being publically labelled a foreigner.

The melting-pot of nationalities on campus means Rhodes University has a real fighting- chance for the upper-hand in transformation discourse. In theory, it should be the fore-runner in times like these, surpassing the rest of the country with its collective open-mind. Yet, international students still find they are not being taken seriously, or given any opportunity to openly express their experience and education.

And this is why. Laura* arrived from America in February. As a white, “Westernised” female, she has constantly felt implicit criticism towards her race, nationality, and gender. “If I have any place in these issues at all,” she says, “it’s that I’m of European descent, and it’s ‘my fault.’ I am made to feel guilty for being born somewhere else.” Laura feels uncomfortable in the current environment because the line between passion and aggression has been dangerously blurred beyond recognition.

This unpredictability of emotion is crucial to understanding why international students feel such an immense pressure. The xenophobic attacks in Kwazulu-Natal and Gauteng earlier this year meant that their nationality became a threat to their safety – simply living in South Africa risked attack. Thus, students would rather not say a word.

Zimbabwean-born Tauya*, however, doesn’t think speaking-up would make any real difference. She came to South Africa after high-school and was immediately confronted with the perception that Zimbabweans naturally despise “whites.” Since then, she has had to deal with stigmas attached to foreigners on a daily basis, and now she’s given-up.

She has lived here for seven years, but grew-up with race-related land reform. She knows first-hand what consequences follow radical transformation policies, and truly fears for South Africa – what she considers “her home-away-from-home”.As one of many students who feel the same, she struggles to watch this country suffer. Tauya glances at people walking past, and knows something they don’t: “I see the signs, just like Zimbabwe. Soon, power-cuts will become job-cuts,” and she wants South Africa to hear her out.

Foreigners have invaluable perspectives, gained through having lived in different countries. Where immense pride clouds the majority of South Africa’s judgement, foreigners on campus could combine their international perspectives with their South African education to help solve some of the issues. Be it the American civil rights movement or Zimbabwe’s land reform policies, South Africa need only look to its left and right to learn from other histories.

The current focus on erasing all foreign history, however, makes this far easier said than done. Genevieve* is South African, but grew-up in Brooklyn, New York. Her ninth grade was a United Nations school, where no nationality was represented twice. She was conditioned to be blind to race and see the world in diversity. “South Africans always want more from other people,” she says, as her fingers search for something to trace, “but it needs to come from themselves. They need to stop blaming others.”

Similarly, Zambia embraces different nationalities because their education system lacks international input. Gloria’s* Zambian up-bringing has opened her mind to an appreciation for educational diversity, and as a Zambian she is in complete opposition to divisive movements. She can’t understand why South Africans don’t thrive for knowledge and pride themselves in the privilege of being at university.

Living off-campus, Gloria constantly looks over her shoulder on her way home. She doesn’t risk getting involved because she doesn’t want to imagine not reaching her front door. “Besides, I honestly don’t think they’d listen.” She stops there, and her voice will stay silent. Once she’s achieved her degree, she’ll go back to Zambia. She thinks South Africa is “looking for scapegoats” and is simply too scared that her voice might be next.xeno2

As Rhodes University continues pressing towards transformation, the inclusion of international students becomes ever more pertinent, as does the education against a mob- mentality. However, in lieu of the recent xenophobic attacks, foreigners are placed under an increasing discomfort that only serves to push them further away. The focus should be on a more united student body, and will hopefully remain a primary goal for Rhodes University, and South Africa.

Nevertheless, here they are, finally: the voices of those who speak another nationality, in the safety of anonymity. This is what they want to say, but are too afraid to. It is time Rhodes University listened to the world, because it lives just across the corridor, eats in the same dining hall, and sits next to you in lectures.

“Be vulnerable with each other. It’s OK to be weak together, because you grow strong together too.” – Ashraf

“Your pride gets in the way of your unity. Please don’t always be so quick to judge, because difference can be healthy.” – Genevieve

“Focus on shifting mind-sets and education as a whole. I have hope. I really do.” – Laura

“I feel guilty for not doing more, but I also feel like I’m not allowed to. Please stop fighting your neighbours. Stop fighting with us.” – Tauya

“I can’t be as open as I’d like to. Dear South Africa, Dear Rhodes: We’re scared. We’re genuinely afraid.” – Gloria

*Not actual names.

Jomiro Eming is currently studying towards his bachelor of journalism degree, and hopes to be able to one day blend his passion for languages, travelling, writing, and photography into a future career. German-born and South African-bred, speaking Italian and learning Japanese, Jomiro cannot resist the temptations of wanderlust. He holds nature close to the way he lives, family to the way he loves, and tolerance to the way he learns. If you don’t find him at his computer with a cup of coffee and an article, he’ll be outside taking in everything the planet and its people have to offer.
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