BOOK SA – News
@ BOOK Southern Africa
Men for All Seasons at the Hôtel Congolaise, Cape Town
June 8th, 2008 by Ben – Editor
On May 27, a week after the mass evictions from Crossroads and other parts of Cape Town of the African foreigners who’d lived in those places for half a decade and more, a story in the Cape Times caught the eye of author Rozena Maart, who is in the city to promote her book, The Writing Circle.
The story, by journalist Fatima Schroeder, was about a group of Congolese who had been sleeping, exposed to the cold, wet Cape winter, on the pavement outside the Caledon Square police station in the Cape Town CBD, and who were trawling the Cape High Court, looking for legal assistance for a suit against the South African government. (Read the story here.)
Their leader was Deo Kabemba Bin Ngulu, a politician, publisher and writer of plays, biographies, novels, poetry – a complete ensemble of works. One of his novels, L’Ombre du Soleil, had been featured at the London Book Fair, Schroeder wrote. Being a fellow writer, Maart wanted to know his story in greater detail, and find out if there was any way she could help. She enlisted BOOK SA; we set out to find him.
Meanwhile, Schroeder’s article filtered through the international literary press – Granta.com picked it up, among others – and triggered a second wave of stories about Ngulu locally. The Mail & Guardian found him at the African Train Lodge, a hotel on the Foreshore whose “rooms” are railway coaches. The temporary accommodation was being paid for by a private donor.
“We’ve survived camps all over Africa and know that once a government has you in a camp you can rot and die there. We will stay here in town where people have to see us everyday so that we are not forgotten. We want people to see us so that they can think about the society we’re living in” [said Ngulu].
[He] said his first experience of xenophobia was in KwaZulu-Natal in 1998. He said local people “told us at a taxi-rank they don’t want us to travel in their taxi and if we get on they will throw us off. They said this pointing to my children”.
He said the problems in Cape Town were evident as early as October 2004 when local residents drove foreign African and Indian traders from market stalls in Khayelitsha.
“I’m being treated like shit in this country. My countrymen are born tradesmen and we’re not allowed to make a living here because we are hated and the authorities have allowed this wound to fester.
Now for an editorial tangent. In the same edition of the Mail & Guardian, a few pages further on, a piece may be found by the publisher of the Daily Sun, South Africa’s largest newspaper by circulation. Deon du Plessis writes in a kind of proto-Kangurese – Kangura was a Rwandan magazine that gleefully denigrated Tutsis – about why it’s right for his publication to call foreigners “aliens”, and how it’s good that the Daily Sun’s “target audience” should be left “in no doubt that they – South Africans – come first”. “It MUST be true,” he concludes, odiously genuflecting to the profit imperative, “it’s in the business plan.”
Du Plessis writes, without a mote of shame sullying his bright-eyed vision, about a South Africa with a firmly-established pecking order: South Africans, the ubermenschen, first; aliens, the untermenschen, second. His words seem informed by the kind of radical inhumanity that characterised Apartheid, 1994 Rwanda, and Nazi Germany. How many degrees of meaning separate the terms “alien”, “makwerekwere” and “inyenzi” – “cockroach”, the word Hutus used when slaughtering Tutsis? How difficult is it to move, conceptually – once you’ve made the cognitive leap to the required logic of subordination – from the mechanics of a “business plan” to those of a “final solution”?
The use of the term “alien” in the Daily Sun’s context is sensationalist hate propaganda. It’s pre-genocidal, and it far removes the newspaper from its professed populism, turning it instead into an extremist publication that should be reined in – if not banned outright.
It took Rozena Maart and myself less than a day to find the man for whom du Plessis unblinkingly reserves the term “alien”. We met Mr Ngulu and three of his companions – professionals, fathers, displaced like him – on Saturday morning in the cafe of the District Six Museum, and they told us how they came to be where they are.
Ngulu, from the Kasongo area of the Congo, is the leader of a political party in exile, the Party for the Peace and Prosperity of Congo, or PPC. He had been living in Lower Crossroads – in the “New Rest” area – with his Congolese wife and children for a decade, renting an RDP house for R500 per month, plus R10 per day. Sitting with him in the cafe were John Mazambi, an IT technician from Bukavi, Congo; Asmani Imani, a Burundian-born Congolese ex-soldier who runs an African restaurant in Woodstock and is Ngulu’s bodyguard; and Jean Dedieu, an auto mechanic, also Burundian-born.
Before the outbreak of xenophobia, as many as 500 Congolese were living in the same area in Lower Crossroads. The men are united by their political beliefs: their opposition to current Congolese president Joseph Kabila and what they see as his collaboration in the Congo’s “colonisation” by South African business interests. (Ngulu calls Kabila “Thabo Mbeki’s prime minister”.)
Ngulu and Mazambi ran a desktop printing operation that published Ngulu’s works under the imprint Editions Scham Said: the novel L’Ombre du Soleil; a biography of Patrice Lumumba; a book of essays, Revolution Democratique Congolaise; twelve titles in all. Ngulu has only ever been published in South Africa: “it’s impossible to publish anything in the Congo,” for reasons both political and practical, he told us.
Ngulu, born in 1963, said that he had sensed a shift in the attitude of Lower Crossroads residents toward foreigners in early February, when he returned to his house to find six young gangsters waiting for him at his door. They tried to extort money from him; failing, they destroyed everything they could get their hands on inside his house. From that day, it felt to Ngulu as though the situation on his street was delicately poised between peace and violence.
His children started receiving threats at school: “Mandela has died, so we will bury you here.” But Ngulu and his family remained where they were, hoping the menace that now shrouded their days and nights would dissolve back into the air.
On the first of May, Ngulu found someone else waiting at his door: his landlord (who Ngulu invariably described as “a drunk”), along with a good-sized pile of his landlord’s luggage and possessions. Ngulu was being evicted, he was told; his landlord was moving in. But Ngulu wouldn’t be bullied. Neither party left, and the RDP house, thirty square metres in area, was now occupied by Ngulu, his wife, several of their younger children, and a stranger.
The next day, the stranger started to build a dwelling in the back, which was shortly occupied by a new group of gangsters. Come midnight, the men would emerge from their shack and knock on Ngulu’s door, ostensibly to use the toilet – but once inside would make themselves comfortable, and ask, with crocodile grins, for Ngulu and his family to teach them “kwere-kwere”.
On the eleventh of May, the xenophobic attacks began in Gauteng.
On the nineteenth of May, an elder of the community whom Ngulu trusted dropped by with a warning: “Your name is on the list of those to be killed. No one can protect you this time, as we did in February. You must leave now.”
Still Ngulu didn’t go. The man returned with the same message on the twentieth of May. Finally, on the twenty-first – a day of widespread violence against foreigners all over Cape Town – the man returned with a final warning. “They will kill your children first, then you. You don’t have any time left to wait.” He was right: the attackers were minutes away. Ngulu and his family fled on the spot, without any of their possessions. They escaped with their lives – nothing else.
The men in Ngulu’s group have since heard that their printing operation, their internet and cell phone cafes, their auto workshops, their homes and everything in them have been looted or burned to the ground, or both. They spent more than a week of freezing nights outside Caledon Square, where they were harassed by the police, and sent from pillar to post by Home Affairs, until a Good Samaritan arranged for their accommodation at the Train Lodge. Over 170 refugees – men, women and children – now live there.
But their accommodation is temporary. The arrangement is good until Wednesday, at which point their options will be: move to the camps set up by the government, or sleep on the streets once again.
Like Africans in hard places all over the continent, Ngulu and his friends are men for all seasons. They have endured camps, war, capture, hunger, migration over vast areas. They aren’t simply whiling the time away at the “Hôtel Congolaise” until their next crisis – or reprieve. They are reaching out, grasping at every source of help, trying to rebuild before rebuilding would even seem feasible.
What they need most now: a new arrangement for accommodation, and money, in that order.
Ngulu is determined to see this wintry season of xenophobia out, until a spring of peace breaks in Cape Town again. He is also determined to resist the SA government’s dictate that foreigners either return to their communities in two months (how can you return to a community that is no more?) or return to their home countries (by what means? by reversing the trip, travelling without papers, crossing borders stealthily at night, until at last you’re back in the land you fled?). His wish is to keep writing and publishing, but for now he and the others at the “Hôtel Congolaise” are trapped by wolves that have been multiplying at the door since February. They are not aliens, but alienated – strangers, suddenly, in a suddenly strange land.
If you would like to help, or know someone who might have access to accommodation, write to Deo Kabemba Bin Ngulu at firstname.lastname@example.org