South Africans Only

Africans from all over their war-torn continent have lately been flocking to South Africa. They are generally not met with open arms

When George VI of England went for a swim during a 1947 state visit to South Africa, he bequeathed his title to Port Elizabeth's most popular strand. As a teenager in the late 1960s, I didn't know this when King's Beach—a surfers' hangout—became my favorite haunt. What I cared about was the huge, perfect waves delivered by the Indian Ocean when a light west wind brushed a big south swell.

The beach still bears its royal name, and the waves still roll in impressively. But almost everything else about the place has changed. In the mid-1980s the beach's WHITES ONLY signs began to disappear, along with all the other signs—COLOUREDS ONLY, INDIANS ONLY, MALAYS ONLY, BLACKS ONLY—that apportioned the coast. More recently the post-apartheid mélange of bathers has been joined by the so-called makwerekwere, who have brought to King's Beach a diversity of Babelonian proportions.

"Makwerekwere," a derogatory neologism for "foreigners," has entered South African speech during the past few years. The word is supposedly onomatopoeic. The Greeks dubbed foreigners "barbarians" because, to Greek ears, they brayed "bar, bar" in unintelligible tongues; South Africans claim to hear "kwere, kwere" when immigrants open their mouths. But the makwerekwere aren't just any foreigners: they are specifically African immigrants, and they have been singled out for ridicule and abuse by many black South Africans. Apartheid kept most South Africans isolated from the rest of Africa and deeply ignorant of its cultures. With the country's democratic turn, culminating in Nelson Mandela's 1994 election as President, unfamiliar, unimagined people started to flock across the border. Since then South Africa has also experienced a relatively modest influx of Eastern Europeans and Asians. However, I've never heard Bulgarians, Russians, or Chinese called makwerekwere.

Few of the vendors who line the King's Beach promenade are indigenous South Africans. On one recent public holiday, as some 60,000 bathers packed the beach, I wandered along the mile of stalls. I heard Igbo, Wolof, Swahili, Shona, French, Portuguese, and a host of languages I didn't recognize. I spoke to Cameroonians and Senegalese selling malachite jewelry, to Zimbabweans hawking soapstone shoes, to Namibians, Nigerians, and Angolans surrounded by menageries carved from equatorial hardwoods. I watched a Mozambican fashion miniature hippos and Harley-Davidsons from baling wire.

Port Elizabeth seems an improbable El Dorado. Africa's southernmost city, it is remote from any border. And it lies in one of South Africa's poorest provinces, a region burdened with 40 percent unemployment. But poverty and opportunity are relative, of course. South Africa has a lower per capita GDP than Mexico. Nonetheless, the difference in per capita GDP between South Africa and neighboring countries such as Mozambique and Angola is proportionally greater than that between the United States and Mexico. Since the mid-1990s the roiling wars in central Africa have heightened South Africa's allure for citizens of the dozen or so countries involved in conflict. The murderous violence in Zimbabwe has prompted perhaps a million Zimbabweans to flee to South Africa recently.

One trader I met, who would give his name only as Pierre, told me that he had walked to Port Elizabeth from eastern Congo—a distance of almost 3,000 miles. The journey had taken five months. Now he made a living selling hardwood giraffes, which stretched splay-legged on grass mats before him. He also offered me some bootleg tapes of kwaito music—a distinctive blend of African syncopation, European house music, and American hip-hop that resulted from and signifies South Africa's new heterogeneity.

Farther down the promenade John Chibwende was selling collapsible wooden stools, each stool leg a bird with an upstretched beak. A plump man with glazed eyes, Chibwende had spent his life savings on a plane ticket to Johannesburg from the Zambian capital of Lusaka, where he had been a pharmacist. Johannesburg terrified him: "Very, very violent," he said. "Every day I worried for my life. 'Makwerekwere': what does that mean? It means nothing. I hate that word." He left Johannesburg for Port Elizabeth in 1998, a week after a notorious xenophobic incident. A crowd returning from a rally held to protest unemployment had suddenly transformed into an incendiary anti-immigrant mob. It killed a Mozambican, throwing him from a train. Two Senegalese were electrocuted when they scrambled onto the train's roof in an effort to escape.

South Africa borders six countries. The borders are indifferently manned. The official attitude toward African immigrants is complicated by a historical debt. President Thabo Mbeki and many government ministers found sanctuary in countries such as Botswana, Tanzania, and Zambia during apartheid's bleakest years. As John Matshikiza, a newspaper columnist and a former activist, wrote recently, "We exiles spent a lot of time living in some of the makwerekwere countries ... For the most part we received the kindest hospitality, and our host countries sometimes suffered terrible military reprisals."

But calls for tolerance in the name of recompense have a limited effect on the ground, where the desperate battle the desperate over jobs, shacks, turf, and women. The northerners' unfamiliar languages and sometimes darker skins make them convenient scapegoats for South Africans who struggle on the economic fringes. I have heard it said that "kwere, kwere" is more than a mocking imitation of foreign languages—it is an attempt to replicate the twittering of queleas, small but extremely destructive birds that travel in flocks of hundreds of thousands. One minute the queleas are nowhere in sight; the next they have swept through fields like locusts, devastating the harvest.

Driving back to town from King's Beach, I heard on my car radio that a South African yacht had rescued four castaways drifting in a life raft several miles off the coast of Cape Town. The men had stowed away on a Panamanian vessel when it was docked at Matadi, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. On discovering the Congolese, the captain had set them adrift.

I thought of the dreams that a young Malian had shared with me after selling me a beautifully crafted pair of red shoes equipped with car-tire soles. When not accosting promenaders, the Malian sketched out his plans: next move, Cape Town; then apply for a visa to get into Europe or America. He disliked South Africa. He did not feel welcome here. "But," he said, "this country, unlike my country, has many, many embassies."