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The Fear of Difference

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Picture: Armand Hough. African News Agency (ANA) – Anti-immigration group, Operation Dudula, has called on the Western Cape Education Department to put South African teachers and students needs above those of migrant workers in the education system and children of illegal immigrants.

By Ayanda Ngunda

My nerves are shattered. All of a sudden there is silence in my soul, I have become a fall leaf under frost. I feel the chill in my blood, coldness bringing the synapses of my brain to a standstill. My feet are dashing above the ground leaving no trace of my appearance as tears trickle down my cheeks.

My mother has always taught me not to discriminate between black, white or mixed, nor where someone comes from. Instead, we should embrace what comes along with them. Their culture, beliefs, understandings and the greatest stories of their history. But this doesn’t seem to apply to me. Ever since my family and I moved to a foreign land, my world has changed into the unknown in a way I could never have imagined.

Today marks five years since I came from my home country to the land of Afrikaans and isiXhosa. Life wasn’t easy back home: poverty, corruption, and underlying political arguments. Home wasn’t always like this. I grew up in my home country in the norms of my culture, traditions and tribe. I was raised in my cultural norms and moulded in the foreign land.

This is my journey.

I’m used to running along the back streets of the ikasi. I’d rather run during sunset than sit and enjoy the comfort I don’t want to settle for. I’m in the foreign land – I suppose staying alert is the only way to survive here. In a flick of a tongue I could lose my refuge.

Life is tough here, just as it is in my home country. Running in the evenings and then reading books survivors wrote keeps me off the streets. In my home country, I wasn’t lucky enough to have access to the best reading school programmes, so now I spend most of my time learning how to read and write … I dream of becoming a poet.

Thanks to my mother helping to shape my mind towards reading, it has always been a passion of mine. I escape into my mind to wander in my thoughts, hoping one day I’ll be free from the land of horror that I live in. Reading is my escape from all the trauma that roams around me. “Alert!! Run !!! The gumba gumba (Home Affairs deportation truck) has arrived!”

The truck takes you to prison. I’m not afraid of it but I am afraid of what will become of me if I let it take me. I’ve heard rumours that life is harder in prison than life in the foreign land itself, but in my opinion, my place of education is harder. Not academically, no. It’s hard because I am called by names I could have never imagined. “Kwere kwere” is just one of them. People my own colour discriminate against me.

No, being a foreigner isn’t as easy as it sounds. Xenophobia has destroyed many lives – they identify you as an alien because in their eyes you’re no less than an animal. They fear my difference, and their fear breeds my fear. I’m afraid. This is not a cry for help, it’s my everyday reality.

Fourteen years ago I lost my uncle to a xenophobic attack. It was horrible and incredibly horrifying. His death is one I’ll never forget because it’s part of who I am today. On a vibrant evening in May 2008, my uncle was heading home from his afternoon shift at a nearby construction site he guarded. He came home to find his shack in shambles; it was completely wrecked and all his belongings were looted. He tried to get the police involved but failed miserably.

Later that night, a friend of my uncle’s called my grandmother on the landline to inform her that her son had been burned alive, they poured paraffin and tied him to a tyre and set him alight.

It was hard to accept that he had left us with only our memories of him before he had left for the foreign land. My family and I couldn’t pay our last respects to him as no one dared to set foot into the foreign land to get his lifeless body back to its home. Whenever I remember this incident, I’m reminded of what could happen to me.

They’ve hurt hundreds and burned many of my people to ashes mercilessly. And it doesn’t end there; they’ve done so much more. I live with my mother and I fear for her and my siblings lives. We only have each other and it’s not by choice. My father was taken away from me two years ago by the gumba gumba. He didn’t have all the required legal documents as he was a refugee.

I haven’t seen him since that day he was taken away. I had never seen my mother more hopeless than the day my father was sent back to my home country. The thought that I might never reunite with him again haunts me. Since my father left, life has been hard – there is not a day that goes by without me missing his presence in my life. He understood me and I felt at peace whenever he was around because I knew he would not allow any harm to come to me.

“That’s life, my daughter,” he would say to me with a sharp whisper when I told him I have been robbed of my peace. How can the world be so cruel?

There’s a little light coming from the streetlights across my home, spiking under the door heading behind the lounge chairs. That’s my comfort place, it’s the safest hiding spot. I can sneak out from here and no one can see me unless I come out. I discovered this hiding spot a few months ago just after I heard about Operation Dudula (a xenophobic organisation).

I am afraid; my world has turned into a hurricane of fear. Every light but one has been switched off: A little light of hope is left in me. I have been gifted with a spirit majestic enough to bear the emptiness of such a life. I am powerless to draw back now. I have decided to stay in the midst of it all, even though the fear of difference is a home to crime and war.

Perhaps I’m alive under all that frost, a leaf waiting to unfurl in the warmth of the sun.

Ayanda Ngunda ( is one of the top 3 prize winners of The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation’s sixth Annual National Essay Writing Competition Against Racism, at Constitutional Hill on Sunday, December 11, 2022.