Brave, the Malawian

Andrew Donaldson reflects on SA xenophobia, and the immigrants being targeted


I FIRST met Brave Lungu soon after I moved into my home in First Avenue, Melville, more than 20 years ago. He was a cheerful Malawian who worked as a gardener in the area and wanted to rent the near Stygian servant quarters in my back yard. I was reluctant and told him the place wasn’t fit for purpose, run-down after years of neglect. It was dingy and dark, the shower and toilet were a mess, and I was considering demolishing the building to make way for some sort of outdoor entertainment area.

Brave was greatly alarmed that I could even entertain such folly. He had a proposition: if I let him stay there, he would fix the place up and, in lieu of rent, he would tend to my garden one day a week, gratis. I agreed and, true to his word, he set about transforming his rooms at once and with great gusto. He scrubbed and repainted the place, replaced broken windows, fixed shelves in the kitchenette and even planted a garden in its small enclosed yard.

Brave’s services were in great demand in the neighbourhood. Like several of his clients, I allowed him free rein when it came to gardening. It wasn’t just a case of keeping the place tidy and mowing the lawn from time to time, he was hard-working and naturally green-fingered and, being young and almost uncomfortably enthusiastic about the job, greatly enjoyed growing stuff. He would take cuttings from one garden and plant them in another, a practice that probably annoyed some but nevertheless had delightfully surprising results.  ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Early one spring, a colony of weavers began shredding the hell out of some young palm trees for material for their nests in a nearby tree. I draped toy rubber snakes over the plants in a bid to deter the birds from destroying them. A few days later I noticed the snakes had disappeared. I questioned Brave about this. Oh, he said, he had decorated his bicycle with them — for good luck. I explained that the snakes were meant to keep the weavers from attacking my palms. Brave shook his head. No, he said, that is not how to deal with weavers. He picked up a rake and knocked half-built nests from the tree. That, he said, is how to deal with weavers. The birds did not return.

One evening, a few months later, Brave called round to discuss his Christmas bonus. He wanted a small refrigerator, he said, not cash. It was for his family in Malawi. That’s what they had asked for, and what they had asked for, he would get. If I gave him the money, I said, could he not buy the fridge in Blantyre or wherever it was that he went to when he went home for the holidays? No, no, he said, that will not do; it was cheaper to buy fridges in Johannesburg and, besides, there was a better selection in Makro than in any Malawian store. 

So I bought him the fridge, which made the journey northwards, along with his bicycle, first in a trailer towed by a taxi and then, at the Zimbabwean border, strapped to the roof of a bus. 

Like many other immigrants, Brave supported several people back home. He was, he said, the only member of his family to have a regular job. Exactly how dependent they were on the money he wired back to his village each week was brought home to me a year or so later when Brave was knocked off his bicycle by a bus and suffered a broken leg. 

He now obviously couldn’t work, but he had a plan: his livelihood in jeopardy, he sent for a rather stout woman. Within hours of her arrival from Malawi a few days later, Brave was back on the job, albeit on crutches, hobbling from garden to garden and instructing his “help” as she tended the flower beds, weeding and mowing lawns. Normal service had been resumed. His clients were happy.

When I sold the house to move to Cape Town, Brave met with the new owners with a view to extending his accommodation arrangement. After some urging from me, they agreed to let him stay on. Brave and I remained in contact for a while, but we lost touch with one another as the years passed. 

But I thought of him this week after viewing Fear and Loathing in South Africa. Part of the BBC's Africa Eye series, this was a documentary on Operation Dudula, the anti-migrant vigilante group that hopes to contest the elections next year as a political party, and their campaign of attacks on foreigners in Johannesburg. 

What, I wondered, would Brave have made of this?

It was not particularly good television. The doccie’s presenter, journalist Ayanda Charlie, set the tone with an unfortunate, if baffling opening remark: “The first time I witnessed xenophobic violence, it felt like a foreign force.” 

Well, yes . . . but what followed, as far as I was concerned, seemed shallow, overly sentimental and lacking any meaningful analysis as to why a group like Operation Dudula should have risen to such prominence in the first place. I mean, does one join a murderous and hate-filled mob solely because one is mired in poverty and routinely failed by a lying government? Or are there other factors? (I tend to forget that such films are made for the non-South African viewer.)

That said, the doccie’s raw footage was certainly arresting. 

A chanting mob marches into the night, down what appears to be Louis Botha Avenue, on the lookout for drug dealers. “Tell the foreigners not to disrespect us,” they sing. “Let us buy our potions and kill these dogs.” 

Elsewhere, one Zandile Dabula, voted in as president of Operation Dudula in June, is challenged on her view that most of the country’s problems have been caused by the influx of foreigners who are “working on a 20-year plan of taking over South Africa”. 

She admits this could be a wild rumour, but she nevertheless believes it is true. “You see drugs everywhere,” she explains, “and most of the drug addicts are South African rather than foreign nationals. So, what’s happening? Are they feeding our own brothers and sisters so that it can be easy for them to take over?”

In KwaThema township, in the East Rand, a 57-year-old woman breaks down in tears, saying, “To tell you the truth, I hate foreigners. How I wish they could just pack and go and leave our country.” They ruined her 14-year-old son’s life, she says. She produces a photograph of her son. He is badly scarred. “He started smoking drugs when he was 14 years old,” she says. To feed his crystal meth and nyaope habit, he began stealing. One day, he tried to pinch some power cables to sell. He was badly shocked and burnt.

According to Fear and Loathing in South Africa, Operation Dudula’s overarching concern is the influx of narcotics into deprived communities. Peddled, of course, by the hated foreign nationals. This is noteworthy as it appears to dovetail neatly with my old friend and boulevardier Carl Niehaus’s recent and sudden interest in anti-drug campaigning. 

Many of Operation Dudula’s thugs appear to be former members of Carl’s old crew, the now disbanded uMkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans’ Association. That, at least, is what their T-shirts seem to claim. In addition to the T-shirts, many were in camouflage fatigues, which is just what’s needed to blend in with the surrounding vegetation in the hunt for drug traffickers in what was once the suburb of Orange Grove. 

Thing is, it does appear that the dealers’ camouflage was so much better, for there was no sign of them in the BBC documentary. This was not for want of trying on the part of the vigilantes, who hunted high and low for these foreign nationals. But all in vain.

So, instead, they chose to rough up some law-abiding shopkeepers and street vendors.  

In Diepkloof, Operation Dudula thugs round on a Mozambican shopkeeper after his South African landlady claims he is not paying rent. The shopkeeper is forced to sign an undertaking to vacate his premises within two months. Questioned by the BBC, the men insist they are not breaking the law. They are South African citizens, they argue, and that gives them the right to target and harass foreign nationals. 

One man, Isaac Lesole, identified as the movement’s “technical adviser”, complains of a media conspiracy to make Operation Dudula look bad. This after his comrades are filmed singing, “We don’t come here for any nonsense. We will go to the garage, buy the petrol and burn the foreigner.”

All in all, it is grim viewing and, as mentioned, I wondered about Brave, and wanted to know what he, as a Malawian and no doubt an Operation Dudula target, thought of all this. 

I still had his cell number. The guy who answered my call was not Brave. “Where’s Brave,” I asked, “and why have you got his phone?” 

He hung up without another word.

I tend to think the worst at such times. If shopkeepers and street vendors are hounded out of town and targeted for attack simply because they are are foreign shopkeepers and foreign street vendors, what hope for a foreign gardener?