Demonstrators carry placards during a march against xenophobia in Johannesburg. Picture:REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS
Demonstrators carry placards during a march against xenophobia in Johannesburg. Picture:REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS

I Want to Go Home Forever — Stories of becoming and belonging in SA’s great metropolis
Edited by Loren B Landau and Tanya Pampalone
Wits University Press

With Tanya Pampalone working as a journalist and Loren B Landau heading the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits University, and the “go-to academic on everything migration and xenophobia in SA”, Pampalone says he was the obvious choice to partner with on a book of “stories of becoming and belonging” in Johannesburg.

They collaborated in 2013 on a book called Writing Invisibilty: Conversations on the Hidden City, a collection of long-form stories exploring “different definitions of migrancy and lives lived outside the mainstream discourse”, she says.

Their subjects came not just from SA but reached as far as Kenya and Belgium.

“With the ongoing attacks on foreigners in SA and the various migration issues, Loren and I spoke often over the years,” says Pampalone. But it was at the end of 2015, after the xenophobic attacks of that year, that she and Landau decided to commit to what became I Want to Go Home Forever.

They wanted to compile a collection of stories that would go beyond the headlines, to the root of the experiences of people involved in the violence.

The result is a collection of moving stories of a diversity of people living in the gritty city of gold, all in some way touched by migrancy, xenophobia, crime and violence.

Some are South Africans, some are from other countries. The poignant title was a phrase used by a sex worker, Esther Khumalo, a Zimbabwean who came here when she was 21, and asked that the interviewer use a pseudonym, says Pampalone. Khumalo’s father was a Malawian who always reminded his daughter her true home was in another country. Khumalo tells how she feels like an “alien” in Zimbabwe, and would like to go to Malawi. “…when I go to Malawi again, I will go to the embassy and tell them I want to go home forever so they will give me that letter to go forever”.

The theme of being stuck in SA comes up often. A former Ethiopian public servant whom Pampalone interviewed for the book, Estifanos Worky Abeto, 72, lives in a small Yeoville flat, separated from his family. Having left Ethiopia due to persecution by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front, he cannot return but is caught in a limbo as he waits for the SA authorities to respond to his asylum application. It has been nearly 10 years since he arrived.

“Let me tell you the truth,” he says. “SA is like a prison for me. Prison means you cannot meet family, friends. You cannot relax. I can do nothing now. I’m an educated person. What’s the use of living alone here?”

If he had permanent residence, says Abeto, he could return home to visit his wife and family without fear of arrest as he would be an South African citizen. Or they could join him here.

Written in the first person, the voices in the book come across as an authentic transcription of the narrators’ accounts, but the stories were written by a group of writers the editors approached. It’s a particularly close meeting of writer and narrator, of the person telling the story and the person recording it.

Working with Landau and having access to the African Centre for Migration and Society was “really exciting” for her as a journalist, she says. “He is an international expert on these issues and was always the steady hand that helped make sure we explored the issues in a thoughtful way.”

The photographs in the book are striking, and taken by three of SA’s foremost photographers: Oupa Nkosi, Mark Lewis and Madelene Cronje.

The picture of Nombuyiselo Ntlane — who lost her son, Siphiwe Mahore, in 2015 when Somalian shopkeeper Sheik Yusuf shot him — was taken by Nkosi. The incident triggered a wave of looting and xenophobic attacks in Soweto that year. The image, of a haunted Ntlane holding a framed picture of her dead son in his traditional initiation dress, at once depicts the modesty of her surroundings, a mother’s inconsolable grief, and the loss of a young life.

Some of the photographs are more upbeat: the one taken by Cronje of Pakistani hawker Azam Khan, for example, and the one of Jeppestown businessman Charalabos “Harry” Koulaxizis by Lewis. Koulaxizis, looking jaunty in branded sportswear, embodies what he told the interviewer, Tanya Zack: “I won’t abandon Jeppe” — despite having lost thousands of rands to looting.

Khan came to SA on a whim with $1,000 in his pocket, given to him by his mother. He admits he got in with a bad lot in Laudium: “My hosts were not very good advisers. They actually helped me blow up all that money,” he told interviewer Nedson Pophiwa, and it seems it’s this incident he is wryly recalling as he laughs into Cronje’s lens.

Through this book we come closer to understanding a contentious issue, and giving a face to those caught up in the crimes against migrants.