At the height of the Oscar Pistorius murder trial, I read about an interesting concept in South Africa, “swart gevaar” (black danger), as the athlete’s defence was that he thought there was an intruder — probably a black one, the day he shot his girlfriend.
By Nqaba Matshazi
Writing for The Guardian, Margie Orfor said at the height of apartheid, swart gevaar created an “us” and “them” narrative between blacks and whites in a way that excused white people’s hysterical responses to anything they felt was a threat from black people.
It was an interesting story, but I didn’t pay much attention to it, as it was not part of my lived experiences and South Africa might as well be a far flung land to me.
I read the article more than four years ago and had all but forgotten it until one day, when an acquaintance narrated the events leading to him assuming his first job in Bulawayo.
He told me that this was the most horrific time for him and his family advised him to quit his job rather than accept the assignment.
Bulawayo was so violent, the narrative went, that the next time he returned to Harare or his home area, he would be in a coffin.
His days were numbered, they feared.
They even had to call in his pastor to discourage him from going to the land of the unknown, where he was surely going to meet a premature death.
They prayed and fasted and eventually, with much trepidation, they agreed he could go to Bulawayo, but his routine would strictly be between home and work.
He stayed in Burnside, an affluent suburb and was told not to venture too deep into town and god forbid, not to go to the western suburbs.
I felt some rage welling up in me, but I controlled myself and listened to this tale.
I am from Bulawayo and you can imagine how it feels when someone has that kind of opinion about your home area.
Having grown up and stayed most of my life in Matabeleland, I was unaware of the stereotypes that surround us, Ndebele people, particularly men, until I visited Gweru in 2002 and stayed there for two months.
A fight broke out between two men and the overwhelming response was that one of the men had been brave to pick up a fight with a Ndebele man, as he risked being stabbed, as they all supposedly carry knives.
I have heard that stereotype more as I have grown older and most of the time I look away and continue with my life, as there is no way I can correct every prejudice, but not that it doesn’t make me angry.
But imagine my horror when I heard ZBC journalist, Rueben Barwe ask President Emmerson Mnangagwa if it the people of Bulawayo could have been responsible for the tragic attack at a Zanu PF rally last weekend.
Here is a person that should know better, as a journalist, who instead of resorting to stereotypes and lazy characterisation should have known what the public reaction to his question would naturally have been.
But Barwe went the tired route and asked the most pedestrian question that anyone could have asked.
Barwe may have been “trying” to absolve the people of Bulawayo from the attack at the rally, but they do not need his absolving and instead a police inquest or whatever investigation could have sufficed.
By extension, Barwe could have all but pronounced the undefined “people of Bulawayo” as guilty until proven innocent, rather than the age old legal mantra that assumes everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
Imagine if Mnangagwa had not responded to Barwe’s question in the manner he did, there could be mayhem, with the people of Bulawayo being accused of that dastardly act.
Credit must go to Mnangagwa for the way he responded, but Barwe’s intentions or lack of probity in the manner he asked it, has to be questioned.
For many, there was a real fear that this could be the beginning of a crackdown on the people of Bulawayo and Barwe’s question just fuelled that speculation.
And without much effort, our own version of swart gevaar was born, “a them and us” narrative, “them” who are wont to engage in violence and “us”, who are the usual victims.
Just as in South Africa — where the lazy thing whenever there is violence or an attack, is to blame a “mystery black man” — in Zimbabwe or at least in Barwe’s head, what has to be done is to look for the culpability of “the people of Bulawayo” and if need be, absolve them.
There is a history for such a narrative and those old enough will remember the abduction of tourists outside Bulawayo, which was one of the forebears of Gukurahundi.
Many feared that the bombing could be a casus belli for a new crackdown and again centred on Matabeleland.
Barwe has been in the journalism field for long and one would not expect such recklessness, laziness and irresponsibility from him.
The attack on the Zanu PF rally was very callous and whoever is responsible for it should be brought to book, but there is absolutely no justification for Barwe’s behaviour.
If Barwe was any wiser, he would issue an apology and acknowledge that his question was poorly framed.
It is people like Barwe who create misconceptions about Bulawayo and in the case of the acquaintance I spoke about earlier, he almost missed out on a promotion, because of such mischaracterisation.
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