Author Interview: Meg Vandermerwe
Amidst high expectations in the air for Africa`s hosting of sport`s biggest contest ,the year 2010 also marked a time of mounting tensions about an expected countrywide onslaught on refugees and immigrants living in South Africa at the time.
Zebra Crossing tells the story of its protagonist and narrator, Chipo, an illegal immigrant in her late teens, and her older brother George. Both have fled poverty and political and private turmoil in their native Zimbabwe for a better life in Cape Town, South Africa. Set during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, it explores myth and malice in the Mother City. As excitement about the World Cup grows, so do xenophobic tensions.
Chipo and George`s plan is to get rich quick and leave, before the violent rumours that all foreign Africans remaining in the country after the final soccer match will be attacked, come to fruition. However, their scheme has disastrous consequences.
Meg Vandermerwe was born in South Africa in 1978. She read English at Oxford University and holds Masters degrees from the universities of Sussex and East Anglia in England. She teaches English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of the Western Cape and lives in Cape Town. Zebra Crossing is her second book.
A. Why the title Zebra Crossing?
The title was suggested to me by my friend Ben-Carl Havemann in 2009. He is currently the marketing and creative director for the Cape Town World Design Capital 2014 initiative and a bit of a PR genius. When I told him my central themes of African immigration and albinism he immediately suggested the title because it cleverly encompasses themes of journey, traveling from one place to another, whilst also alluding to the difficult position that people with albinism face of being black Africans and yet having pale skin. I thought it was the most brilliant and original title imaginable.
B. Is it your first novel? If not which other novel have you published?
It is my first published novel (I wrote another one in my twenties that I have filed away in a drawer). I also published a collection of short stories in 2010 called, This Place I Call Home. In that collection there is a short story called, ‘The Mango Tree’ about the xenophobic attacks of 2008. That story was probably the unconscious seed for Zebra Crossing.
C. Who is Zebra Crossing targeted at?
Zebra Crossing is aimed at anyone who has ever felt like the outsider, the exile, the misfit, ‘the other’. It is also aimed at anyone who has ever made someone else feel like the outsider, too different or ‘other’ to be embraced or accepted. We have all, I feel, occupied both positions at different points in our lives.
D. At its launch you made mention of the importance of immigrant communities in SA to document their lives in SA for themselves. Did you find out about this while you were researching the novel?
I did. I would never have embarked on Zebra Crossing, I think, if I had found more published novels written by African immigrants and people with albinism about their experiences in South Africa. It was the lack of creative texts out there that inspired the project in the first place, combined with my own desire to better understand what I came to comprehend to be, each in their own ways, problematic and taboo positions to occupy in our society. Since the novel’s publication a number of the individuals I interviewed have come to me to tell me that they now want to embark on books of their own. They feel that the positive response to Zebra Crossing from readers and publishers means that there is a real interest in such narratives and they won’t be simply ignored or dismissed. They have also told me that the experience of telling me their (often painful) stories has helped unlock emotions and tales which years of pain and trauma had silenced. If all that Zebra Crossing achieves is to encourage more people with albinism or who are immigrants in this country to tell their stories, then I will consider it a successful novel.
E. You had input from immigrants from Zimbabwe, some of whom gave their experiences about the process of working alongside with you in compiling the novel. How did their input add to the final presentation of the finished narrative?
Zebra Crossing addresses the experiences of a range of immigrants from several African countries, but its principal characters (namely Chipo, her brother George and his friends Peter and David) are Zimbabwean, so it was important that I got as much input from Zimbabwean immigrants as possible. A number of Zimbabweans shared their stories with me about what compelled them to leave home and come here, their experiences at the border and the various trials and tribulations they have faced since coming here. I also asked one of them, Tembi Charles, who is a talented writer in her own right, to check my final MS for inaccuracies. She was fantastic and her input was essential, especially regarding those subtle nuances of language and culture, which it is difficult for a non-Zimbabwean like myself to ever render perfectly.
F. Having been a long-time(excuse the pun) of Long Street, how did you interact with the immigrant community there before the idea dawned to put the narrative down into a book?
When I arrived back in Cape Town in September 2008, after twenty-two years of living abroad, I moved into a flat on Long Street and lived there until 2012. I had spent the previous thirteen years living in multi-cultural, multi-ethnic London, so I felt very at home on Long street with its unique mix of religions, cultures and gritty, sometimes shocking street life. However, as I began to interact with the various African immigrant communities I discovered that all was not as inclusive as at first it appeared. I ended up trying to help a number of my new friends from the Congo, Zimbabwe, Malawietc with Home Affairs or to challenge local employers who were exploiting them because of their vulnerable status. These injustices inspired me to begin fleshing together a text in 2009. I thought it would be a more general depiction of the challenges faced by African immigrants in South Africa (with one of those characters being even more vulnerable because she had albinism and thus was an outsider amongst outsiders). Then, when the 2010 World Cup approached more and more of my friends told me about the threats they were receiving from locals. The rumor was that once the World Cup was over that there would be a repeat of the sorts of xenophobic attacks of May 2008. That was the turning point for me. I decided to set Zebra Crossing during the World Cup, a period when South Africa was supposedly advertising its unity and humanity and yet, there were members of our community who were being excluded from this ‘ubuntu’ myth.
G. What is it that you can safely say you learnt about the immigrant community of Cape Town when writing the book?
That we are all immigrants in one-way or another. We are all searching for that place we can call home, where we can safely raise our families and flourish. Also I learnt that by another throw of the fate dice, I could be in their position. That is to say, vulnerable, unable to reach my full potential in my country of birth due to circumstances beyond my control (failing economies, corrupt governments, poor schooling etc) and yet not welcome in another country, which sees me as a parasite or economic or social threat.
H. The story also looks at the issue of albinism. What challenges did you find exist for such an added “problem” albino immigrant individuals?
This is a complex issue with many facets. In certain countries such as Tanzania, people with albinism are literally afraid for their lives. I saw a shocking documentary last year about how in rural areas, people with albinism have actually been locked into fortified compounds for their own safety. It showed children and adults who had had their limbs hacked off by those who wanted to sell them for muti (their body parts are believed to bring luck). They were all naturally, deeply traumatized by their experiences and I literally sobbed for one poor girl who had been attacked by her own father. The reason I am mentioning this is that I think that such individuals should be offered sanctuary in other countries as refugees (ones life has to be at risk to qualify for refugee status, according to the UN charters). But I don’t think that that is happening. Nor is it happening for homosexual Africans who also face imprisonment or death in their own countries. According to the UN charters they should receive refugee status, but other prejudices regarding sexuality kick in, and they don’t.
On a more general note, I think that having albinism is challenging regardless of whether one is ‘local’ or a foreigner. People with albinism face prejudice due to myths and taboos regarding their condition, across Africa. However, to have albinism and to be an immigrant must be even more challenging. You are in effect doubly ‘other’. That is Chipo’s position within the novel. In the end, it is her own community, her brother and his friends who cause her to suffer the most because they exploit her condition for their own gain. They are afraid for their safety because they are foreigners facing potential attack, so they use her to make enough money to travel to safety. The oppressed in effect become the oppressors. An important theme in my novel and a warning to us all.
I. Social action groups have called on the government to re-look its policy on immigration in SA. Where do you think the government is getting it wrong, or even right?
I am not an immigration lawyer, but what I can say from my own attempts to help people who are battling the system, is that inefficiency is an enormous problem. I know many people who have been waiting six years to get their final verdict regarding their status and eligibility to stay in this country. That is a long time to exist in limbo, never sure whether all that you are building will one day be taken away from you. Then there is the issue of corruption at Home Affairs. Bribes are regularly demanded. It starts even in the queues outside, where some of the people managing the lines allow those who pay them to go first etc. It is inhumane to profit from the fear and vulnerability of others.
I think we as a nation, must also take responsibility for the role we are playing in fostering an Africa, which compels our fellow Africans to come to South Africa (one of the few successful economies on the continent and stable democracies). That is to say, we want cobalt and oil from places like Congo and Nigeria, so we don’t put pressure on those governments to give their citizens the rights and quality of life they deserve. Our economic decisions and policies as individuals and as a South African government, is perpetuating the rot that is compelling citizens from other African countries to travel to us in search of more stable, secure lives. This is especially the case with Zimbabwe. The role that South Africa plays in keeping Mugabe in power is well-documented, whether it is the free electricity we supply or the various perks we afford him personally. In our own way, through our government, we are partly responsible for the state that Zimbabwe is in (or at least for perpetuating it). So we musn’t grumble then, when its citizens are forced to come here in order to feed their families back home.
J. How do you think story-telling can play a part in changing perceptions about people from other African states, and fostering a cordial relationship between them and South Africans?
Story-telling taps into the imagination, which is also the route to empathy and with it compassion. I think that if we could use our imaginations to put ourselves in the shoes of the people arriving from other African countries and try to empathise with their position and acknowledge just how frightening and difficult such a journey is (it is not easy to leave home and try to build a new life in a new country) rather than simply judge and condemn, then we will be back on track to building the sort of nation we can be truly proud of. That is what I hope to do with Zebra Crossing. To encourage my reader to walk those difficult miles, with our fellow Africans. I feel we should never forget, that all of us have ancestors who were once in similar positions. And with a throw of the dice, we may all have descendents who one day find themselves in that position again.