On 18 May 2008 the world watched a man die. Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave, a Mozambican migrant worker, burned to death on the streets of Ramaphosa informal settlement outside Johannesburg. He became known as the “Burning Man”. His flailing, fiery body illuminated the violence South Africans had meted out to immigrants during a pogrom which left 62 dead. All were Africans.
Nhamuave was a father of three young children. He had sought out a job in South Africa so as to feed, clothe and educate his family — his was the simple urgency of a father and husband.
In October 2010 the South African police closed their investigation. Two years after Nhamuave’s death the police drew a line of words under his murder: “Suspects still unknown and no witnesses.” Yet, in the same month that the case was snapped shut journalists tracked down witnesses who were able to point out the alleged killers; still walking the same street on which Nhamuave had been set alight.
The men who had lit the match that killed Nhamuave remained invisible to the justice system, but the structural agents — dysfunctional governance and the non-delivery of jobs, a living dignity and basic services like running water, electricity, sewage removal and decent healthcare — remained in plain sight. As it does today.
From South Africa we stare at Switzerland through the inverted looking glass. What is shouted out in Johannesburg remains unsaid in Zurich. What runs in straight tramlines in Basel bobs and weaves through peak-hour Durban traffic. Yet the commonalities of hidden hypocrisies are sometimes as incandescent as the living politics of those on the margins. Those who are forced to navigate the borders to which they are shoved, stopped and searched. Those relentlessly denied access to a living humanity and imprisoned in the immigrants’ state — not the nation state.
“Once set, flame spreads rapidly and consumes what it touches, making its illuminant effects highly visible, but leaving the agents who have lit the match often invisible, mysterious, or unknown.” — Kerry Chance, “Where there is fire, there is politics”: Ungovernability and Material Life in Urban South Africa.
On 27 February 2017 a few people on a platform at a train station in Balerno watched a man die. The local media reported that he “burnt brightly before the eyes of terrified passengers.” The “Burning Man” had smuggled himself onto the roof of the S10 regional train and been struck by its high voltage line, the reported 3000 volts setting him alight.
Not many people outside Balerno — so small a backwater that locals laugh when visitors ask where the town is, and then point in the direction of the post-office — in the canton of Ticino, would hear of the death of the “Burning Man”.
His was a death that barely made the regional newspapers in other cantons. There was no international expression of outrage at Swiss immigration policies, which leave thousands in an immigrants’ state of flux on its borders with Italy. Policies which disregard the humanity of people running away from jihadis and bombs and neo-colonial interference. People merely looking to keep the future of their families safe.
The “Burning Man” was from Mali, it was established. An immigrant trying to get through Switzerland to Germany. He had previously tried to enter France, it was reported, but had been turned back. No friends or relatives turned up to claim his body, his past, his dignity. No one cared to find out if he had been a brother or a father. His life last revealed to the world as a man aflame.
From Switzerland, Africa is often stared at through the inverted looking glass. It is an exotic place of tribes and rituals, of wild animals and even wilder governments. What is asexual in Geneva is orgiastic in Cape Town. Nothing is cheap in Lugano, but life is in Soweto. Yet the commonalities of hidden hypocrisies are sometimes as incandescent as the living politics of those on the margins. Those who are forced to navigate the borders to which they are shoved, stopped and searched. Those relentlessly denied access to a living humanity and imprisoned in the immigrants’ state — not the nation state.
Niren Tolsi is currently South African Arts Journalist of the Year. He is editor of the long-form and literary magazine, The Con. His book, After Marikana, with photographer Paul Botes, will be published later this year. He recently completed a writing residency in Switzerland courtesy of Pro Helvetia.