Monday, 5 September 2011

A Review of Michael Neocosmos's 'From ‘Foreign Natives’ to ‘Native Foreigners’'

by Tristan Gevers 

Title: From ‘Foreign Natives’ to ‘NativeForeigners’: Explaining Xenophobia in Post-apartheid South Africa:Citizenship and Nationalism, Identity and Politics
Author: Michael Neocosmos 
Publisher: Council for the Development of Social Sciences Research in Africa 
Year of Publication: 2010 
Pages: 172 (including Notes, Bibliography and List of Interviews) 
ISBN: 978-2-86978-307-2

In 2008, South Africa was plagued by attacks on individuals solely because they were – or were seen to be – foreign, and as a result roughly 60 people were killed and many thousands were forced to flee their homes. Although these attacks took many of those residing in South Africa by complete surprise, there has been a mass of literature on this rising xenophobia problem since the 1990s. Michael Neocosmos in his From ‘Foreign Natives’ to ‘Native Foreigners’: Explaining Xenophobia in Post-apartheid South Africa: Citizenship and Nationalism, Identity and Politics attempts to build an explanation of xenophobia in South Africa. He argues rather successfully that many of the previous explanations of xenophobia, although important, do not get to the crux of the problem. He also argues that many of the arguments laid out beforehand were focused on elements such as relative deprivation, which he argues may explain the violence, but does not explain why the violence has been directed almost exclusively at black Africans (Neocosmos, 2010: 105). He also attempts to point out that xenophobia is not solely a problem of the poor, but is prevalent in all areas of the South African society, regardless of race and other differentiating factors. As his argument progresses, he successfully puts forward the view that central to the problem of xenophobia is the type of liberalism and more importantly, the exclusive citizenship that has been created as opposed to the earlier hope of an inclusive citizenship. What has been developed in South Africa as a result is a type of quasi-colonial relationship with the rest of Africa which has contributed to the thinking of foreigners being seeing as the “other”, a view that has been helped along by the media, politicians and academics alike (Neocosmos, 2010: 107). In this argument, he looks at the human rights discourse and the western idea of liberalism, based on the French Revolution, to the problem of the exclusive citizenship. His ultimate solution to the dilemma created by this, is a move away from the country top-down politics that is currently plaguing South Africa, we must return to the type of citizenship envisaged during the 1980s. Neocosmos puts forward a rather solid argument that the exclusive citizenship in South Africa has left a space for foreigners to fall into the category of the “other” and thus clearly achieves his objective of identifying an explanation of xenophobia in South Africa as well as presenting a solution to the problem.

In exploring his argument on the development of an exclusive form of citizenship, Neocosmos initially considers the importance of citizenship under the colonial but more specifically, the apartheid regime. In addition to this, he regards the importance of the migrant labour in South Africa during this same period (although it by no means ended with the downfall of apartheid). The role that citizenship played under the apartheid regime took both the form of indirect and direct rule over the black Africans. This was accomplished by enforcing tribal authority in the rural areas and by denying black Africans the civil liberties that were guaranteed to the citizens in South Africa (Neocosmos, 2010: 22-23). These rural areas, or Bantustans, were not given enough to maintain themselves independently, and in many cases – as was experience by many of the migrants that came to work from other African countries such as Lesotho, Botswana, Swaziland and the like (Neocosmos, 2010: 35-38) – individuals needed to pay tribute to the authority. The apartheid state thus created a system which was economically beneficial to white capital because these subjects that were being exploited by the state were just that, subjects, and not citizens, and had ties to the rural areas and so became a ‘reserve army of labour’ (Neocosmos, 2010: 39). Neocosmos (2010: 59) does however suggest that migrant labour in fact did fuel development in the rural areas. The foreignness however, achieved an unperceived consequence for the apartheid state, as the apartheid regime had created a kind of united foreignness amongst both black South Africans, as well as black foreigners. This homogenous group identity created by the apartheid state was rather helpful in creating a relatively unified resistance to the apartheid regime. There was also distrust of the Bantustan “governments” and of the apartheid state itself, and with that, the notion of citizenship imposed by this state (Neocosmos, 2010: 42). The notion of citizenship that came to the forefront of the struggles in South Africa during the 1980s is of vital importance here, as it was inclusive rather than exclusive. Most important, was the idea of “people’s power”, which was a specific kind of active citizenship which meant (and required) active participation in politics in everyday life – therefore entering civil society – and more importantly, the notion of a type of citizenship that was inclusive that was to have a non-racial element but not be completely based on non-racialism (Neocosmos, 2010: 46). What was required was citizenship based on a bottom-up (rank and file) approach, as opposed to the apartheid’s top-down approach. What is important to note, is that although there were ties between the rural and the urban areas, the resistance in the 1980s was urban-based, and a strong connection between the two was not formed. Therefore, the main idea of citizenship was not just national unity against state division, but was also meant to be inclusive and not based on indigenity (Neocosmos, 2010: 58).

Although the idea of citizenship however, was to have leadership accountable and engaged with the people whom they led, there was a breaking from this as some of the leadership began to appear beyond the criticism that the people were meant to subject them to. It is argued by Neocosmos (2010: 56) that in the 1990s, there was a shift to rank and file notion of citizenship to a more defined role by the leadership, becoming more a top-down citizenship. In addition, migrant labour began to be seen in a negative light, and was seen as little more than a tool of apartheid (Neocosmos, 2010: 56). Once the apartheid regime was dismantled, Neocosmos (2010, 62) argues that the state-nation formation was directly opposed to the division created by apartheid, and for the right of self-determination for minorities. This however, led to the defining of a citizen through the eyes of the state, and as a result, created a situation where there could be arbitrariness towards those determined as ‘foreign’ (Neocosmos, 2010: 62). With the shift in attitude from an inclusive to an exclusive citizenship, there also came the depoliticizing of civil society, and the loss of rank and file democratic control (Neocosmos, 2010: 62). With the scrapping of undemocratic migrant labour, foreigners were no longer given any protection. This being argued however, there were some attempts to incorporate the migrants, but usually not beneficial to them, such as family housing – which would require the migrant to bring their family to South Africa, renounce their previous citizenship and lose their property in their home country. The exclusion of migrants and those deemed ‘foreign’ by the state and the move to indigenous citizenship is important, as is the de-politicization of civil society and the move away from bottom-up politics to top-down politics. However, it extends to more than this. Along with the exclusive citizenship, the state has adopted the Western idea that Africa is backwards, and has used this to shape racial stereotypes of foreigners. An example of this is the idea that there is an extensive crime rate problem in South Africa and that this is caused by foreigners (Neocosmos, 2010: 85). The ‘otherness’ of the foreigners has created viable scapegoat at which violence and anger can be directed, especially seeing as they are not well protected by the state. Ultimately, Neocosmos (2010: 99) argues that at the root of this problem is the Western notion of liberalism that has been adopted, which eliminates active citizenship as politics stems from the state. He argues that in South Africa especially, the state has become deified, and is seen as the provider of everything, from peace to houses, as so on (Neocosmos, 2010: 99). What he calls for is a reinvention of the idea of citizenship that was called for in the 1980s. An inclusive form of citizenship that is not like the current Western liberalism. This form of citizenship must be inclusive rather than exclusive, and requires active citizenship, and only in this way can xenophobia in South Africa be combated.

The argument presented by Neocosmos is a rather strong argument and is a refreshing break from those who continuously rush off to apply relative deprivation arguments to this phenomenon. The relative deprivation argument (being the growth in the gap between expected economic values and actual economic values – although it is not exclusively economic, and is often used to explain many different forms of violence (See Gurr, 1970 for an explanation of relative deprivation; also see [insert reference here] for relative deprivation used to explain vigilantism)). In addition, the argument put forward by Neocosmos moves away from other theories which are also often used to explain the xenophobic attacks, ranging from the psychology theory of Frustration-Aggression (as explain by Hagopian, 1975: 168-171) through to criminal elements (SAPA(b), 2008) or a mysterious ‘third force’ (Morna, 2008). These arguments often do present relatively good reasons (or present a possible factor) for why there is a sudden upsurge in violence and what causes the upsurge of violence, and can be used to explain why there are violent undercurrents in an unequal society. They do not however, present a valid reason as to why this hatred is directed at the black African foreigners as opposed to other foreigners, such as white immigrants. . Finally, these theories all suggest that violence like this just happens, and absolves the state from much of the blame. What separates Neocosmos’ argument from these theories, is that in Neocosmos’ argument, one is no longer grappling with the questions raised above. There is no need to question why the violence was directed at foreigners, or more specifically, black African foreigners. The development of the new nation state in South Africa after apartheid, especially under Western ideas, has led to this exclusive idea of citizenship that portrays other Africans as the ‘other’. This has been intensified by South Africa’s economic dominance and being the portal through which Western liberalism can penetrate the continent of Africa (Neocosmos, 2010: 107). In this way, the argument presented by Neocosmos goes a long way in explaining why the violence is being directed not only towards foreigners, but is being directed towards black African foreigners, which is often (as mentioned above) neglected by the other theories.

Neocosmos’ argument does however, face several small problems. When the attacks swept through South Africa in 2008, his argument is successful in explaining why the attacks were directed towards black African foreigners. His argument however, does not appear to explain why there was a sudden upsurge of violence in South Africa during this period. It is easy to see his argument is valid when considering why the attacks are directed towards the excluded citizens, however, he presents examples of xenophobic violence on a much smaller scale and in localized areas. In the epilogue of his book, he does successfully suggest and show that the events of 2008 did not just explode as was thought by many, but that there was a steady increase in the acts of xenophobic violence throughout the preceding months (see Neocosmos, 2010: 119). But why is it that in 2008 we saw this tremendous increase in xenophobic attacks? And if his argument with the collection of other theories such as relative deprivation have combined into an explosive cocktail which exploded during the 2008 pogroms, then why have these pogroms not continued seeing as the material wealth of many still remains low? Perhaps it was the combination of the global economic recession, but then surely the attacks would have continued throughout this period and only ended in 2009 or 2010?

Regardless of any problems with the ideas put forward by Neocosmos, this book is extremely valuable and should be considered very carefully when addressing the problem of xenophobia. When considering that the European states are beginning to suffer from rising frustration and anger towards immigrants, with 2009 seeing a victory for many extreme right-winged political groups across Europe (Mail Foreign Service, 2009), this book could provide valuable insight into the reasons for this xenophobia. In addition, he not only provides the reader with an analysis of the problem, but presents plausible solutions to the problem. His argument is an important contribution to the debate around xenophobia, and his notion that the state is more involved than it tries to portray in creating and maintaining the problem is sound. This easy to read book is an important contribution to the creation of a more humanity driven South Africa as well as the development of a more inclusive democracy.

Reference List

Gordin, Jeremy. 2008. ’Ethnic cleansing, SA style’. IOLnews, [Online] (Last updated 09:51 AM on 25 May 2008). Available at: <> [Accessed on 28 August 2011]

Gurr, Ted Robert. 1970. Why Men Rebel. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hagopian, Mark N. 1975. The Phenomenon of Revolution. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company.

Morna, Colleen L. 2008. ’Money, narrow nationalism can’t buy a rainbow’. IOLnews, [Online] (Last updated 02:48 AM on 08 June 2008). Available at: <> [Accessed on 28 August 2011]

Neocosmos, Michael. 2010. From ‘Foreign Natives’ to ‘Native Foreigners’: Explaining Xenophobia in Post-apartheid South Africa. Dakar: Council for the Development of Social Sciences Research in Africa.

SAPA. 2008. ’Inequality behind xenophobia’. IOLnews, [Online] (Last updated 07:35 PM on 28 May 2008). Available at: <> [Accessed on 28 August 2011]

SAPA. 2008. ’Xenophobia: Nqakula blames criminals’. IOLnews, [Online] (Last updated 05:20 PM on 04 June 2008). Available at: <> [Accessed on 28 August 2011]

Mail Foreign Service. 2009. ‘The neo-Nazi surge: Right-wing parties sweep to power in the European Parliament as voter turnout plummets to record low’. DailyMail, [Online] (Last updated 03:08 PM on 11 June 2009). Available at: <> [Accessed on 28 August 2011]