Thursday, 25 October 2012

Review: From ‘Foreign Natives’ to ‘Native Foreigners’

by Catherine Cunningham 

In From ‘Foreign Natives’ to ‘Native Foreigners’, Michael Neocosmos traces the events which led up to the May 2008 xenophobic attacks in South Africa. In doing this, Neocosmos uncovers the manifold ways in which ‘citizenship’ has been defined, in South Africa, over time. For Neocosmos, despite the inclusive definition of citizenship which was made manifest throughout the liberation struggle, a more exclusive understanding has now become dominant. Such a conception of citizenship is not spontaneous, however, but is reinforced by discourses originating from multiple actors such as: government officials, the media, civil society and society at large. These discourses overlap and reinforce each other, culminating in what Neocosmos calls ‘a politics of fear’. It is this fear, rather than economic deprivation and an influx of foreigners, which helps to explain the events of 2008. In order to counter this widespread fear, Neocosmos suggests that we need to reaffirm an inclusive understanding of citizenship in order to transcend fundamentally oppressive categorisations.

In order to understand how events, such as the xenophobic attacks of May 2008, have arisen in South Africa, Neocosmos provides a genealogy of the subject ‘foreigner’ in order to understand the multiple ways in which foreigners in South Africa have been understood over time. He begins this analysis by recounting Mamdani’s distinction between ‘direct rule’ and ‘indirect rule’. Here, the former concept refers to the denial of civil freedoms, while the latter necessitates the presence of a rural tribal authority, as well as regulations in the form of customary law (Neocosmos, 2010: 22). Neocosmos regards this relationship as authoritarian and founded on “an oppressive chieftaincy and a despotic patriarchal and gerontocratic system of ‘custom,’” (2010: 28) where the ‘traditional’ is invoked to justify exclusionary networks of patronage. Moreover, the system of ‘tribute’ which goes towards chiefs not only prevents peasant from accumulating wealth, but also encourages them to seek wage labour in order to fund such taxes (Neocosmos, 2010: 30). For Mamdani, the distinction between indirect and direct rule thus has implications for the way in which people are constructed in society. As such, those who inhabit the rural extremities are regarded as ‘subjects’, while the status of ‘citizen’ is reserved only for those who are seen as having legitimate access to the urban centre. The consequence of this distinction, for the apartheid state, was the justification of rural deprivation for the sake of preventing massive rural-urban migration. Instead, rural subjects were restricted in their movement and were perceived, by the state, as useful only insofar as they contributed to the augmentation of white capital through “the reproduction of autonomous peasant communities that would regularly supply male, adult and single migrant labour to the mines” (Mamdani in Neocosmos, 2010: 23). The corollary of this mode of organisation was that black South African citizens, through their constitution as subjects, were de-nationalised (Neocosmos. 2010: 20). As such, despite having a South African affiliation founded on indigeneity, former citizens were reduced to ‘foreigners’. Consequently, the distinction between South African migrants and regional migrants broke down; both subjects were considered to be foreign within the South African state and, as a result of the extensive exploitation of workers, the migrant labour system came to be regarded as the sine qua non of apartheid. (Neocosmos, 2010: 41).

Due to the extent to which the migrant labour system came to be understood as the key pillar of apartheid qua form of labour control, actors within the liberation struggle placed primacy on its eradication. Here, the exclusion of migrants, insofar as it contributed to the dismantling of the migrant labour system, was interpreted as a progressive politics. Moreover, since both South African and regional ‘foreigners’ encountered similar levels of oppression and a common enemy, popular movements, from the outset, assumed an inclusive definition of citizenship (Neocosmos, 2010: 46). As such, rather than understanding citizenship as a function of indigeneity, the term ‘citizen’ came to refer to those who were actively involved in the political transformation of society. In addition to their focus on inclusivity, the broad goal of popular struggles during the 1980s was to gain access to urban spaces which, hitherto, had been reserved ‘citizens’. This, for Neocosmos (2010: 59), gave rise to a key contradiction within the popular struggles of the 1980s insofar as it represented an urban-biased emancipatory project. As such, the interests of urban and rural dwellers were not reconciled and the positive aspects of the migrant labour system, namely, development, survival and some accumulation, were systematically ignored (Neocosmos, 2010: 59).

If the popular struggles of the 1980s had, as a key tenet, the notion of inclusivity, how then has citizenship in post-apartheid South Africa shifted to become contingent on indigeneity? For Neocosmos, the answer to this lies in the effective de-politicisation of citizens and civil society during the 1990s. Consequently, the emphasis on popular democracy is replaced by a state-centric politics which, in turn, gives rise to the state-nation and the subsequent exclusion of those seen as ‘foreign’ in the name of so-called ‘national interest’ (Neocosmos, 2010: 62). Additionally, popular involvement in decision-making becomes replaced with top-down methods which are rationalised by the assumption that “the state [can] develop the democracy needed for ‘popular development’ through state-controlled corporatist institutions” (Neocosmos, 2010: 64). In other words, popular involvement is supposed to develop as a result of statist conceptions of development rather than prior to, or alongside them. Within this understanding of citizenship, the individual is rendered passive, apolitical and is interpreted as a receiver of goods, services and entitlements rather than an active agent. This is augmented by the centrality of liberalism which has, as its focus, the concept of ‘delivery’ and as, a result, managerialism (Neocosmos, 2010: 99). Here, the state is seen as capable of delivering a host of goods and services including: jobs, empowerment, development, human rights and a cure for HIV/AIDS (Neocosmos, 2010: 99). Such fetishism thus restricts the scope for ‘political’ debate to differing opinions on optimal governance. While some actors do contest the primacy placed on the state, rather than stressing the need for popular involvement, they tend to focus on the need for market freedom in development (Neocosmos, 2010: 64). Within these models of development, the role of ‘the people’ is only to identify their needs such that they can be represented by local government or non-government actors (Neocosmos, 2010: 66).

In bringing about a state-centric mode of politics which has, as its main focus, the notion of ‘nation building’, exclusion becomes a metaphysical necessity. Indeed, any group has to differentiate itself from other groups and, as such, any ‘us’ presupposes a corresponding ‘them’. For Neocosmos, this has culminated in a ‘fortress perspective’ which interprets South Africa as distinct from the rest of Africa (Neocosmos, 2010: 82). This discourse of exceptionalism not only holds the positive view that South Africa is exceptional due to its industrial development, but also negatively assumes that the rest of Africa, in comparison, is “rural, backward, immersed in poverty and politically unstable and corrupt” (Neocosmos, 2010: 67). Such a view is propagated by portrayals of ‘Africa’ in the media as a helpless victim in need of South Africa’s assistance (Neocosmos, 2010: 96). This fortress perspective, codified by the Aliens Control Act of 1991, is able to justify the expulsion of foreigners as a result of their inherent ‘otherness’. The effectiveness of this legislation stems, perhaps, from the way in which it allows any police or immigration officer to declare anyone suspected of being an immigrant a ‘prohibited person’ (Neocosmos, 2010: 82). Such suspicion is unjustifiably confirmed by an individual’s failure to produce an ID document, despite the fact that it is not a legal requirement for South African citizens to have ID documents on their person at all times (Neocosmos, 2010: 89). Additionally, in support of this legislation, government officials encourage communities to get involved in unearthing illegal immigrants by claiming that “if they are good patriots [they should] know that it is in their interests to report [them] (Neocosmos, 2010: 83). Here, discourses surrounding the national ‘we’ versus the foreign ‘them’ are made explicitly clear.

In addition to government legislation, Neocosmos explains the persistence of exclusionary attitudes in South Africa by looking at the role played by numerous actors, such as: government officials, the media and civil society. He begins with Mangosuthu Buthelezi who, during his role as Minister of Home Affairs, became notorious for his inflammatory statements surrounding the purported deluge of foreigners. In relation to this he explains: “if we as South African citizens are going to compete for scarce resources with millions of aliens who are pouring into South Africa, then we can bid goodbye to our Reconstruction and Development Programme” (Buthelezi in Neocosmos, 2010: 85). Such a statement reinforces both the idea that belonging to South Africa requires being South African and that development ought to be perceived as state-led. Similarly, in 1996, a Home Affairs official called Mr George Orr unabashedly stated that after a grace period, during which foreigners could apply for permanent residence, immigrants would be hounded, traced, prosecuted, and denied health and education to the extent that their lives would be made “unbearable” (Neocosmos, 2010: 86). Here, the foreigner is not only constructed as inherently ‘other’, but such otherness is used as a justification for violent interventions. As such, violent methods of discipline, as enacted in detention centres such as Lindela where detainees are randomly abused and assaulted, seem to accord with what is interpreted as the government’s stance on foreigners in South Africa (Neocosmos, 2010: 93). More recently, an ANC minister, while not explicitly condoning the behaviour of police officers, stated that “immigrants must apply for the necessary permits and cannot undermine the law of the country or they will be arrested and deported” (Neocosmos, 2010: 95). Such a statement, by emphasising the need for immigrants to obtain relevant documents, seeks to tacitly condone violence enacted against foreigners. What is not taken into account, however, is the way in which the corrupt and defunct system undermines the ability for foreigners to obtain the necessary forms of documentation.

While xenophobic statements made by Buthelezi and Orr were readily disseminated as though they were the official position of the government itself, they did not go uncontested. Indeed, in 1998, Human Rights Watch accused politicians of making unsubstantiated and inflammatory statements which were dangerous insofar as they instilled, within the general public, xenophobic attitudes (Neocosmos, 2010: 86). However, human rights discourse, for Neocosmos, is an insufficient mechanism for countering xenophobia in South Africa. This is due to the extent to which he regards it as an empty rhetoric which fails to conceptualise the fundamentally political nature of xenophobia as an issue of power (Neocosmos, 2010: 88). Here, human rights are regarded as beyond the realm of debate insofar as they are scientifically, technically and naturally derived (Neocosmos, 2010: 100). Despite the fact that access to human rights has to be struggled for though mass mobilisation, human rights discourse takes them out of popular control where they are ‘guaranteed’ by state and non-state actors (Neocosmos, 2010: 100). Indeed, human rights discourse, most often taken up by civil society, suffers from the same shortcomings of technocratic state-centric discourses insofar as it conceptualises citizens as passive recipients of rights, as opposed to agents with a political will. This limitation is inherent in the current construction of civil society due to the extent to which it exists in mutual recognition with the state (Neocosmos, 2010: 99). As such, any act originating in what Partha Chatterjee calls ‘political society’ is considered illegitimate insofar as it undermines the authority of the state. The consequence of this, for Neocosmos (2010: 101), is that human rights function to maintain privilege while simultaneously excluding the majority from accessing the political sphere through norms of non-mobilisation. Therefore, citizenship is reducible to the possession of state documents which enable one to access entitlements and a disengaged electoral politics every five years (Neocosmos, 2010: 101). While non-citizens may have such entitlements, these must be accessed through their own states.
A further actor that is considered within Neocosmos’s analysis is the media, which he perceives as an ideological apparatus of the state (Neocosmos, 2010: 95). Neocosmos uncovers two trends within the South African media. The first trend is “bereft of analysis and uncritically cites problematic research as fact and uses anti-immigrant terminology” (Neocosmos, 2010: 96). This is the dominant form of coverage within South Africa today. As such, typical refrains within these publications refer to migrants as ‘stealing jobs’, ‘flooding into the country’ and ‘illegal’ (Neocosmos, 2010: 96). The less dominant trend is regarded as more analytical insofar as it takes into account the positive effects of labour migration on the economy and national development as a whole (Neocosmos, 2010: 96). However, such accounts retain the categories of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and, like supposedly radical movements, such as négritude, fail to transcend categories which, in themselves, are oppressive.

Having conducted a descending analysis of the way in which foreigners are constructed in South Africa, Neocosmos attempts to understand how this culminates into a broader social attitude. Here, findings reveal that the majority of South Africans can be classified as xenophobic insofar as they support interventions such as strict limits on the number of immigrants allowed into South Africa and a total ban on immigration (Neocosmos, 2010: 97). However, unlike the media and government officials, the understanding of foreigners in society is more contradictory. This is due to the extent to which a small amount of South Africans support a more liberalised immigration regime while accepting both immigrants and immigration (Neocosmos, 2010: 98). The societal stance on the question of xenophobia is further confounded by society’s response to the 2008 xenophobic attacks (Neocosmos, 2010: 122). Here, so-called ‘ordinary people’ and middle-class civil society assisted by helping those deemed ‘foreign’ hide from mobs and providing food and blankets respectively (Neocosmos, 2010: 122). However, Neocosmos later cites Landau who provides an explanation for the middle-class response to the attacks as not stemming from altruism or legitimate concern for others, but for the sake of preventing xenophobic discourse from becoming regarded as legitimate (Landau in Neocosmos, 2010: 145). Within this conception, the middle-class’s response originates from its recognition that, if norms of non-tolerance are allowed to prevail, their own acceptance within South Africa is likely to become more precarious.

Having established the turbulent journey that the category ‘foreigner’ has undergone from apartheid, to the liberation struggle and, finally, into post-apartheid South Africa, Neocosmos is in a position to understand how the events of May 2008 unfolded. From the analysis presented throughout the book, it is clear that the assertion that the xenophobic attacks were “not a sudden unexpected occurrence” (Neocosmos, 2010: 118) is a justified one. Instead, such attacks were made thinkable by the multiple actors seeking to disqualify foreigners from the realm of legitimate by keeping the distinction ‘us’ versus ‘them’ firmly intact. As such, Neocosmos is deeply critical of accounts of the xenophobic attacks which explained them as originating from a ‘third force’ of agitators, the influx of foreigners due to inadequate border controls, a lack of ‘service delivery’ and economic deprivation (Neocosmos, 2010: 122). These statements, legitimised by academics and experts, tended to blame poverty and, ultimately, the poor themselves (Neocosmos, 2010: 122). Moreover, while poverty might be a necessary explanation, it is not a sufficient one as, while it does account for feelings of powerlessness and desperation, it does not explain why foreigners (or those seen to be foreigners) were the targets of the violence (Neocosmos, 2010: 122). For Neocosmos, the fact that violence was enacted against a particular group of people necessarily assumes that the group had been previously constructed as ‘other’.
In place of widely disseminated and uncritical explanations, Neocosmos proposes interrogating the May 2008 xenophobic attacks as originating from ‘the politics of fear’ which refers to the widespread anxiety “that foreign nationals would swamp and overwhelm the country in such a way as to make the hard won gains of the 1990s liberation irrelevant” (Neocosmos, 2010: 141). This fear stems, primarily, from a hegemonic state discourse, as well as extensive exclusion founded upon xenophobic attitudes (Neocosmos, 2010: 142). It is this conception, for Neocosmos, which allows the act of being a foreigner, particularly a poor black foreigner, to become a crime in itself. The second contributory factor to this ‘fear’, as discussed previously, arises from the ‘exceptionalism’ of South Africa in comparison to the rest of Africa. According to this framework, South Africa is democratic and advanced while the rest of Africa is inhabited by the deviant ‘other’. The final component of ‘the politics of fear’ relates to the assumption that citizenship entails indigeneity (Neocosmos, 2010: 143). In many ways, such an understanding is necessitated by the discourse of human rights and state-centrism which allows individuals to access entitlements only insofar as they can prove their indigeneity.

In response to explanations which either blame the poor for the events of May 2008 or keep the dichotomy between foreigners and citizens intact, Neocosmos makes reference to the Abahlali baseMjondolo’s humanist response to the xenophobic attacks. Here, AbM stressed a fundamental axiom: ‘An action can be illegal. A person cannot be illegal’. In addition to pointing out how xenophobic discourse had manifested itself throughout the state structure, AbM retained its fidelity to the practice of treating all people equally (Neocosmos, 2010: 147). As such, it organised community patrols throughout the period in order to ensure that no violence broke out in areas in Durban where AbM was present. What is suggested by Neocosmos then is that, in order to undermine xenophobic attitudes within South Africa, it is necessary to once again cultivate an understanding of citizenship which is at once dynamic and inclusive. Instead of reducing individuals to categories such as ‘citizen’ and ‘foreign’, there is an implicit Fanonian maxim which demands that we once again strive to “recognise…the open door of every consciousness” (Fanon, 2008: 181).

By tracing the way in which ‘citizenship’ has been defined within South Africa, Neocosmos successfully challenges commonly held assumptions that xenophobic violence is a factor of economic deprivation, a third force, or an influx of foreigners. This is because, as revealed by Neocosmos’s genealogy, multiple actors have been actively involved in constructing and acting upon both citizens and foreigners in ways which work to oppress individuals through the systematic denial of political agency. However, while Neocosmos does successfully challenge widespread explanations which ultimately blame the poor, I remain unconvinced that his analysis can explain why the events of May 2008 unfolded, on such an unprecedented scale, at a particular place and time. Nevertheless, Neocosmos’s suggestion that citizenship ought to be conceived of as inclusive is helpful insofar as it undermines the dichotomy which exists between citizens and non-citizens. As such, his analysis is useful insofar as it considers xenophobia as a phenomenon embedded in the historical, and due to the extent to which it suggests ways of transcending false binaries.

Reference list

Chatterjee, P., 2004, The Politics of the Governed, Delhi: Permanent Black.
Fanon, F., 2008, Black Skins, White Masks, London: Pluto Press.
Neocosmos, M., 2010, From ‘Foreign Natives’ to ‘Native Foreigners’, Senegal: CODESRIA.