Monday, 14 October 2013

From ‘Foreign Natives’ to ‘Native Foreigners’: Explaining Xenophobia in Post-apartheid South Africa by Michael Neocosmos.

Reviewed by Amanda Xulu

In ‘Foreign Natives’ to ‘Native Foreigners’ Michael Neocosmos brilliantly uncovers the perplexing xenophobic attitudes that seem to characterise South African society. Xenophobia in South Africa is a problematic occurrence as one can see it overtly through institutionalised xenophobia practiced by the state and through covert xenophobia that can be seen in regular people’s interactions with people that are not South African. This book was a very interesting (and exciting) read for me because of Neocosmos’ brilliant way of unpacking the myths that some people use as justifications for the xenophobic attitudes and actions. Neocosmos ultimately proves that xenophobia in South Africa is not only on the ground, but is continuously institutionalised by the current post-apartheid government, which inherited its attitudes from the previous apartheid regime.

 Neocosmos argues that South African xenophobia is “an absence of theory and absence of politics (Neocosmos, 2010: 15) while also being an absence of humanity because it is largely ruled by an irrational hatred of people that do not fall under a subjectively particular understanding of what it means to be a South African citizen. This is reminiscent of the arguments put forth by Jean-Paul Sartre in Anti-Semite and the Jew,  and in Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, where the concepts of anti-Semitism and racism are discussed as being irrational thought (or rather a lack of thought) processes which are influenced by overtly biased concepts of race. In my reading of From ‘Foreign Natives’ to ‘Native Foreigners’, I was struck by a deep sense of shame that South Africans are remorselessly subjecting people from other African countries to such cruel and senseless behaviour, which manifested itself most pertinently in the 2008 Xenophobic attacks around the country. This behaviour is perhaps more embarrassing when one thinks of the role that many African states played in aiding the fight for liberation from the apartheid regime. Countries like, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe served as guerrilla training bases for many UmKhonto we Sizwe and Poqo cadres who were either exiled from South Africa by the apartheid state or were sent abroad to train militarily in order to prepare for violent struggle. Many of these African countries played an extremely vocal role in leading international pressure against the apartheid government. Having said this, it is extremely disheartening to know that many South Africans have all but forgotten this role but have instead chosen to emulate many attitudes that resonate with some of the apartheid government’s beliefs.

Neocosmos states that xenophobia in South African manifests itself in three ways: the xenophobic, hegemonic rhetoric that is employed by the states; the laughable idea of South African exceptionalism and the idea of South African citizenship being dependent on ‘indigeneity’ (Neocosmos, 2010).

The state’s role in institutionalising the idea of a particular ‘South African citizen’ has contributed significantly to xenophobia in this country. Neocosmos argues that this is because the state has adopted the hostile nature of the apartheid state to anyone/thing that is considered to be ‘different’, despite the claims of possessing the most ‘progressive’ constitution in the world. The government and politicians often employ a paranoid and hysterical rhetoric that often casts those who fall ‘outside’ the state’s understanding of what a ‘South African’ citizen is (Neocosmos, 2010: 6). The South African state has constructed an idea of the ‘South African citizen’ which is largely individualistic and does not take calls for the recognition of difference well. Those who strive for rights outside of the understood idea of the ‘South African’ are immediately accused of attempting to undermine the unity of the country. I would argue that this is in line with a more cynical understanding of the nation-building exercise that was “Rainbow Nation”, where people are told to acknowledge their unique cultures and differences as being special, but to also hold these second to the idea of being a South African citizen. Anyone who does not comply with the hegemonic idea of what it means to be a South African is seemingly thought of as not South African ‘enough’. I recall this to a conversation I had with a friend on Heritage Day, when he remarked to me that anyone who does not braai is ‘not South African enough’. Foolish, I know.  Neocosmos states this superbly when he says: “Clearly the process of nation building (whether implicit or explicit) is not simply about the creation of national unity around a common political project; it is also about demarcating that unity from others – from foreigners (Neocosmos, 2010: 77).

One of Neocosmos’ most important points to note is that xenophobia is not only limited to it being institutionalised by the state; the media plays a large role in perpetuating stereotypes that might inflate xenophobic sentiments that some South Africans might hold. This is particularly dangerous because of the media’s omnipresence, as one cannot escape a day without being exposed to the news, movies, radio etc. From this, one can obviously make the conclusion that the media wields a considerate amount of power and has the ability to broadcast what it sees as fit. In cases like Orientalism, which is another form of racism and xenophobia, people that are from the “East” (sic) are portrayed in a number of derogatory stereotypes that at most times do not correlate to how people actually are. This is similar in South African media, where sensationalised stereotypes are used for whole population groups. One still sees this in films where all Nigerians are depicted as drug war-lords, where all Somalis are pirates and how South Africans often play a heroic role in conflicts in “Africa” (Blood Diamond is a horrible example of this). This unsubstantiated propaganda can be used for nefarious means as was seen in the 2008 xenophobic attacks, where publications like the (not-very-credible) Daily Sun were guilty of perpetuating the violence and xenophobic sentiment with articles that talked of “immigrants stealing jobs” and “using muti against South African people”.

I have dealt very little with the text, but it cannot be doubted that Neocosmos’ text plays a crucial role towards establishing an intellectual discussion about the deeply problematic presence of xenophobia in South Africa.


Neocosmos, M., 2011. From ‘Foreign Natives’ to ‘Native Foreigners’: Explaining Xenophobia in Post-apartheid South Africa. CODESRIA: Dakar.