Tuesday, 15 October 2013

'From Foreign Natives to Native Foreigners': a review

by Zamakhize Mkhize, October 2013

In From Foreign Natives to Native Foreigners Michael Neocosmos attempts to make sense of the xenophobic incidents that have plagued South African society since its liberation in 1994. He finds this wave of xenophobia particularly puzzling and deplorable in light of the support that South Africans received internationally in the struggle against apartheid. In May of 2008, a series of riots motivated by xenophobia left 62 people dead. This book endeavours to provide an all-inclusive and thorough explanation of the events leading up to this appalling incident. Neocosmos interrogates the political and social discourse surrounding the incidents.

As a point of departure Neocosmos questions the existing explanations for acts of xenophobia and the difficulties inherent in them. One of the main problems he identifies is that the NGO’s focused on finding such explanations are not so much concerned with the intellectual understanding of Xenophobia but rather they are  more concerned with ensuring that foreigners in South Africa have access to their inalienable human rights. Neocosmos does not contend that this is not a worthy project but it is one that falls short because “a human rights perspective militates against understanding for it appears to provide a readymade solution which requires very little intellectual effort” (Neocosmos, 2010; 3). Such a perspective merely leads to the conclusion that there is an inappropriate application of the law by the appropriate state organs.  Neocosmos dismisses other prominent explanations as fundamentally speculative. He identifies two problems with popular explanations. Firstly he argues that these explanations do not explain why South Africans scapegoat foreigners and secondly these explanations do not account for the xenophobic and exclusionary practices of state institutions and their officials. A solution proposed by Neocosmos is the bringing back of politics and theory, he argues that xenophobia should be understood as political discourse and practice.

Neocosmos draws on Frantz Fanon and states that xenophobia does not amount to one of the pitfalls of post- modernity but rather it is a problem of the post colony. He attributes this to the politics of the dominant group following independence. Fanon argues that the post- colony is founded on indigeneity and is fundamentally exclusive.

The second chapter of the book establishes the relationship between the political economy and the apartheid state. Neocosmos contends that in South Africa xenophobia is closely connected to the contested terrain of citizenship. The colonial state in South Africa ruled through a distinction between citizens and subjects. The result of this was that only those who could show a family relation to with colonial creation of South Africa. Those who could not prove this connection were excluded from claiming any of the national resources at liberation. The interesting aspect of this argument is that during apartheid the state systematically de-nationalised black South Africans to the point that they were turned into foreigners. “There was no fundamental distinction drawn by this state, especially as Bantustans came to be granted independence, between Black South Africans and Africans from other parts of the region” (Neocosmos, 2010;58). Neocosmos argues that a contributing factor to post independence xenophobia in South Africa is the way party politics were organised. Xenophobic discourse perpetuated by the state came about as the result of efforts to militate against the violent interaction between the UDF/ANC and Inkatha Freedom Party supporters.

The third chapter of the book focuses the construction of xenophobic discourse on post-apartheid South Africa. The South African method of nation building differed from the international trend and thus opposed the recognition of ethnic divisions, in stark contrast to the status quo under apartheid. However noble this cause was, this method of nation building led to the exclusion of those who were not considered to belong to the nation. “This process provided one of the conditions within the configuration of power relations for post-apartheid xenophobia” (Neocosmos, 2010; 62).

Neocosmos makes a compelling argument for the suggestion that xenophobia is also a legacy of both the colonial era and the apartheid regime. Victims of xenophobia in South Africa have consistently been working class black people from other regions in Africa and not white people from the West. According to Neocosmos this is indicative of racist practices inherited from the apartheid state.

From Foreign Natives to Native Foreigners takes a different path from other texts discussing xenophobia in South Africa. The fundamental difference is that Neocosmos does not focus solely on the actions of the so-called perpetrators of xenophobic violence. He also explores the role played by state institutions and xenophobic discourse propagated by the government. After apartheid, migrant labour was automatically viewed as intrinsically bad. Thus an automatic result of the democratic transition was to replace foreign labour with South African labour. This process was understood as fundamentally democratic as it worked towards ridding South African society if the remnants of apartheid.  “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). Thus we need to understand nation-building as not only the creation of a new community but also the exclusion of other communities.

With reference to government xenophobic discourse, Neocosmos uses the example of a former director General of Home Affairs who was quoted as saying that a large amount of foreigners are in the country illegally, on top of being in country illegally they were guilty of an array of other crimes, as well as a former minister of Home Affairs insinuating that all Nigerian immigrants were criminals. The effect of this is that statements made by government officials contribute to the public culture. This fuels the hatred that already exists on the ground based on economic factors.

Michael Neocosmos provides the reader with a book that seeks to explain xenophobia in a uniquely South African context. Neocosmos argues that the roots of xenophobia are to be found in the politics of the post –apartheid era, where the state continually stressed the importance of indigeneity. The role played by the government has led to the hegemony of xenophobic discourse. Ultimately it is clear that Neocosmos is rejecting the popular explanations for xenophobia and directs us to look towards political discourse and practice in post-apartheid South Africa.