Friday, 6 June 2014

A reflection on Michael Neocosmos's 'From Foreign Natives to Native Foreigners: Explaining Xenophobia in Post-Apartheid South Africa'

Ntombizikhona Valela

Michael Neocosmos' From Foreign Natives to Native Foreigners traces the prevalence of Xenophobia which has become commonplace in post-apartheid South Africa from colonialism and the apartheid era. This book also debunks the theory that South Africa is an exceptional state by showing that xenophobia is a phenomenon that is an African and international problem.

The first time I became conscious of Xenophobia was in 2008 with the attacks that were happening in the Western Cape and Gauteng. Before this moment, I had encountered xenophobia in its "mild" forms largely through South Africans referring to foreign nationals, particularly those from other parts of the African continent, as amakwerekwere. I remember watching a TV show (I think it was Zola 7) where a young person from outside the country had the desire of belonging in the school she was attending. This scholar was being bullied because she was not South African. The other South African scholars, upon being interviewed about how they feel about this particular student, described her as not belonging because people like her don't value hygiene and they are simply in South Africa to take their parents' jobs. During this period and even when xenophobia had reached its peak, public figures like Archbishop Desmond Tutu would call upon South Africans to stop this act of brutality against foreign nationals and we would be reminded that in our time of need it was these very African people that we are now mistreating that opened their borders to house those of us who had left the country during Apartheid. We therefore owed our freedom the people that we are attacking. What I observed during this time and even beyond it, since xenophobia still remains even though it is not under as much scrutiny now, is that South Africa is portrayed as being the only country that has ever had this problem. The media's coverage of this phenomenon also made it seem as though xenophobia was an extension of black-on-black violence. A recent screening of an episode of Special Assignment which shows white policemen using Mozambican people as “dummies” for training dogs to become vicious proved this. What Neocosmos does through this book is to show that xenophobia is influenced by the state which is an important player in the exclusion of foreign nationals through the way it defines identity and citizenship. 

Ethnicity is a huge factor in this. Neocosmos through citing Frantz Fanon's work, especially in The Wretched of the Earth shows us that xenophobia is not exclusive to the South African experience but was something that has happened in other countries at various points in history. Neocosmos also shows that South Africa's history and the apartheid state's definition of citizenship as well as the way cities were built created xenophobia within South Africa's borders through the introduction of pass laws and the establishment of the TBVC (Transkei, Bophutatswana, Venda and Ciskei) states- the Bantustans- which were reserves for migrant labour.

I was watching The Big Debate and on this particular episode the discussion was about youth and the role that it can play in building the economy. One of the panelists, a representative of the Democratic Alliance, Mzolisi Mnqasela who was the deputy shadow minister of home affairs, boasted of how the Western Cape is by far the most developed province in the country and that is owed to the work of the DA and its efficiency compared to the incompetence of the ANC in other provinces like the Eastern Cape. ANC representative, Marius Fransman responded to this sentiment by saying that provinces like the Western Cape were in fact beneficiaries of the apartheid system and the existence of the Bantustans as reserves for migrant labour, served to keep the Eastern Cape underdeveloped while serving the development of elites in Cape Town, therefore we must not be quick to boast about a legacy of exclusion. I was reminded of this when I read this book because Neocosmos traces ideas around exclusion to the colonial and apartheid eras because it was during this time that access to resources was based on a particular identity, a European identity, and this excluded the black majority. Black people were useful for providing migrant labour and this was achieved by the system of divide and rule which the apartheid government later entrenched through the Group Areas Act and the establishment of TBVC states.

Neocosmos also argues that resistance to apartheid took the form of an opposite discourse of unity across ethnic lines, a pan-African influenced form of struggle which didn't see ethnicity because black people were fighting a common enemy. This also reminded me of a video clip where Kwame Nkrumah was delivering a speech in Ghana soon after the country's independence. In that video there is a Ghanaian holding a placard that read apartheid is evil. This showed the solidarity between Africans across the continent and promoted the idea that we all belong and that we should all condemn any act that counters this sentiment. Neocosmos also shows that migrant labour was not taken from Bantustans only but that many migrants from outside the country lived in South Africa. Hugh Masekela's Stimela is a song that talks about the fact that Africans from various parts of Southern Africa as far as the DRC lived and worked in South Africa during Apartheid as a train would take them from their homes to the mines. During this time all black people united against Apartheid even those who were foreigners but were living in South Africa as labourers in the mines. At the height of Apartheid, the UDM called on South Africans to unite for a liberated South Africa regardless of what ethnic group you belonged to so that dream of freedom and democracy could be realised.

Returning to Mnqosela's statement, this also reminded me of Hellen Zille's statement that Eastern Cape people in the Western Cape were refugees. To me, this meant that apartheid ideas of citizenship still persist to this day. Even the fact that people still refer to certain parts of the Eastern Cape as Ciskei and Transkei, as well as certain parts of Limpopo as Venda show that we still have not completely resolved ideas of belonging. It seems to me that citizenship in South Africa is for those who live in the urban areas. Even Jacob Zuma's infamous statement in 2013 about developing Johannesburg and saying that this city is a serious national city, the heart of the economy, unlike Rustenburg gave the impression that the prioritizing of one place over another within the same country meant that only a particular group can benefit from the country's resources. The fact that Rustenburg is a mining region (the platinum belt) and a reserve of migrant labour to this day speaks to the unchanged state of our country and what Neocosmos shows- that the state plays a crucial role in defining who belongs and who therefore has access to resources. Former Bantustans and reserves still serve the same purpose they served since colonialism. Speaking of resources and access to these, I think the anti-Apartheid struggle was centered on access to resources. Black South Africans fought to be able to not only vote and have their human rights recognised, but to also enjoy the same privileges as white South Africans such as ownership of the economy through land and jobs. For so long black South Africans were excluded from the economy (apart from providing cheap labour) and fighting for democracy meant the end of this exclusion.

I think language plays a crucial role in the definition of who belongs. Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks dedicates a chapter to language and Fanon also speaks of how language plays a role in identity and access in French colonial society. South Africa has 11 official languages and these reflect the ethnicities within the country and I think this speaks to who gets to be a South African. I think language is the easiest signifier of who belongs where and in the case of South Africa belonging means access to other benefits including jobs, healthcare, education and land. I was having a conversation with my father on the word amakwerekwere and he told me that it's a name given to people who speak a language that is not known to the local people, sort of similar to the word "gibberish" because it's unfamiliar to the ear. So when someone speaks a language that we don't know they are immediately identified as not belonging and therefore undeserving of access to resources and other rights that citizens are entitled to like dignity and life. I think this makes Noecosmos's title fitting and I think this is what sparks the tensions that lead to xenophobic attacks because even those who don't "belong" are accessing resources that black South Africans fought for (never mind the fact that history shows that migrant labourers from outside South Africa participated in the struggle). I think the state has succeeded in going unnoticed in its perpetuation of xenophobia through its definitions of identity and who gets to be a citizen.

Another example is of another episode of The Big Debate which was on Race in South Africa. Identity was a huge issue because you had various people of different ethnicities within the country claiming ownership over South Africa. There was a group of gentlemen claiming to be of Khoisan descent and they were arguing that this debate was a "zebra debate" because black and white people were the only ones participating and this excluded the "coloured"/Khoisan population which were the original South Africans. The debate was so tense that it almost became violent as these gentlemen were claiming that this is their land and theirs alone. I think the discussion around identity and I think the failure to truly unite South Africa is because we have turned our backs on history and how societies were formed, dismantled and evolved over time. It was quite disappointing that no one raised the fact that these very gentlemen that cried racism because they were excluded from the debate were using racism to claim South Africa as theirs because they based being Khoisan on race- a coloured identity. There is a clan among the Xhosa, ooSukwini, who are of Khoisan descent through intermarriage between the Xhosa and Khoisan. There are also a group within the Xhosa called amaGiqwa which is a bastardisation of Griqua which are a group of Khoisan people. There are many other Xhosa clans that have Khoisan lineage and probably many other ethnic groups in South Africa because of migrations and intermarriages that took place. To racialise identity forms part of the problem (if it is not the biggest problem) and it’s a pity that no one in that debate addressed this. I suppose we haven’t addressed it at the national level.

 I'm in the process of looking at the history of my family and my clan. According to South Africa's definition of identity, I am Xhosa but when I did some research on my clan I found that we are originally Sotho immigrants who lived independently among the Thembus and eventually passed to councellorship among the Xhosa. This showed that people evolve and that identities are not rigid. It also reflected a very accommodating society that once existed in South Africa before colonialism took root. During the Mfecane wars, a lot of ethnic groups migrated and were accommodated by other groups. King Moshoeshoe is an example of someone who allowed groups during this time to settle in his kingdom and as such people of Lesotho have various origins. AmaHlubi of the Xhosa have links to a Rwandan tribe, the Bashubi and this speaks to a point in history where people lived in one particular place but through migrations societies dismantled and new societies were formed.

To conclude, I think if we accept the reality that we are an ever evolving people, then we can probably start creating a South African identity that is not just defined by borders. We forget that these African borders are not even our own but are one of the last lasting legacies of an oppressive regime built on exclusion.


Neocosmos, M., 2010, From Foreign Natives to Native Foreigners: Explaining Xenophobia in Post-Apartheid South Africa, CODESRIA: Dakar