Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Response to From ‘Foreign Natives’ to ‘Native Foreigners’ by Michael Neocosmos

Mikaela Erskog

In From ‘Foreign Natives’ to ‘Native Foreigners’: Explaining Xenophobia in Post-apartheid South Africa - Citizenship and Nationalism, Identity and Politics, Michael Neocosmos explores the ways in which xenophobia came to be a pervasive political discourse and practice in post-apartheid South Africa. By combining “theoretical sophistication with historical sensitivity”, Neocosmos (2010: ix) proposes that there exists abounding xenophobic attitudes that can be traced to state politics and their various apparatuses.

Aside from xenophobia being an issues in itself, Neocosmos points to the fundamental betrayal of the post-apartheid state politics to the will and national consciousness of the anti-apartheid struggle as by looking at the treatment, legislation and praxis of migrant labour in South Africa, it is clear that the way in which the state conceives of nationality (and subsequently its practical articulation in citizenship) implies an exclusionary politics that disregards the humanity of ‘native foreigners’ (foreigners who have supported the anti-apartheid struggle and the post-apartheid state economy, and have come to identify with South Africa as either their home or supportive community) and even ‘foreign natives’ (‘indigenous’ South Africans being branded as foreign because they either do not comply with the limited state politics (Abahlali base Mjondolo) or whom ‘look’ stereotypically ‘foreign’ and therefore are somehow are deserving of abuse).
Neocosmos (2010: 142-143) argues that the state facilitates a “politics of fear” that is:
(1) Hegemonic and exclusionary to the point that “to be a foreigner, particularly a poor Black foreigner, is in itself a crime."
(2) Continually articulating a South African exceptionalism which proposes “a South African nationalism around an urban culture and a pro-Western ideology of unabashed neo-liberalism… [that has entrenched] a continuity with the apartheid ideology according to which South Africa is understood as existing apart from, and superior to, the rest of the African continent" and;
(3) Based on an ideology of indigeneity and nativism. Combined with South African exceptionalism, there is “the dominant perception that indigeneity is the only way to acquire resources, jobs, and all the other goodies and entitlements which should be reserved for native peoples only.  This necessarily leads to a debate on who is more indigenous, and hence [ironically] to nativism, the view that there is an essence of South Africanness which is to be found in ‘natives’."
Neocosmos sees as the very crux of xenophobic discourse and endeavors to identify each aspect that makes this politics possible in order to understand how best to counter it.
So how does Frantz Fanon enter this conversation?
From ‘Foreign Native’ to ‘Native Foreigner’ seems to be a critical articulation of something Fanon anticipated: that after independence, if African states’ national bourgeoisie became to absorbed in maintaining an unaccountable, singular power, there is then a basis for which a particular kind of politics may arise that tends to emulate oppressive, exclusionary conceptions of nationality that then could lead to “a permanent seesaw between African unity, which fades quicker and quicker into the mists of oblivion, and a heartbreaking return to chauvinism in its most bitter and detestable form.” (Fanon, 1963: 163).

Much like Neocosmos’s position on South African state politics as proponents of a narrow nationalism that facilitates xenophobic discourse and his discussion of the subsequent lack of constructive political exchanges between state and people (which he suggests points to such problematic ideologies as neo-liberalism and African Renaissance that disallow for a real exchange between state and population), Fanon (2004: 103) held a similar attitude towards the elite nationalism/national bourgeoisie:
“From… chauvinism to… tribalism, there is but one small step. And consequently, wherever the petty-mindedness of the national bourgeoisie and the haziness of its ideological positions have been incapable of enlightening the people as a or have been unable to put the people first, wherever national bourgeoisie has proven to be incapable of expanding vision of the world, there is a return to tribalism, and we watch with a raging heart as ethnic tensions triumph. Since the only slogan of the bourgeoisie is “Replace the foreigners,” and they rush into every sector to take the law into their own hands and vacancies, the petty traders such as taxi drivers, cake sellers, and shoe shiners follow suit and call for the expulsion of the Dahomeans or, taking tribalism to a new level, demand that the Fulani go back to their bush or back up their mountains.”

"[Our] mistake — has been, under pretext of fighting "Balkanization," not to have taken into consideration the pre-colonial fact of territorialism. Our mistake has been not to have paid enough at­tention in our analyses to this phenomenon, which is the fruit of colonialism if you like, but also a sociological fact which no theory of unity, be it ever so laudable or attractive, can abolish. We have allowed ourselves to be seduced by a mirage: that of the structure which is the most pleasing to our minds; and, mistaking our ideal for reality, we have believed it enough to condemn territorialism, and its natural sequel, micro-nationalism, for us to get the better of them, and to assure the success of our chimerical undertaking." - Frantz Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, (1963: 158)
Neocosmos does the work of paying attention to the phenomenon of xenophobia as something that, as Fanon points to, has its roots in the colonial state structure. As such, it only makes sense that Fanon is subsumed in the text. As, being that Neocosmos finds xenophobia to be a ‘symptom’ of a colonial state politics, it points to the same issue Fanon faced half a century ago: of completing the decolonising of Africa.
Having a similar mission then, Neocosmos proposes a ‘Fanonian’ approach to dismantling hegemonic and oppressive state politics by advocating a politics of the people through "a rethinking of citizenship as an active political identity that could begin to re-institute political agency, and hence, begin to provide alternative prescriptions to the political consensus of state-induced exclusion." (Neocosmos, 2008: xii).
Here again, we see Fanon and Neocosmos reconceiving of a political subjectivity whose prerequisite is the recognition of “the open door of every consciousness” (Fanon, 1967: 181) (emphasis added).
Neocosmos (2010: 146) then suggests that on the premise of recognising the capacity of all individuals to think and act, and therefore the equality of every human subject, a means of reimaging citizenship would be that "rights must be based on the place of labour”, whereby ones contribution to society as a living part of it should be the basis of citizenship. Furthermore:
“It is this simple observation which provides the basis for a completely new conception of citizenship in a country which after all, is made up of people who migrated over many years in different waves, precisely to work and in doing so built a nation, as in fact used to be recognised during the struggle for liberation itself. " (2010: 146).
Neocosmos is not pessimistic about the future of politics as by looking at the past examples of inclusionary politics in the case of the United Democratic Front and the Industrial and Commercial Union, he proposes that the only way to change politics in South Africa is, not to restructure state form within, but for the people of the state to engage and disavow state politics. He (2010: 56) points specifically to the popular movements of the 1980s as promoting “an active conception of citizenship while it gave, in its practice, a universal content to these prescriptions which were absolutely clear to all within the popular nationalist politics of the time.” As such, like Fanon, he argues that national unity can only be real when we decide to conceive of it in unitary, inclusionary terms.
When faced with the state tells you to go ‘clear out’ your community of foreigners and you, as a ‘recognised’ South African, stand with those who are being abused, you take the first step in creating a different space for a more humanist politics to flourish.

Fanon, F. Black Skin, White Masks. Pluto Press: London, 1967
Fanon, F. Wretched of the Earth, Translated by Constance Farrington, Grove Press: New York, 1963
Fanon, F. Wretched of the Earth, Translated by Richard Philcox, Grove Press: New York, 2004

Neocosmos, M. From ‘Foreign Natives’to ‘Native Foreigners’: Explaining Xenophobia in Post-apartheid South Africa - Citizenship and Nationalism, Identity and Politics, CODESRA: Dakar, 2010