South Africa is unfair to Other Africans

When the anti-African immigrants’ violence broke in South Africa, a country whose history must have a good place for African solidarity, given the level of contributions that African countries and their citizens made in the struggle against apartheid, I was not altogether surprised, although I felt very sad and disappointed. We have spent years of our idealism identifying with the anti apartheid cause such that for many activists of my generation, we lived in a virtual South Africa, sharing its heroic struggles and pains of anguish. When liberation came, it was such a joy that I have never since experienced.

In trying to come to terms with the horrifying reality of the violence, I intuitively went back to a book by a South African Professor of Sociology, Michael Neocosmas published in 2006 by the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA). The book is titled From ‘Foreign Natives’ to ‘Native Foreigners’: Explaining Xenophobia in Post-apartheid South Africa: Citizenship, and Nationalism, Identity and Politics.

In this book Prof. Neocosmos set out to explain the origin, nature and cause of xenophobia in South Africa which has dramatically and tragically resulted in the death of hundreds of Africans.

How come a nation that was the product of a just struggle would harbour such an anti-foreigner feelings? The most popular explanation about the senseless violence was the feeling that immigrants were coming to South Africa to take away jobs from South Africans who have remained jobless.

On the surface it, this would appear to be a reality. After all, what are the immigrants doing there if not doing some work? But there is no nation in this world that has not had its own fair share of immigrants. Why should it therefore be different for South Africa?

Neocosmos’ central thesis is that xenophobia is the result of a certain state politics that has dominated post-apartheid development discourse in the country. He sees it as a discourse and practice of exclusion from the community. The Mbeki government has pursued a neo-liberal development agenda which has seen the making of a few milling while cutting down jobs and increasing unemployment, along with more missilery and poverty. The practical import of this is that the government has adopted an exclusivist development strategy for which many are excluded from the benefits of the post-apartheid boom.

In its attempt to hide its failure against the rising expectation by South African citizens, the regime has to find scapegoats. But this finding of scapegoats is not a conscious practice but rather one that is transcribed on the regime by the specific politics it has adopted. This politics is one that revolves around nation building and the articulation of a new citizenship associated with it which is anchored on the imperative of producing a black capitalist class.

Historically the nation as conceived by the apartheid regime was urban based, centred in the cities, and therefore excluded the rural areas. Rural people were no citizens of South Africa but of their "homelands" whose only link with South Africa was through the immigrant labour they provided for the apartheid economy. The economy itself was driven on the basis of the immigrant labour. It is important of course to note that the term immigrant at that time was racially defined so that While people were not immigrants but were either settlers or foreigners. A black African was not a foreigner but an immigrant.

Against this current was its counter current around the nationalist movement which now defined citizenship not on the basis of decent but on active participation in the economy. Thus all workers who identified with the anti-apartheid struggle, irrespective of their descent, were considered South Africans. This was an inclusive politics which found expression in the Freedom Charter of the African National Congress (ANC) in the statement that "South Africa belongs to all". It did not discriminate on the basis of place of birth or origin.

But because these struggles were also located in the urban centres, it carried along with it elements of the state articulation of citizenship. In particular while in the apartheid state the rural and immigrants from other African countries were excluded from citizenship but were included in the apartheid economy for the nationalist movement, precisely because the immigrant labour was identified with the apartheid economy it had to be eliminated. So the new state of the neo-liberal faction of the ANC saw it as a duty to eliminate all traces of the immigrant system. For example hostels for immigrants were destroyed to give room for family housing. This juxtaposition by the state, of privileging the indigents (families) over the immigrants was part of the subtle scape-goating, which goes with the logic that there can be no houses for South Africans unless the hostels and temporary dwellings of the immigrants were destroyed.

That the violence and destruction meted was on the dwellings of immigrant is enough to show the link between official thinking and popular mob psychology. Nigerians in particular have for a long time been at the receiving end of mob action. Many Nigerians have to endure humiliating experience at the hands of immigration officials of South Africa, the most prominent experience being that of Noble laureate, Wole Soyinka.

Part of this was generated by such political leaders as Buthelezi when, as Minister of Home Affairs, once declared that all Nigerians in South Africa were criminals and drug traffickers. Of course Buthelezi’s anti immigrant venom was not directed against Nigerians alone. It was even against other South Africans who came under the violence of Inkata Freedom Party members. It was such inflammatory and inciting statements that fueled the anti-immigrant hate context.

But anti-immigrant feelings are not limited to such reactionary politicians as Buthelezi. ANC itself, both as a party and government, has not been able to come out clear on this. Instead it tends to, while condemning such violence, rationalize it as an inevitable part of the South African development process. This attempt at expectionalism is not tenable and cannot be supported.

The tragedy is not just about the destruction and the killing of innocent people. Underlying this is the growing disappointment with the sort of development agenda that the South African government has been pursuing which places premium not on the people but on the obsession of the need to be the continental hub of periphery capitalism in the era of a globalised world.