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South African enough to take to lunch?

By Duncan Scott

What’s in a nationality? In a country in which political rhetoric and common sentiment towards foreign nationals is often belligerent, quite a lot. A South African – let’s call him K – recently put it to me, “When it comes to nationality, like in every other civilised country in the world, there can be no grey areas … either you are a South African or not.” “A South African,” he claimed, “is someone who is born and raised in RSA.” From a strictly legal perspective on citizenship, he’s right. Yet, as the country witnessed in 2008 when thousands of foreign nationals were displaced from their homes in widespread attacks initiated by South Africans, an inflexible us-and-them approach can lead to dire consequences. Most concerning is that the views expressed by my interlocutor are not minority ramblings: there have been too many instances of discrimination against immigrants in the recent past, many of them violent, to justify fobbing off one person’s comments as immaterial. Indeed, King Goodwill Zwelithini exemplified the same belligerent attitude in his address at the recent opening of the KwaZulu Natal legislature. He suggested that Congolese nationals who march to Parliament “tarnish the good image of South Africa”. We need to confront the mendacity of this message from a cultural leader and a man of some political significance that foreign nationals do not have the same right as South Africans to stage a protest at Parliament. It’s vital, too, that we be critical of the well-worn, seemingly innocuous statements that perpetuate discrimination, embodied by the comments made by K.

Perhaps one of the reasons K’s remarks struck me as so destructive was that he made them in response to an award celebrating young individuals living in South Africa who consistently prove their commitment to excellence. The Mail & Guardian recently issued its call for nominations of candidates for its annual 200 Young South Africans You Must Take To Lunch feature. Nominees must be resident in the country and committed to its progress, but don’t have to be South African citizens. It was in response to these criteria that K pronounced his thoughts. At first blush, his conservative view of South Africanness and his appeal to civility is beguiling. His argument appears rational, primarily because it draws on the idea of legal citizenship. Historically, though, rationality has driven the ‘civilising’ mission in all its forms. British colonisation of parts of Africa and its oppression of indigenous populations drew its legitimacy from the conceit that Europeans were more sophisticated and civilised than Africans whom, it was said, were unable to think rationally. Later, when African countries gained their independence, rationality lay at the heart of development projects aimed at modernising countries’ societies and economies, sometimes with disastrous, unanticipated consequences. Furthermore, economic policymakers have long looked to market rationality to justify the harsh neoliberal policies imposed by the IMF and World Bank on countries which, they deem, need to learn to govern themselves properly – to become civilised. In short, rationality and the drive for civilisation have not always been friends of democracy and equality.

Stripped of this rhetoric of civilisation, though, K essentially argues for one kind of South African – the ‘real’ kind. However, the M&G‘s criteria describe a more nuanced situation whereby we need to recognise at least two sorts of South Africans. The first is the person whose legal citizenship cannot be taken from them – she was born in South Africa and her green bar-coded ID testifies to this. The second person belongs to a far more fragile fraternity, whose ties to the country lie in their adoption of it as their home, either temporarily or on a long-term basis, and their efforts to engage in the country’s development. Like other nations, South Africans are constantly negotiating politics of identity, ranging from same-sex marriage to the dynamic and prickly issue of racial classification. Scanning through questionnaires in the course of research, I’ve seen respondents circle both ‘Coloured’ and ‘Other’ when asked to identify their race. It’s not difficult to conceive of a situation whereby people who live in South Africa but were born elsewhere might after many years themselves feel both South African and Zimbabwean, for example. A broader understanding of who belongs in South Africa celebrates this diversity, it does not problematise it.

South Africa has a particular history of institutionalising group discrimination. We need to recognise and take seriously the nuances of citizenship in the country, especially as people will continue to migrate to South Africa in search of employment and political refuge. Once we discard matter-of-fact notions of ‘real South Africans’ and examine the grey areas in national identity we really will be a civilised country.

Duncan Scott is a researcher in the Human and Social Development research programme at the Human Sciences Research Council. He focuses on social cohesion in South Africa, including how foreign nationals contribute to building social ties within communities in the Western Cape.

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    • http://none shaun

      Does having dual citizenship make you any less South African?

    • Robard

      Agreed. South Africa is a legal fiction. A real country is defined by ties of blood and kinship amongst its inhabitants. Even America, the paradigmatic “proposition nation”, is at risk of becoming undone under the onslaught of mass immigration unleashed by its elites.

    • April

      I was born here, so were 5 generations of my family. However I was told a few months ago by another South African that I don’t belong here, and I must go back to “where I came from.” I was told that I’m stealing work, land and food from “real South Africans”. Yes, he’s an idiot (and I later discovered he was born in Mozambique), but I don’t think he is alone in his feelings.

      Being born here doesn’t make you feel like you belong. And quite a few immigrants I’ve met say they feel more at home here than they do in their country of birth.

      Oddly, as an english speaking teen, I felt like I didn’t belong because the nationalist government said only Afrikaans people could be real South Africans.

    • Painful

      So perhaps the only criteria that one can apply that is fair to all, is that of country of brith and citizenship. I too am an english speaking South African and I have to say that I have never identified with my ancestry (many generation back). In fact I think we are the one group in South Africa that is virtually “cultureless”. No melktert, no pap en vleis, no curry, no bobotie, no morog – no cultural dish. (No, fish and chips is not a British invention!) No volkspele, no traditional dancing. No class system or particualr preference for any grouping, religion or culture. We are a boring lot. Only our language and for some, a stiff upper lip in the face of adversity. Even Christmases follow the South African “braai” path. So what are we? When those kinds of arguments and insults arise then I usually respond to the effect that my sons will fight alongside his/hers should this country go to war . Is that South African enough for these short sighted people? We allow our cultural heritages to bedevil our thinking and our judgement.

    • OneFlew

      It is a tricky area. In one sense you are of a country if you were born there. And not if you moved there. But this sense of the concept does not correlate meaningfully with self-identification, loyalty and emotional attachment. And it is almost invariably used in a restrictive, exclusive way by those with an interest in keeping the proverbial neighbourhood just as they like it. It’s a fearful response.

      In another sense you are of a country if you live there, identify with it, have adopted its lifestyle and values and have taken nationality.

      The second sense is, in the main, the progressive one and the first is the parochial, defensive one.

      I was born in South Africa but for most purposes you really shouldn’t count me as South African. While I can take it or leave it I really don’t have very much in common with South Africans as South Africans (though I may of course have much in common with individual South Africans, as I do with people from other countries). I have no particular affinity with (or dislike for) the country or its people. So I’m fairly indifferent to the whole enterprise.

      Unlike, say, the Zimbabwean or Mozambican immigrant who may have invested enormous effort and time in South Africa. In the most meaningful sense of the word they are now South Africans. And I am not.

    • Robard

      “The second sense is, in the main, the progressive one and the first is the parochial, defensive one.”

      This doesn’t make sense. If a “progressive” were to emotionally identify with the lifestyle and values of his adopted homeland he would be indistinguishable from the natives and they wouldn’t need to be defensive.

      The progressive position is rather that all values are relative and loyalty to kith and kin is racist delusion. Instead they posit the free-floating individual who is loyal to the whole of humanity. Unfortunately this is a rationalist fiction. The vast mass of humanity is not interested in being nor have the intellectual and economic capacity to be rootless cosmopolitans. This fiction can be pushed only so far until there is a violent backlash from the parochial defenders, as happened in England the past week when immigrant shops were destroyed. Oh, you haven’t heard about that one? That’s because a fiction of necessity entails subterfuge and suppression of ugly truths:

    • OneFlew

      I don’t know where you get the idea that there is a single progressive position which can be characterised as all values being relative. That’s just a silly straw man.

      And your xenophobic example proves my point better than yours.

      And in the minds of the parochial types the immigrant is never ‘indistinguishable’ from the native population.

      Because that is not the psychological game. So even Michael Howard (former leader of the conservatives) had ‘something of the night’ about him because his family was originally from Romania. And Michael Portillo will mockingly have his name pronounced the Spanish way. Not one of us, see? And Barack Obama will have a ‘birther’ movement pursuing his allegedly non-american birth, making play of his Kenyan background and stressing that Hussein is his middle name. And many of the French will continue to think of Sarkozy as Mr Bling who isn’t entirely the finished article.

    • nina blair

      @Robard. What you saying is the biggest load of crock.
      Obviously you have been swallowing the line fed by the tea party hook line and sinker. The US is in no danger of disintergrating than the sun exploding in the next week. This is coming from someone who lives here and practice as an immigration attorney in the US.

    • James Shipmaster

      For a country to qualify as a real country, Frank Zappa once said, it needs an airline, a beer and a football team. Do we have all three?

    • Vinayak Bhardwaj

      Excellent article. Above the beautifully crafted fundamental arguments made above, South Africans’ might do well to disabuse themselves of the amnesia that makes them forget the crucial role the entire continent played in helping remove the yoke of apartheid.One little known example (and it’s still a minor one) is for example the imposition of a “Mandela Tax” by Nigeria in order to raise funds for the ANC. Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, Botswana, Tanzania and many others hosted MK fighters and those fleeing political persecution in their homes in some cases putting them in the direct firing line of the apartheid government. Being South African is in a sense to assume this history without which South Africa as now know it might not have existed.

    • MLH

      Oversimplification is dangerous.
      My SA father worked in the UK from before WWII until 1959, married an English woman, but registered each of his kids at South Africa House in London on their births. We were thus SA citizens. Because my formative years were spent there, I still feel pretty British, but I have lived here since I was eight. My mother exiled herself from friends and relations to move here with her husband.
      Exclude me and you are actually excluding all the Dali Thambos who were born out of the country while ‘in exile’. Think of it…theose people benefited from excellent education, better opportunities and a wider knowledge of the world, then came home to glory in SA’s ‘freedom’. You could almost think it was at the expense of those who remained here throughout apartheid if you were feeling mean.
      Frankly, I believe those kids and families brought something to the new SA that most of us would rather not be without. Many remain role models, but had little understanding of what it was to live as the average SA citizen did then. They returned to houses in the suburbs and more easily found good jobs.
      People don’t just come to SA because they have been poor elsewhere; some embrace the place, the people and the future.

    • John Patson

      In general, happy, prosperous countries embrace those with dual or even triple nationalities, while unhappy, poor ones do not. It is also a good guide for future prosperity — Zimbabwe shut down dual citizenship provisions in the early 1990s, just as the wheels of prosperity were starting to get loose on the hubs.
      Now even the president (whose father was Mozambican remember) will have difficulty getting a passport when he eventually has to stand in line for one like everyone else.
      The big exception is the USA which, since the turmoil of the 60s and 70s has become happier and more prosperous but kept the “You have to give up all other nationalities if you are American and no American can become a national of another country,” line.
      No questions are asked though, even when US tax forms have to be filled in by people who have not touched US soil for years.
      Since the ending of sanctions there are advantages to having a South African passport, and perhaps the best guide to encouraging SA nationality is ensuring those advantages remain.

    • Tarupiwa

      I seriously take it upon myself to tell a very realistic African (meaning it stretches back beyond the advent of colonialism) perspective on this subject of African nationality and being South African. Africa was, is and will always be one big country. Before colonization we never had boarders. Yes, there were different chiefs and kingdoms AND these were not constant or permanent in terms of the territories they governed. There was always this dynamism, movements and shifts through wars, conquest, marriages, search for greener pastures etc. The European colonialists came and parceled, decimated Africa amongst themselves. That’s the origin of nations in Africa.
      With this very simple background, tell me, who qualifies to be a South African? Migration since time immemorial has always been as a result of social (marriages), political (refugees running away from wars) and economic (search for a place where one can earn/live a decent life) – pressures.
      Like it or not, everyone, in the long run, did migrate from somewhere. The only difference is different people migrated at different times BUT all migration the same. And, since everyone, one way or the other, has at some point in time migrated – whose right is it to stop it today. We all belong to one world community, we are all citizens of the world and more so here in Africa. The reason Africa has different nationalities today is not a making of or by Africans, if anything – it’s a strange, unrealistic, deceitful and unprogres

    • Tarupiwa

      Like it or not, everyone, in the long run, did migrate from somewhere. The only difference is different people migrated at different times BUT all migration the same. And, since everyone, one way or the other, has at some point in time migrated – whose right is it to stop it today. We all belong to one world community, we are all citizens of the world and more so here in Africa. The reason Africa has different nationalities today is not a making of or by Africans, if anything – it’s a strange, unrealistic, deceitful and unprogressive concept.
      Being a Zimbabwean who loves, prefers South Africa because of its far much better infrastructure development – I seriously get surprised when fellow black South Africans want to make us look very foreign just because of a river, Limpopo, which separates us – albeit its being very dry and sandy in dry seasons and years. Honestly, who is more foreign, a man coming from across the river or one coming from across the sea/ocean?

    • Robard

      “I don’t know where you get the idea that there is a single progressive position which can be characterised as all values being relative. That’s just a silly straw man.”

      No, the straw man is that I said there is a single progressive position. Obviously in this context “all values being relative” refers to customs and traditions as they actually exist. Progressives who aren’t relativists posit a kind of abstract ethics that is supposedly universally applicable if not actually lived. It still means that if a “progressive” were to emotionally identify with the lifestyle and values of his adopted homeland he wouldn’t be a progressive

      “So even Michael Howard (former leader of the conservatives) had ‘something of the night’ about him because his family was originally from Romania. etc. ” Well, that proves my point about ties of blood carrying far more weight than the opinions of cosmopolitan elites.

    • Robard

      Nina Blair: “Obviously you have been swallowing the line fed by the tea party hook line and sinker.”

      The existence of the Tea Party and the hysterical reaction from progressives sort of prove my point, I would think.

      ” The US is in no danger of disintergrating than the sun exploding in the next week. This is coming from someone who lives here and practice as an immigration attorney in the US.”

      Well, that coming from an immigration attorney hardly adds to its credibility. Last time I checked immigration attorneys made their living off immigrants. But the threat to the US isn’t legal immigration as much as the illegal kind that is allowed to flourish through weak or non-existent enforcement. California already has an Hispanic majority that openly agitate on the streets for reconquista, ie the takeover of the southwestern part of the USA by Mexico.

    • Rich

      [email protected] – there were nations and kingdoms in Africa prior to colonialism who did define their territory/coverted other’s and defended theirs.. With the advent of modern medicine/better food supplies etc that increase population sizes and life expectancy (and do not exclude literacy too) it was just a matter of time before defined national boundaries would have been drawn by Africans themselves (with or without colonialism). To imply all tribes/nations/peoples would have lived harmoniously without defining boundaries when resources became converted because of the increased populations I believe is denying the ugly side of human nature.
      To assume that nationalities did not exist prior to colonial mapping therefore a foreign concept and alien to Africans is naive.
      Africans, believe it or not, are also human and are therefore also prone to the Human Condition WITH all its warts…Africa was not all milk and honey…with the good will come the bad; you cannot have it both ways.

    • Khalsa Singh

      Dear Mr. Scott,

      you are confusing two very different concepts……nation vs state. A South African NATION in my opinion should unambiguously refer to nationalism and the cultural identity that unites us as a nation. You are mixing vague political constructs that constitute statehood….something that can be ‘bought’ by any refugee or asylum seeker jumping over our precious borders. Strong, united countries are usually ethnically homogenous…..a luxury we South Africans will never have. By diluting the definition of a SA national with just about any rabble who suddenly considers himself South African just because some crackpot in his home country has scared him away you are in effect reducing the chance of young South Africans to identify with what makes a national a patriot.Thus legal birth right is the only yardstick we can broadly use. For the youth we should strive to create a clear national identity.

      You also cunningly bring in absurd arguments like Xenophobia. The thousands of German expats living legally as our guests in the Western Cape will disagree with you. A few illegal immigrants (read criminals) getting sjambokked in JHB is hardly reason to cry countrywide Xenophobia. On the other hand……social ‘problems’ like Xenophobia and homophobia are the foundations for the pseudo science that gets the HSRC funding I imagine.
      I lived abroad for many years and although I loved the experience I never had any illusions about my nationality and remain a…

    • http://@Rich-whowantstostayinacountrywherethereisanarchy,may-hem,machetes,genocidesevencanibalism.Unendingcivilwars,chaos,uncontroleddiseaseinfestations.Cholera,diphtheria,severeendemicdiarrhoea,haluc Tarupiwa

      @ Rich – who wants to stay in a country where there is anarchy, may-hem, machetes, genocides even canibalism. Unending civil wars, chaos, uncontroled disease pandemic. Cholera, diphtheria, severe chronic diarrhoea, halucinations and madness…(you can fill in the rest). An Africa where women, even girls as young as 2 month are raped. Dont forget the recent genocide in Rwanda – would you ever want to, even in a dream, to be in such a neighbourhood. The model of the USA could have worked for Africa. One constituition and supreme court for the entire continent. One political capital city etc. With a governor for each country and one president for all. That way, we could deal with a lot of serious dark practise out there. See what hapens everytime there is elections – people are literaly killed for votes. Up north its quite some bloody business changing governments. Thats not democracy or anywhere near it. So, as a result of all this plethora of real life threating scenarios, people are forced to migrate down south to pick some bit of quite and sunshine. These people are running away from real dark, grotosque African demons from far way back – hence allow them to intergrate with civility. Some people are honest victims. So, before we worry about who is South African or not, lets all make a firm stance against all dictators up north. Political instability in Zimbabwe is sure to seriously spill over the limpopo.

    • Grant Walliser

      The confusion arises when we lump together the concept of a nation and a state. A state is the physical bordered entity that may or may not hold part or all of a nation. A nation is that group of people that feel kinship, that will defend eachother, that share common languages and values and who work together to progress. South Africa is an intact state but a fractured nation with huge numbers of people that live outside of the borders of the state and various factioins within the state that do not feel part of the same nation. That is why we refer to nation building and not country or state building and why sport events that bring various factions together to support a team that represents the entire nation are positive for nation building.

      Passports entitle you to the benefits of a certain state. You could be currently residing and part of one nation but by history part of another and carry the passports of both. There is no simple way to view this besides a recognising a fuzzy period of slowly becoming more part of one nation and less part of another. This normally takes generations which is why it is confusing.

      Humans are tribal creatures as our survival was and, to less of an extent, still is dependant on the group we align with and go through life with. The freedom to accept the coing and going of the new and mobile global human is a modern luxury and we are still writing the rules for that change.

    • MLH

      On the back of Rich’s last comment, we should remember that it was Africans who created a market for African slaves by selling their prisoners of war to merchants who then took them to other countries and sold them on. Those merchant slavers were just middle men; had all Africans bonded to fight them, there would have been no profit in African slavery.

    • Rich

      @ Tarupiwa – I agree fully there re people migrating for a better life. One should never begrudge people for wanting to do that. I would do the same.
      And maybe a federal system could have worked better in Africa but I doubt it as the tribal and language differences are to vast. The USA remember has mostly one language (excluding the relatively recently recognised emergence of Spanish).
      One just has to look at the AU currently.

    • Rich

      MLH – maybe it would be better to say ‘…Africans who responded to the market for African slaves by….’

    • Toni Benoni

      I am a libertarian. If you pay tax to the thieves in government you are south african. Every single “illegal” immigrant pays VAT, Fuel levy etc. and therefore are de facto citizens. The government chooses a definition that allows it to spend as little as possible on as few as possible while stealing as much as possible. Its time for tax payers to take control of this country… all of us.