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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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