“A malignant ‘nativism’ threatens post-apartheid democracy (in South Africa)”

Africa is a Country editorial board member Dan Magaziner and I published an oped on The New York Times about the current (briefly subsided) violence by South Africans against other black Africans from north of their borders. We wanted to move away from broad characteristics of the violence as xenophobic by focusing on recent history and the present meanings of documents like the Freedom Charter which shapes political identity there. Here’s some extracts:

… The recent outbreak of xenophobic violence (in South Africa)is a direct consequence of (the political) compromises (of the early 1990s). Usually labeled a “miracle transition,” the early 1990s were actually a period of tremendous violence in KwaZulu-Natal and around Johannesburg. The unrest was fueled in part by the apartheid government’s efforts to sustain itself by promoting rivalries between the country’s “traditional” or tribal authorities and the nationalists affiliated with Nelson Mandela’s A.N.C.

The country was beset by ethnic and regional conflicts, emanating from the white minority and the various ethnically defined homelands that the apartheid government had created. King Zwelithini was the symbolic leader of the strongest of these, representing nearly 10 million Zulus, the largest ethnic group in South Africa. The king’s brand of ethnic chauvinism appealed especially to young, poor men. Along with KwaZulu’s chief minister, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and the Inkatha Freedom Party, he repeatedly threatened to sabotage the landmark 1994 election. One of the A.N.C.’s triumphs was to co-opt these nationalist leaders into the new South Africa, without requiring them to give up their Zulu chauvinism.

Traditional leaders like King Zwelithini were put on the state’s payroll as part of a group called the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa. This gave them new legitimacy and brought a measure of peace to KwaZulu-Natal — and eventually brought the province into the A.N.C. fold, but at a cost. It gave legitimacy to a form of ethno-nationalist politics that the A.N.C. had officially opposed during the anti-apartheid struggle.

In the interest of governing, the A.N.C. opened its ranks and offered support to a range of ethnic and regional interest groups, including elements of the former apartheid regime and traditional leaders. Mr. Zuma himself exploited Zulu nationalism in his own battle for the presidency.

The ethno-nationalism that marked apartheid’s dying days has now morphed into a malignant “nativism” that threatens post-apartheid democracy.

Mr. Zuma has not done much to address the crisis. He issued a soft condemnation a week after the first attacks started and offered migrants safe passage back to their native countries. He has since sent the military into the most restive areas, while criticizing the media for over-hyping the story. At no time has he criticized the Zulu king.

If Mr. Zuma wanted to offer concrete solutions, he would do well to look back to one of the most celebrated chapters in his own party’s history. In 1955, a variety of groups, led by the A.N.C., adopted the so-called Freedom Charter, which declared, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it.” The charter’s signatories included black Africans, descendants of slaves imported to the Cape Colony, laborers from South Asia and immigrants from Europe. The first post-apartheid Constitution, in 1996, enshrined the promise that the country belonged to all. Recent days have shown that there are limits to this promise.

For many poor blacks, the label “South African” and the accompanying right to be represented by a democratic government are the only reward they earned from long decades of struggle. During the negotiations to end apartheid rule, the idea that South Africa belonged only to “those who already lived in it” was one issue on which the white minority and the liberation movements already agreed. In their view, the struggle over apartheid was contested by South African nationals, and the nation belonged to those who had declared it for themselves during that struggle.

King Zwelithini and his supporters took a while to see the benefits of being counted as South African, rather than Zulu, but now some of them have seized on that identity with fervor and directed their anger against outsiders who have arrived since 1994. Despite the Constitution’s claims, the Freedom Charter apparently applies only to some, not all, who live in South Africa.

Read more here.

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