Never becoming fully South African

Like many other African states, South Africans discharge their anger at political failings on easy scapegoats: those they deem foreigners.

Image: Refugee Studies Center, via Flickr CC.

For all the talk of hospitality and “ubuntu,” xenophobic violence is a more accurate reflection of how most South Africans understand the boundaries of “South African-ness.” As commentator Sisonke Msimang suggests: what binds black and white South Africans together is a kinship based on their shared experience of colonialism and apartheid. Msimang has argued that in South Africa, “… (f)oreigners are foreign precisely because they cannot understand the pain of apartheid, because most South Africans now claim to have been victims of the system. Whether white or black, the trauma of living through apartheid is seen as such a defining experience that it becomes exclusionary; it has made a nation of us.”

This is similar to a brown or black third-world immigrant trying to penetrate one or other European identity. Try as he might, he can never be fully Swedish, Danish, or German. While these northern Europeans may hold an exclusionary, racial view of themselves or their nation as “white,” they share with South Africans an unwillingness to expand the boundaries of their identity. If you are black and come from another African country, you can never become fully South African, even if you become a citizen.

In addition, for black South Africans, the anti-apartheid project was framed in the first instance in nationalist terms. And that struggle promised its followers liberation from the poverty, racism, exclusion, and inequality that they were experiencing. Yet, most black South Africans have experienced nothing of the sort since 1994. All that their political leaders can offer them now is chauvinism.

This is a postcolonial problem and South Africa is not exceptional. Recall the mass expulsions between Nigeria and Ghana of emigrants from both countries in the 1980s, Uganda’s ejection of Asians, the struggle over Ivoirite that broke Cote d’Ivoire apart for a while, or the way the Kenyan state has mistreated its Somali citizens since independence. The specifics in South Africa may be different, but the ways in which we respond follow the same pattern. The problems of South Africa since 1994 are rooted in its unsatisfactory political settlement, in which the enormity of the problems it inherited is papered over by feel-good politics and the neoliberal course it has embarked on since. But like many other African states, we choose instead to discharge our anger on easy scapegoats: those we deem foreigners.

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Further Reading

Just Us for Palestine

Africa Is a Country is proud to present a partnership with the popular South African podcast Just Us Under a Tree. On this episode, the Just Us crew analyze South Africa’s case against Israel at the ICJ.