Nativism and narrow nationalism in South African politics

The question of who belongs in South Africa, stains any project that aims to build a more equal and inclusive society.

Hillbrow, Johannesburg (Matthew Stevens, via Flickr CC).

A history riddled with racial and gender oppression, economic inequality, and ethnic disputes, contemporary South Africa is facing mounting and legitimate pressures to resolve profound social challenges. Multiple organizations and political groups have joined the quest to tackle racism, patriarchy, poverty, and inequality. What unites these groups is the desire to be a voice for the historically disadvantaged, and to construct an African nationalism.

How to build such a nationalism, in the context of South Africa, has historically been called the “National Question,” the question of who belongs in South Africa. Currently, equality, and equity are merely aspirations as the country is one of the most unequal societies in the world. In addition, socio-economic and institutional discrimination continues to undermine the full development of the black majority. South African political groups are rightfully aligned in their pursuit for complete socio-economic and political liberation for the historically disadvantaged, however, the way some of these groups have chosen to respond to these challenges is problematic. They mostly dwell on racial and ethnic mobilization centered on fear and intolerance for different ethnicities, religions, and racial groups.

Nativism and nationalism can be found to be problematic in contemporary South African politics. Fairchance Ncube, a columnist with News24, asserts that there is a propensity among some nationalists and Afro-radicals—which in this instance would be the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Black First Land First (BLF) among others—“to appeal to narratives of nativism and indigeneity as the indispensable basis for certain entitlements (particularly the land and its natural resources).” Considering the exclusionary and oppressive history of colonization and apartheid, some of the claims lodged by these groups are justified, particularly considering the inherited inequalities from those governments and the present-day challenge to eradicate them.

However, to pain this perspective in a different light, Achille Mbembe uses the analogy of Nongqwase, the 16 year-old Xhosa girl who in 1854 prophesied to the Xhosa people, via her uncle, to kill all their cattle en masse to combat the deprivation suffered under British colonialism. The prophecy was that the Xhosa ancestral spirit would subsequently resurrect and sweep away the white colonizers to the sea. None of this happened and:

…by May 1857, 400,000 cattle had been slaughtered and 40,000 Xhosa had died of starvation. At least another 40,000 had left their homes in search of food … the whole land was surrounded by the smell of death, Xhosa independence and self-rule had effectively ended.

According to Mbembe, “Nongqawuse syndrome is a populist rhetoric and a millenarian form of politics which advocates, uses and legitimizes self-destruction or national suicide, as a means of salvation.”

It is evident from contemporary politics that some political groups have dragged progressive nationalism into irredeemable disrepute for their own self-enrichment. Such discourses replicate colonial and apartheid logics based on simplistic conceptions of who belongs and who does not. These discourses do not reflect the reality of a diverse South Africa. They thus pose a threat to the realization of a non-racial, inclusive, and democratic society. This is particularly problematic for political parties which aspire to one day rule the country—such as the EFF—as “their limited conception of the nation will, therefore, yield action and policy that does not account for the complexities and nuances inherent to a culturally and racially heterogeneous society.”

In addition to black nationalism and nativism in post-apartheid South Africa, the chauvinist, narrow, white nationalist Afriforum has emerged as a conservative Afrikaner group. Afriforum is concerned with protecting the interest of white Afrikaners. Afriforum has constantly opposed the redistribution of land among all South Africans and this shows that their narrow nationalism emerged to protect white minority interests at the expense of the majority of South Africans.

In the transition to democracy, the ANC was committed to the ideals of inclusion and non-racialism. However, it is becoming trendy to constantly attack white people regardless of their class position and ideological orientation in the spirit of nativism and narrow nationalism. This does not mean certain attacks on white racists and organizations such as Afriforum are not justified. These organizations are gatekeepers of white privilege and are resistant to measures that would improve the socio-economic conditions of black people, such as expropriation of land without compensation. The likes of Afriforum feed into the frustrations and sometimes the hatred of white people, especially considering the white population’s historical and contemporary privilege.

Parties such the EFF and BLF exploit strands of nativism and use the above frustrations over the slow wheels of justice—under the ANC—to advance narrow nationalism and stoke racial tensions. The use of people’s genuine struggles to advance populist agendas and to score political points misleads the public, getting them stuck on differences and current problems rather than focusing on developing and practically implementing sustainable solutions to improve the conditions of black people in the country.

Examples of populism and racial nationalism by these political parties can be found on social media. It is reflected in BLF’s president Andile Mngxitama’s encouragement for supporters to kill five white people for every black person killed. Mngxitama went as far as threatening to take South Africa to the dark ages of apartheid. Jesse Duarte, the ANC’s deputy secretary-general, asserts that racial nationalism is poisonous as it rejects non-racialism and national reconciliation. Ncube contends that this is troublesome because:

There is a certain degenerated strand of nativism that is nothing but an embodiment of racism and narrow social chauvinism of the highest caliber that can hardly be associated with the ideals espoused [sic] some of South Africa’s most celebrated bulwarks of the anti-apartheid struggle.

What the country needs is leadership that is targeted at resolving racial and structural tensions and inequalities that feed racism and narrow nationalism. This would require finding creative strategies to engage all stakeholders to create an equal society where there is an equal distribution of resources.

One of the most devastating implications of nativist nationalism is xenophobia. Presently in South Africa, in areas such as KwaZulu-Natal, there are heart-breaking attacks on African foreign nationals. Such attacks have been taking place since the realization of the democratic dispensation, with government struggling to discover the root cause of these attacks and how to mitigate them. Claude Ake (1996) cited in Norbert Kersting’s 2009 article, describes this wave of nativism as a “second” or “new nationalism.” Claude Ake (1996) describes this “new nationalism” as “a rule, no longer directed toward other countries but against denizens (non-citizens) living within an African state.” The pitfalls of such a nationalism is that it alienates itself from inclusiveness founded in the decolonization process and promotes exclusivity among Africans.

Socio-economic inequality is a contributing factor to the mounting resentment and attacks against African foreign nationals. The way in which foreign nationals are spoken about by organizations and political leaders breeds contempt and perpetuates xenophobic attitudes. For instance, the EFF has been vocal about dismantling borders and creating an African community, yet at the same time in their 2019 manifesto, the language used to speak about foreign nationals is one of criminality and distrust. The Democratic Alliance (DA) is no better than the EFF, with the Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba (from the DA) spewing harmful comments about foreign nationals in South Africa.

Additionally, a meeting in April 2019 between the ANC’s international relations minister Lindiwe Sisulu and president Cyril Ramaphosa confirmed that the ruling party believed that the problem of xenophobia was a problem of criminality. This simplistic conception of xenophobia is problematic as it erases accountability from political leaders and does not adequately deal with the threat that the discourses of nativism, Afrophobia, and narrow nationalism pose to our country today.

The recognition of traditional authorities and land redistribution powers granted to them in the democratic dispensation is one of the cruelest versions of nativist nationalism. It undermines the political freedom of people residing in the countryside, as well as women. Mahmood Mamdani shows that under the colonial and apartheid states, South Africa was divided into two dimensions of bifurcated states—direct and indirect rule. Indirect rule was presided over by traditional authority. To enforce ethnic pluralism, urban and rural divisions, the colonial and apartheid governments decentralized their powers, using traditional leaders as instruments for control over black people. These governments collaborated with traditional authorities as they recognized the strength of indigenous rulers in organizing black people socially.

What the role of traditional authorities in a democratic state should be, has been disputed. Arguments in favor of the preservation of these structures claim that they form part of African culture and identity that predates colonization. The opposition contends that traditional authorities infringe on the rights of people living in rural areas, and that they have historically acted as extended authoritarian structures, assisting in the oppression of black people under the colonial and apartheid governments.

The EFF, in its 2019 manifesto, showed great favor towards the continued existence of traditional authorities. One of us has argued that:

The EFF misses the point. Today’s organized traditional authorities are the culmination of colonization and of apartheid history. Historically, traditional leaders in Africa were not attached to the ownership of the land, unlike in Europe, because the land was abundant and did not broadcast their power to their subjects.

The EFF’s stance on traditional authorities feeds into the gender-based violence and inequality in land ownership experienced by women. Women’s access to land and tenure security are compromised predominately by two factors; firstly, due to the legacy of racially driven land dispossession, and secondly because of gender discriminatory customary law and patriarchal interpretations of culture. This places women in rural areas in a unique intersection between the law and traditional practices. This means that women in rural areas do not enjoy the same rights as men in rural areas or as people in urban spaces.

Women’s inability to access land puts them in precarious socio-economic positions where they are subject to exploitation. Women often remain in violent relationships because of poverty and unequal power relations to their male counterparts who own land. In these positions, women have little to no power to mitigate their social and material security. However, ownership of land would enable women to enjoy the economic liberties and political independence.

Currently, women in rural areas can often only access land through their relationships with men—husband, son, father, uncle, etc. Single women cannot be allocated land and are often unable to inherit after their parents die. Like widows after the partner dies, they are evicted from their homes. This means that women are obliged to take the men in their lives—sons, uncles, fathers, etc—as their representatives when going to talk to traditional leaders concerning important decisions about land rights. Women are not allowed to represent themselves in front of these authorities concerning land. This means that women are excluded from key decisions around land rights. Even when women are included in these conversations, traditional courts are usually dominated by men who overshadow and undermine women. Subsequently, women often do not receive impartial assistance in land disputes.

Therefore, if the EFF was committed to the liberation of black people it would be supporting the abolishment of traditional authorities instead of advancing nativist nationalism that subjects the very same people the party wants economic freedom for to hereditary, unaccountable, and authoritative structures. It is questionable whether strategies to protect women by challenging discriminatory laws and abolishing patriarchal customs can be developed by organizations and political parties that advance strands of nativism that empower elements of sexism, tribalism, and patriarchy. Ncube affirms this by arguing that “this strand of nativism is not only a threat to ideals of gender parity that are expected of any democracy, but they also thwart any meaningful attempt to land (re)distribution.”

For the realization of equality and equity in a non-racial, inclusive society, it is critical that South Africans remain vigilant and critical to ensure that no claim goes unchecked, or is above criticism, whether that claim comes from the mouth of a colonial or African descendant. These include philosophies and actions taken in the name of nativism and nationalism framed to be for the improvement of the material conditions of black people. This is significant, because unchecked ideologies of nativism and nationalism can be exploited to preserve oppressive structures, such as traditional authorities, whilst also advancing populism, racialism, and patriarchy.

Last of all, it is pivotal to note that this piece merely seeks to advance a more inclusive conception of who belongs. It also seeks to advocate for a united, democratic, non-sexist, non-racial, and prosperous society. This piece also does not undermine the struggles and realities of the black majority and is therefore in full support of a radicalism that challenges white oppression, racism, and all forms of inequality in our society.

Further Reading

Exile, Return, Home?

Many will read Sisonke Msimang’s new memoir for its musings on exile and home, but it is also a political telling of the complicated South African transition.