The myth of South African nationality

Growing xenophobic nationalism in South Africa is a danger to African people across the continent.

Photo by Pawel Janiak on Unsplash

Post-apartheid South Africa finds itself at a moment where a worrying number of its citizens currently consider a nativist ideology as one of the determining factors in a party’s electability. New political organizations firmly root themselves within a space developed through years of growing national antagonisms towards the African other. These parties include the African Transformation Movement (ATM), that won two seats in parliament from their first contested election, as well as the freshly founded Action SA, the party of former Johannesburg mayor and Democratic Alliance member Herman Mashaba. The ATM is led by Vuyo Zungula and Mzwandile Manyi, the former head of government communications during Jacob Zuma’s tenure as South African President. Manyi is now ATM’s head of policy. The argument presented by both parties is that South Africa’s “porous borders” burdens its people with undocumented immigrants and that the state, led by the ANC, chooses to deny actual citizens their social and economic rights because of this. Then there’s the larger #PutSouthAfricansFirst movement, promoted by both the ATM and Action SA.

Though the hashtag itself is recent, #PutSouthAfricansFirst’s politics is older, dating back to May 2008, with the first wave of deadly attacks against foreign, especially African, nationals. This became a regular occurrence since, with headline making clashes—as opposed to the daily unmitigated violence that is unreported—taking place again in 2015 and in 2019, resulting in further casualties, but also criticism of South Africa at home and abroad. The violence, while classed as “xenophobia,” should rather be understood as Afrophobia, rooted in anti-blackness (as the victims of this kind of violence are never white). It is accompanied by anti-foreigner policies from the ruling party as well as official opposition, prejudiced statements from state officials, and the reoccurring flashpoints of extreme violence in peri-urban communities.

What has become clear is that #PutSouthAfricansFirst is no longer just a digital threat alone. Its fans and supporters have organized offline protests, like those at Nigeria’s embassy in South Africa.

One of #PutSouthAfricansFirst’s prominent spokespeople on social media is Vusi Thembekwayo, a figure known primarily for his business commentary and motivational speaking, but who now seems to be transitioning into a thought leader for those who happen to be interested in or share his views on what is the supposed “real” issue in this country. Thembekwayo is one of South Africa’s most recognized venture capitalists and public speakers, and more recently became a sort of political commentator on his own social media platforms as well as on mainstream news channels.

According to Thembekwayo, and others like him, patriotism has wrongfully been conflated with xenophobia in South Africa: the media and the public are guilty of misjudging the passionate calls to tighten South Africa’s borders with more security, to crush undocumented immigration, and prioritize South African workers over foreigners. These positions are not based on bigotry. No, they’re grounded on the love for one’s country and a desire to see it moving forward. Thembekwayo, Mashaba, Manyi and other likeminded public figures represent a few of the most popular proponents of this nationalist trend.

The platform that arguably has the biggest influence on this movement is the infamous Lerato Pillay Twitter account, which has only being in existence for less than a year, but which is credited for shaping the viral discourse surrounding #PutSouthAfricansFirst.

The anonymous account managed to amass thousands of other social media users who support the vitriol expressed by the account holder and share with the account its impatience with the ruling party’s supposed pussyfooting regarding the alleged illegal presence of nationals from other African countries in South Africa. With the origins of #PutSouthAfricansFirst having been linked to @uLerato_Pillay, the real identity of the person behind the account has recently become a subject of inquiry, and some startling revelations have come out from investigations dealing with this matter.

The Black American Marxist theorist, Cedric Robinson, once argued about his own country that “Birth deposes judicial citizenship in the nation-state, but this mythical nationality requires a confirmation bestowed by culture, the culture of the majority or the most powerful ethnic group.” Robinson’s 1996 essay, “In Search of a Pan African Common Wealth,” deals with the need to confront the idea of the nation-state, which he judged as a by-product of European modernity. For Africans on the continent, what Robinson’s critique of statehood compels us to do is to question the nature of national identities in Africa—concretized by the groundless argument coming out of the Berlin Conference of 1884 and 1885—and to recognize its role in upholding the colonial project.

The parallels between #PutSouthAfricaFirst and Afrikaner nationalists, who ruled South Africa for much of the 20th century, combing a mix of racism and xenophobia, are eerie. J.B.M. Hertzog, South African Prime Minister from 1924 to 1929, came to power pushing a “South Africans First” policy, by which he meant whites. It is ironic that Black South Africans are promoting a version of the same politics today.

It is even more depressing that the nationalist agenda of #PutSouthAfricansFirst mirrors the xenophobic rhetoric which has driven US President Donald Trump’s “America First” campaign. Thembekwayo, Mashaba and others like them have more than once suggested their own admiration for Trump’s insouciant approach to immigration in the United States. They excitingly share news of his latest executive orders against immigrants, adding that Trump is an example for dissatisfied South Africans to look at for how to manage unemployment by scapegoating immigrants.

More powerful than #PutSouthAfricaFirst in promoting xenophobic South African nationalism, is the largely unquestioned framework of South African exceptionalism which has somehow managed to co-exist with the overwhelming despondency in the South African polity over the on-going failures of the South African state.

A persistently dominant view since the first democratic election in 1994 has been that South Africa is a leader of the “developing” world generally, and of the African continent especially. This notion arises from specific elements of our history and present, like the much-idolized transition, having a constitution that is one of the most progressive globally, or the supposed European chic of our “world class” cities. These elements helped lay the foundations for the superiority complex vis-à-vis other Africans to the north. It grips the imagination of countless South Africans, many of whom struggle to recognize that this brews an arrogant and ultimately contemptuous attitude towards the African states across our borders.

The commonly shared belief that South Africa has the potential to be one of the greatest countries in the world, a first world country, is expressive of a neoliberal capitalist ambition rather than a vision of a world that no longer dehumanizes the majority of the people who live here. The state-sponsored encouragement to be “proudly South African” has never just been a benign campaign intended to invest a sense of morale within the people of the republic; it was and will always be aimed at establishing nationalism through a lens of exceptionalism. All of this has been to our collective detriment as African people. Africana Studies scholar, Joshua Myers, argues that to function as a liberal democracy under a nation-state plays a part in the collapse we’ve seen in several African nations, since “the nation-state exists primarily to protect the sanctity of capital” which makes it “fundamentally anti-human.” It is inconceivable that any African civilization could thrive fully while working within these rigid conditions.

South Africa is crumbling in every way imaginable, and as a considerable amount of the population became obsessed with the national question, the governing party is more than happy to let these segments sow deeper divisions on the basis of national identity, letting foreigners bear the brunt for the catastrophes of unemployment, crime, and austerity. The economic depression and unresolved hostilities stretching from 2008 are not what has brought us to this current nightmare; this is the direct consequence of the neo-colonial administration’s decision to keep the principles of the nation-state in place and unchallenged. When radical calls and outlines are made for newer ways of life outside of the naturalized systems of violence and dominance, such as statehood, they are regularly met with politically unimaginative responses, suggesting that in reality there are no possible alternatives to the oppressive and undemocratic modes of politics which govern our lives. What does a confrontation against the nation state look like?

In one of the strongest examples of a struggle with the ideals of statism, which has lead to a meaningful difference in the material conditions of a dispossessed people, we can look towards the remarkable contemporary revolution in north east Syria, commonly known as Rojava. The region consists of several multicultural communes that operate under a political theory described as democratic confederalism. It is a concept guided by the principles of communalism, as well as several other social ideologies that reject hierarchal leadership and the centralization of power in favor of a more humane and egalitarian society, for every identity that lives in it. Due to the administration’s defiant opposition towards the statist logic of diversity and difference, it has been able to find ways to accommodate different ethnic and religious groups in a manner that does not allow it to produce cultural hegemony, which always tends to lead to social inequality. The philosophy, conceptualized by Kurdistan Worker’s Party leader Abdullah Öcalan, is modelled after the ideas of social ecologist Murray Bookchin. As an anarchist, Bookchin theorized and established ideological foundations that would go on to help an entire region across the world from him gain liberation from the dehumanizing confines of the nation state as well as the modernities entangled with it, all of which limit the chances of living a self-determined life.

To bring it back home, for those of us who believe in the vision of a unified Africa, it is necessary that we evolve from what Robinson described as a political Pan Africanism, which only works to reinforce the legacy of the nation state while at the same time concealing the “several alternative modalities of Pan-Africanism.” A Pan Africanism envisioned by Amilcar Cabral, when he rightfully said the struggle against colonial powers was not solely about gaining a flag and an anthem just for African people to be further imprisoned and subsequently divided by them. It was and is a struggle to “change radically the economical, social and cultural situation of our African people.” A Pan Africanism, as Sisonke Msimang once discussed, which encourages us to resist establishing our identity here entirely around the constitutional scrapping of apartheid legislations and the rainbow nation myth. Unless and until we can return to a place where the validity of nationality is openly contested, with the aims of eventually divesting from it entirely, nationalism will exist—covertly and overtly—to deny Africa of a reality where civilizations truly place every single one of us first.

Further Reading