Belonging—Why South Africans Refuse to let Africa in

Most South Africans have at least one thing in common: their hatred of other Africans coming from the rest of the continent.

Image Credit: NASA

Any African who has ever tried to visit South Africa will know that the country is not an easy entry destination. South African embassies across the continent are almost as difficult to access as those of the UK and the United States. They are characterized by long queues, inordinate amounts of paperwork, and officials who manage to be simultaneously rude and lethargic. It should come as no surprise then that South Africa’s new Minister of Home Affairs has announced the proposed establishment of a Border Management Agency for the country. In his words the new agency “will be central to securing all land, air and maritime ports of entry and support the efforts of the South African National Defence force to address the threats posed to, and the porousness of, our borderline.”

Political observers of South Africa will understand that this is bureaucratic speak to dress up the fact that insularity will continue to be the country’s guiding ethos in its social, cultural and political dealings with the rest of the continent.

Perhaps I am particularly attuned to this because of my upbringing. I am South African but grew up in exile. That is to say I was raised in the Africa that is not South Africa; that place of fantasy and nightmare that exists beyond the Limpopo. When I first came home in the mid 1990s, in those early months as I was learning to adjust to life in South Africa, I was often struck by the odd way in which the term ‘Africa,’ was deployed by both white and black South Africans.

Because I speak in the fancy curly tones of someone who has been educated overseas, I was often asked where I was from. I would explain that I was born to South African parents outside the country and that I had lived in Zambia and Kenya and Canada and that my family also lived in Ethiopia. Invariably, the listener would nod sympathetically until the meaning of what I was saying sank in. ‘Oh.’ Then there would be a sharp intake of breath and a sort of horrified fascination would take hold. “So you grew up in Africa.” The Africa was enunciated carefully, the last syllable drawn out and slightly raised as though the statement were actually a question. Then the inevitable, softly sighed, “Shame.”

In the early years after I got ‘home,’ it took me some time to figure out how to respond to the idea that Africa was a place that began beyond South Africa’s borders. I was surprised to learn that the countries where I had lived – the ones that had nurtured my soul in the long years of exile – were actually no places at all in the minds of some of my compatriots. They weren’t geographies with their own histories and cultures and complexities. They were dark landscapes, Condradian and densely forested. Zambia and Kenya and Ethiopia might as well have been Venus and Mars and Jupiter. They were undefined and undefined-able. They were snake-filled thickets; impenetrable brush and war and famine and ever-present tribal danger.

Though they thought themselves to be very different, it seemed to me that whites and blacks in South Africa were disappointingly similar when it came to their views on ‘Africa.’ At first I blamed the most obvious culprit: apartheid. The ideology of the National Party was profoundly insular, based on inspiring everyone in the country to be fearful of the other. With the naiveté and arrogance of the young, I thought that a few lessons in African history might help to disabuse the Rainbow Nation of the notion that our country was apart from Africa. I made it my mission to inform everyone I came across that culturally, politically and historically we could call ourselves nothing if not Africans.

What I did not fully understand at that stage was that it would take more than a few lectures by an earnest ‘returnee,’ to deal with this issue. This warped idea of Africa was at the heart of the idea of South Africa itself. Just as whiteness means nothing until it is contrasted with blackness as savagery, South African-ness relies heavily on the construction of Africa as a place of dysfunction, chaos and violence in order to define itself as functional, orderly, efficient and civilised.

As such, the apartheid state was at pains to keep its borders closed. The savages at the country’s doorstep were a convenient bogeyman. Whites were told that if the country’s black neighbours were let in, they would surely unite with the indigenous population and slit the throats of whites.  By the same token, black people were told that the Africans beyond South Africa’s borders lived like animals; they were ruled by despots and governed by black magic.

When apartheid ended, the fear of African voodoo throat slitting should have ended with it. Indeed on the face of things, the fear of ‘Africa,’ has abated and has been replaced by the language of investment. South African capital has ‘opened up’ to the rest of the continent and so fear has been taken over by self-interest and new forms of extraction.

In the parlance of South Africans, our businesses have ‘gone into Africa.’ Like the frontiersmen who conquered the bush before them they have been quick to talk about ‘investment and opportunity’ to define our country’s relationship with the continent. The pre-1994 hostility towards ‘Africa’ has been replaced by a paternalism that is equally disconcerting. Africa needs economic saviours and white South African ‘technical skills’ are just the prescription.

Amongst many black South Africans, the script is frightfully similar. The recent collapse of TB Joshua’s church in Nigeria, in which scores of South Africans lost their lives has highlighted how little the narrative has changed in the minds of many South Africans. Many have called in to radio shows and social media asking, what the pilgrims were doing looking for God in such a God forsaken place?

In the democratic era we have converted the hatred of Africa into a crude sort of exceptionalist chauvinism. South Africans are quick to assert that they don’t dislike ‘Africans.’ It’s just that we are unique. Our history and society are too different from theirs to allow for meaningful comparisons. See – we are even lighter in complexion than them and we have different features. I have heard the refrain too many times, ‘We don’t really look like Africans.’ Never mind the reality that black South Africans come in all shades from the deepest of browns to the fairest of yellows.

This idea that South Africans are so singular in our experience; that apartheid was such a unique experience that it makes us different from everyone else in the world, and especially from other Africans, is an important aspect of understanding the South African approach to immigration.

As long-time researcher Nahla Vahlji has noted, “the fostering of nationalism produces an equal and parallel phenomenon: that of an affiliation amongst citizens in contrast and opposition to what is ‘outside’ that national identity.” In other words, South Africans may not always like each other across so-called racial lines, but they have a kinship that is based on their connection to the apartheid project. Outsiders – those who didn’t go through the torture of the regime – are juxtaposed against insiders. In other words foreigners are foreign precisely because they can not 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.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which sought to uncover the truth behind certain atrocities that took place under apartheid, was also an attempt to make a nation out of us. While it won international acclaim as a model for settling disputes that was as concerned with traditional notions of justice as it was with healing the wounds of the past, there were many people inside South Africa who were sceptical of its mission. As Premesh Lalu and Brendan Harris suggested as the Commission was starting its work in the mid 1990s, the desire for the TRC to create the narrative of a new nation led to a selection of “elements of the past which create no controversy, which create a good start, for a new nation where race and economic inequality are a serious problem, and where the balance of social forces is still extremely fragile.”

This is as true today as it was then. Attending the hearings was crucial for me as a young person yearning to better understand my country, but I am objective enough to understand that one of the consequences using the TRC as the basis for forging a national identity is that ‘others’ – the people who were not here in the bad old days – have found it difficult to find their place in South Africa.  Aided and abetted by the TRC and the discursive rainbow nation project, South Africans have failed to create a frame for belonging that transcends the experience of apartheid.

Twenty years into the ‘new’ dispensation, many South Africans still view people who weren’t there and therefore who did not physically share in the pain of apartheid as ‘aliens.’ The darker-hued these aliens are, the less likely South Africans are to accept them. Even when black African ‘foreigners’ attain citizenship or permanent residence, even when their children are enrolled in South African schools, they remain strangers to us because they weren’t caught up in our grand narrative as belligerents in the war that was apartheid.

While it is easy to locate the roots of xenophobia in our colonial and apartheid history, it is also becoming clear that our present leaders do not understand how to press the reset button in order to remake our country in the image of its future self. They have not been able to outline a vision for the new South Africa that is inclusive of the millions of African people who live here and who are ‘foreign’ but indispensable to our society for cultural, economic and political reasons.

America – with all its problems – offers us the model of an immigrant nation whose very conception relied on the idea of the ‘new’ world where justice and freedom were possible. Much can be said about how that narrative ignores those who were brought to the country as slave cargo. It is patently clear that America has also denied the founding acts of genocide that decimated the people of the First Nations who lived there before the settlers arrived. Indeed, one could argue that while oppression and murder begat the United States of America, the country’s founding myth is an inclusive one, a story of freedom and the right to life. In South Africa murder and oppression also birthed a new nation, but the founding myth of our post 1994 country has remained insular and exclusive, a story of freedom and the right to life for South Africans.

The South African state has always been strongly invested in seeing itself as an island of morality and order in a cesspool of black filth. The notion of South Africa’s apartness from Africa is deeply embedded in the psyche that ‘new’ South Africans inherited in 1994 but it goes back decades. For example, the 1937 Aliens Act sought to attract desirable immigrants, whom it defined in the law as those of ‘European’ heritage who would be easily assimilable in the white population of the country.’ This law stayed on the books until 1991, when the National Party, in its dying days, sought to protect itself from the foreseeable ‘deluge’ of communist and/or barbaric Africans. The Aliens Control Act (1991) removed the offensive reference to ‘Europeans’ but it kept the rest of the architecture of exclusion intact.

As a result, when the new South Africa was born the old state remained firmly in place, continuing to guard the border from the threats just across the Limpopo, as it always had.   It was a decade before the Bill on International Migration came into force in 2003 and it too retained critical elements of the old outlook.

The ANC politicians running the country somehow began to buy into the idea that immigrants posed a threat to security. Immigration continued to be seen as a containment strategy rather than as a path to economic growth. As President Jacob Zuma tightens his grip on the security sector, and extends the power and reach of the security cluster in all areas of governance, this attitude seems to be hardening rather than softening.

None of South Africa’s current crop of political leaders seem to be asking the kinds of questions that will begin to resolve the question the role that immigration can and should play in the building of our new nation. South Africa’s political leadership sees Africa in one of two ways: either as a market for South African goods, differentiated only to the extent that Africans can be sold our products; or as a threat, part of a deluge of the poor and unwashed who take ‘our jobs and our women.’

No one in government today seems to understand that post-apartheid South Africa continues to be the site of multiple African imaginations. One cannot deal with ‘Africa’ without dealing with the subjectivity of what South Africa meant to Africa historically, and the disappointment that a free South Africa has signified in the last decade.

So much of the pan-Africanist project – even with its failings – has been about an imagined Africa in which the shackles of colonialism have been thrown off. South Africa has always been an iconic symbol in that imaginary. Robben Island and Nelson Mandela, the burning streets of Soweto, Steve Biko’s bloodied, broken body: these images did not just belong to us alone. They brought pain and grief to a continent whose march towards self-determination included us, even when our liberation seemed far, far away. With the invention of the ‘new’ South Africa the crucial importance of African visions for us have taken a back seat. South Africans have refused to admit that we are a crucial aspect of the African project of self-determination. In failing to see ourselves in this manner, we have denied ourselves the opportunity to be propelled – transported even – by the dreams of our continent.

What would South Africa be like without the ‘foreign’ academics who teach mathematics and history on our campuses? How differently might our students think without their deep and critical insights about us and the place we occupy in the world? How might we understand our location and our political geography differently if ‘foreigners’ were not here offering us different ways of wearing and inhabiting blackness? What would our society look like without the tax paying ‘foreigners’ whose children make our schools richer and more diverse? What would inner city Johannesburg smell like without coffee ceremonies and egusi soup? What would Cape Town’s Greenmarket square be without the Zimbabwean and Congolese taxi drivers who literally make the city go?

In an era in which borders are coming down and becoming more porous to encourage trade and contact, South Africa is introducing layers of red tape to the process of moving in and out of the country. The outsider has never been more repulsive or threatening than s/he is now. This is precisely why Gigaba’s announcement of the Border Management Agency is so worrisome. Yet it was couched in careful language. Ever mindful of the xenophobic reputation that South Africa has in the rest of the continent, Gigaba asserts, “We value the contributions of fellow Africans from across the continent living in South Africa and that is why we have continued to support the AU and SADC initiatives to free human movement; but [my emphasis] this cannot happen haphazardly, unilaterally or to the exclusion of security concerns.”

Ah, there it is! The image of Africa and ‘Africans’ as haphazard, disorderly and ultimately threatening is in stark contrast to South Africa and South Africans as organised, efficient and (ahem) peace-loving. The subtext of Gigaba’s statement is that South Africans require protection ‘foreigners’ who are hell bent on imposing their chaos and violence on us.

Nowhere has post-apartheid policy suffered from the lack of imagination more acutely than in the area of immigration. Before they took power, many in the ANC worried about the ways in which the old agendas of the apartheid regime state would assert themselves even under a black government. They understood that there was a real danger of the apartheid mentality capturing the new bureaucrats. Despite these initial fears, the new leaders completely under-estimated the extent to which running the state would succeed in dulling the imaginations of the new public servants and burying their intellect under mountains of forms and rules and processes. They also didn’t understand that xenophobia would be so firmly lodged in the soul of the country, that it would be one of the few phenomena would unite blacks and whites.

South Africa’s massive immigration fail is a tragedy for all kinds of reasons. At the most basic level, the horrific levels of violence and intimidation that many African migrants to South Africa face on a daily basis represent an on-going travesty of justice. Yet in a far more complex and nuanced way, South Africa’s rejection of its African identity is a tragedy of another sort. All great societies are melanges, a delicious brew of art and culture and intellect. They draw the best from near and far and make them their own. By denying the contribution of Africa to its DNA, South Africa forgoes the opportunity to be a richer, smarter, more cosmopolitan and interesting society than it currently is.

In spite of ourselves South Africans still have a chance to open our arms to the rest of the continent. The window of opportunity for allowing our guests to truly belong to us as they have always allowed us to belong to them is still open. I fear however, that the window is closing fast.

Further Reading