National identity and xenophobia

Some quick thoughts on this, orginally posted at BookSA:

Along with many South Africans, I too am despaired by the violence perpetrated in the main by poor people on other poor people, and that racism (racism!) is used or voiced as a justification for that violence.

As some commentators in the press have indicated, the roots of such xenophobia and intra-African racism is perhaps also more cultural than simply economic. I.e. South Africa is apparently deeply xenophobic and the violence that is occurring is not simply a matter of poor people misidentifying the cause of their own suffering. Indeed, we certainly engage in a further othering of the poor if we dismiss the attacks and its causes as simply the expression of the desperation of the poor (it is, to an extent), or simply a criminal wave that has found useful cover in its racism (which it also may be). It is too comfortable, and comforting, that we imagine this xenophobia to obtain only on the desperately poor margins of South Africa. In other words, if there’s a cause, we can locate it in the economic, and once located there, we can blame the government for poor service delivery, the root cause.

But South African xenophobia is not the exclusive reserve of the uneducated or the poor. In the mid-1990s, I was friends with a young student who was the child of an MP, but who had grown up in Britain as his parent had been an academic ‘exile’. He told me a story of a political argument at a student drinking spot that had erupted in fisticuffs; some of his opponents in that argument, who had not agreed with his points of view, basically told him that, on account of his accent and views, he was not African, he couldn’t be African. Not in the sense that he was ‘westernised’; rather in the sense that they stubbornly refused to believe that he could have South African (Zulu) parentage. These were students, educated at university level. And this was 1995, the first year of our democracy.

Our xenophobia may be traced to our very South African sense of exceptionalism: the misguided sense that we are unique, that our problems are unique and that only we know how to deal with our problems. It’s a deep cultural strain: the Voortrekkers had it, with their sense that they were a chosen people. More recently, the days of populist struggle politics had it that whatever obtained, even if wrong-headed, was our own solutions to our own unique problems. Culturally, we refused to look outside our borders for comparison, and validated anything and everything inside our own borders because they were all unique responses to our unique conditions.

Hardkoppig, kragdadig, eiewys (stubborn, brutish, wilful) – strong nodes in South African history and culture, and no matter that they are Afrikaans words, because another strong node also comes from that source: nationalism. No matter that those two words are in Afrikaans, they are NATIONAL nodes. And nationalism, another of those dubious gifts that colonialism has given the world, and us: the nation-state and its group-think. We are strongly nationalist in a world obsessed with nationalism (and, on a smaller scale, with various ‘cultural identities’).

South Africa is a strongly national country; we find every reason to draw whatever we do back to a national source – strong expressions of nationalism around everything: think of our emotional investment in the travails of our sports teams; even cultural affairs, as at the recent Commonwealth Writers Award ceremony, where several references were made, even if jokingly, to the fact that there were no South African writers on the shortlist; travellers huddle in other countries around other South Africans, etc.

People are often surprised to hear that I still am an All Black supporter. Disregarding the reasons (which are, in effect and after all, nationalist because they are anti-nationalist), no one is surprised enough to interrogate why they support the Springboks. I.e. why should one automatically support the national team when one’s birth on a particular patch of ground is accidental? Nationalism is the absurd fusion of an ACCIDENT of history and a mythic, no, metaphysical, constructed DESTINY.

Of course I am South African: I was borne here and have lived here all my life. But because I was born here and lived here all my life doesn’t mean I MUST support the Springboks or Bafana Bafana. Of course I know that I can support whichever team I bloody well want, but nationalism is the force that turns this individual freedom into a cultural oddity (the psychoanalysts among my readers might well want to contemplate matters of cultural cringe or self-hate). The force of nationalism is so strong that people generally believe in the automatic assumption of its imperatives: born here, how can I support any other team? To me it is absurd that people believe they should support a team simply because they were born on the same patch of ground as the players.

We aren’t born nationalists. The nation-state itself is a modern invention, therefore not an eternal entity. These are all historical; in other words, human-made over time, and therefore not ‘natural’, in the sense that ‘it is only natural to support the team of the country of one’s birth’. It is historical in the sense that we have been taught, socialised, appealed to, to enter into and become a subject of the national community.

My point is that nationalism is a misguided cultural force, and an ugly one. It is misguided because it seeks to attach metaphysical imperatives (destiny) to an arbitrary occurrence (birth); and it is ugly because it is by nature a force of exclusion: you weren’t born here, you don’t speak like I do, my sports team is better than yours, our team’s colours, in fact, are nicer than your team’s colours. Actually, you don’t look like me; I am better than you. In this exceptional country, where we have had an exceptional history, we have, exceptionally, overcome massive odds to free ourselves. We have been victorious. Look at us, for we are a unique people. We are South African.

What has been identified as xenophobia driving the attacks by poor people on poor immigrants is a first cousin of nationalism, and so we shouldn’t shy away from the line of complicity that runs from, say, a rugby supporter to a thug that has hit upon the useful idea to justify robbery and murder – to himself and his conscience, mainly – by appealing to a racial or ethnic, finally national, identity. By this I mean that, in form, they are both expressions of a national identity, the former acceptable, the latter not. But they come from the same root: national identity, or, rather, strong national identity.

I use rugby here simply as an example of how all of us are obsessed with expressing, in some way or another, a South AfricanNESS. Our South Africanness assails us from all angles: Proudly South African everywhere in supermarkets. It may not be associated in the popular mind with the stark propaganda of, say, Nazi Germany, but it is ubiquitous and acceptable, and thus, as ideological force, more successful because of this subtlety, especially because it is acceptable, even desirable. It is even acceptable to demand national allegiance without being accused of propagandising: Buy South Africa.

This is one of the fundamental ways in which South Africa has not transformed: the persistence of our strong nationalism. The content of that dynamic may have changed, but the form of nationalism, the ‘structure of feeling’ (as Raymond Williams might have it) that hovers around such cultural forces, still obtains. As a populist organisation, the ANC of course needed – or only had – a nationalist voice to oppose its nationalist foe. And nationalism is, after all, the easiest or best appeal by which the people of a nation-state can be mobilised. It can be enabling in the face of national oppression; but it can also, always, enable darker forces of exclusion.

In this context, one in which nationalism has become acceptable via a range of economic and cultural appeals that focus on national pride and prowess, we should not be surprised when that national identity also finds expression in violence and murder. And we may jettison our responsibility and complicity by regarding it as a symptom only of economic desperation or of the criminal. But we inhabit the same national cultural sphere and the steps from national identity to nationalism to exclusion to othering to violence are very small. What we have conveniently labelled xenophobia may then be more than first cousin to our national identity – it may be its twin, separated only by access to satellite television.

5 Responses to National identity and xenophobia

  1. thanks for this. that nationalism is deeply implicated in the pogrom, one would have thought should have been obvious…and yet, it seems this is not the case. Anyway i have posted a bit on my blog, that attempts to think through this question. i would be interested to hear what you think.

  2. Eliezer Herman says:

    It would be interesting to take this discussion further, to deal comparatively with the notions of “home” and “nation”. As you have correctly said, the “nation” is a metaphysical construction. But it ties into a deeper metaphysical need for a “home”, and this need is not as accidental insofar as it is common to all humans across the map, and throughout history. To truly root out nationalism might mean to root out that deep seated metaphysical calling to a single, exclusive family unit. A unit that looks after us at whatever the cost. A unit that favours us. As soon as a man or woman favours their own child over another they are acting metaphysically, in a manner that – writ large – might amount to nationalism. But who can blame the child for expecting such favour?

  3. Rustum says:

    Dionysus, I left a comment over at your blog, not on the topic above, unfortunately, as there are still some ‘cogno-structural’ things I need to sort out about your blog.

    Eliezer, you’re right of course and that is part of the curse of the nation-state. It has left us unable to imagine a different kind of social and economic organisation; it has naturalised itself in a totalising way. We cannot think beyond or outside its horizons.

    I think, as well, that the focus in my piece is not sharp enough. All I wanted to say is that xenophobia is tied to strong expressions of national identity and that South Africa has a tradition of such strong expression of its national identity, as well as being part of a world that is intensifying such expression. For this reason, analyses of the violence against immigrants in South Africa shouldn’t see the phenomenon as an aberration, but part and parcel of our fondness for our strong expression of national identity. Our shame at the recent events then becomes a denial of our complicity and we are complicit because we have cultivated a society that is Proudly South African.

    Strong expressions of national identity lie close to the nationalist (I should have been more careful not to conflate the two), and we all know the pitfalls of nationalism. This is not to dismiss the national – that which lies within the nation-state’s borders; but nationalism is always exclusive. Strong expressions of national identity – we are better than them – share this exclusiveness, as does xenophobia.

    On the word ‘xenophobia’: I can’t decide whether a strong expression of national identity is the acceptable face of xenophobia or vice versa. In my mind, the two converge to some extent. Reaganite America bought American despite Japanese cars having better fuel economy – acceptable? Nationalist? Xenophobic? And, another word to add to the mix, jingoist?

    Whatever word we use, it is tied to and organised around the notion of the nation. While the nation allows mass-bureaucratisation – service delivery – and we thus cannot wish away the nation state, the national and the nationalist is a way of elevating or putting beyond scrutiny ‘home’. So, the people who bought American did so while the American car manufacturers were screwing American workers – closing down plants – in search of bigger profits in Mexico’s cheap labour markets. My point then is that when we are proud to be South African (or American or British, etc), we must know that that same emotion – national pride – enables, makes possible, a blinkered look. It may warm the cockles of our national heart, but it can also allow in fear of that which is not national, that which is not part of the nation. Xenophobia.

    Your ‘family unit’ analogy doesn’t convince me exactly because I view the family unit as the place where the nation-state and the national find their imprint on the infant’s mind. It is the factory for manufacturing national subjects.

  4. T.O.M says:

    The argument against nationalism based on the premise that nationalism, by definition, is exclusionary is incorrect. Sure, in practice, that is how it has often been used, however, as it is socially constructed, inclusiveness can be one of the principles woven in. I haven’t done the research, but I am certain I can find examples of nationalism or something like it that has, core to the identity, welcoming foreigners to the group and, importantly, allowing subgroups freedom of expression. It comes down, I think, to whether the national identity is constructed on rules (which are often arbitrary) or general principles, which tend to be more inclusive.

    Arguably, to prevent ills, this inclusiveness is a must when constructing a national identity as South Africa is said to be attempting to do right now.

    For me, nationalism is merely an implement, a tool. And as such, it’s the wielder and his/her intention determines how it is used – whether, simplistically, for good or bad. And nationalism flows from us as social animals with a strong need to belong to a group. If, miraculously, nations’ borders were done away with, religion, race and culture obliterated, we’d still find something else to distinguish one group from the other and, from there, down the proverbial slippery slope. I believe that dialogue and education on the exclusionary dangers of group identity will achieve the same end as that sought by those who rally against nationalism.

    On xenophobia, I do not believe the economic argument is without merit. It comes down to feeling, in this case, your economic well-being threatened and defending against it. Undoubtedly, many forced immigrants to South Africa, due to circumstance, settle in poorer areas, triggering this “defense” by those who live there. If immigrants were settling in as large numbers in middle-class areas, there’d still be outrage. Just look at France, the whole Mexican border fiasco, etc. Ferial tweeted earlier: Only the middle class can afford to be libertarian about migration. I think in South Africa, there is truth in that. There was a huge outcry in 2008 when victims of xenophobic violence were temporarily resettled in the Corlett Gardens, a middle-class suburb. Buses ferrying refugees were met by protesters wielding signs that said: Not in my backyard.

    So I believe it to be both: South African nationalism lurking in the background and only flaring up when people feel (economically or otherwise) threatened.

  5. RK says:

    I agree with most of what you say and my mistake is in not making a distinction between the national and nationalism, or between ordinary nationalism and strong nationalism. I will maintain, nevertheless, that there’s a strong parallel between the rhetoric of nationalism and the rhetoric of such xenophobic attacks – i.e. the way in which a national identity can be used to justify various things, from eating boerewors to violence. The action is articulated with, and also even animated by, something called a national identity, where national identity is already a spurious thing, constructed, as you point out.

    Overall, I was not disregarding the other points of analysis, but what made me write the comment was a sense I had that the reactions against these attacks and murders seemed to want to place the violence ‘out there’ somewhere, as an aberration in our society, something that only the uneducated, desperate poor were capable of. I.e. that it was ‘unthinkable’, completely beyond the pale. It is a comfortable rationalisation: “We” – us mainly educated and middle-class commentators – will never do just a thing, in other words. I’m arguing that there’s a line of complicity between the sheen of “Proudly South African” – the whole she-bang: economic, patriotism, culture – and the violence of murder. The same fervour that drives the sportsfan – a kind of madness, a kind of irrationality – drives someone else to murder. I know it sounds histrionic, but I am talking about the emotive appeal that nationalism has. How else do we make sense of it: perpetrator and victim are both equally desperately poor, but the target is chosen based on nationality.

    Then, there’s also the story – last year I think (can’t find story now) – of a rich, gated community in Gauteng who somehow got the courts to destroy an informal settlement of mainly foreigners close by, of people who ironically worked for the residents of the gated community. And that’s part of my point: it’s easy to decry xenophobia when the perpetrators are poor and uneducated, but what are the forms of xenophobia that exist, albeit in milder form, among us educated, ostensibly middle-class people?

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