AFRICANGLOBE – 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 characterised 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.”