South Africa

South Africans are Xenophobic

I write this as I complete a third draft of my PhD Chapter on Xenophobia in South Africa. The situation in the country is still unfolding, but certain attitudes and issues are rooted in history. 

Areas of South Africa have once again been experiencing horrific displays of violence directed at foreign nationals.

Across social media are messages and hashtags of shock, disbelief, pain and support. These, I have seen, are often coupled with sentiments that the “savages” (in the words of one of my contacts) are “out there”, not online.

 

That view is precisely a part of the problem. You see, South Africans are xenophobic. Not a minority: a majority.

 

Extensive research by the Southern African Migration Project shows that 90% of South Africans feel that there are too many migrants in the country. Xenophobia is not just ‘out there’ in a mob: it festers beneath the surface of your/our day-to-day attitudes and encounters.

 

It’s there when outrage is expressed at violent acts but no action is taken to challenge the administration or to challenge Home Affairs, which is mandated to enforce and monitor (rather than protect). It’s there when leaders are not held accountable by those with the economic and/or social means to hold them accountable. It’s there when solidarity is only shown when one is at the receiving end of prejudice (it’s easier to remove statues than to remove xenophobia).

 

It’s there when one says “this is Afrophobia, not xenophobia” – because while it’s important to recognise that this is violence directed towards (some) Africans, claiming that it’s not xenophobia merely buys into a rhetoric that denies the possibility that South Africans can be xenophobic. It buys into a decade-old system of denial, and in turn it perpetuates a sense of exceptionalism: South Africans aren’t xenophobic, they’re *Afrophobic*. How twisted it is to feel that “we” must be special in some way.

 

It’s there when one refuses to acknowledge the painful truth that those who have been oppressed are capable of oppression, and that those who have historically oppressed continue to oppress in different ways. It’s there when one refuses to acknowledge that privilege and disprivilege sit hand-in-hand.

 

It’s there every time someone mentions how exceptional South Africa is – a national pride based on how the country’s history makes it ‘better than’ the rest of Africa.

 

It’s there every time someone buys into exclusionary nationalism – how ‘proud’ one is to be South African, and if you don’t buy into that then just leave the country (!). For to set up the parameters of South Africanness means to fundamentally define who does NOT belong.

 

Yes, it’s a minority of people who remain eager to use violence against migrants (only about 11% of the population by SAMP accounts).

Yes, reasons for such violence are varied and complex. No simple economic or social combination of factors can explain it all.

 

And indeed, xenophobic violence can be argued to be a symptom of absolute social discontent and disempowerment – a feeling of hopelessness.

 

Addressing the social and economic factors which contribute to xenophobic outbursts are crucially important, but as important are the psychological considerations. The journey ahead is not short and easy, but a necessary starting point is acknowledging that South Africa has historically been an incredibly xenophobic space, and that in 2015 South Africans on the whole are, to varying degrees, complicit in attitudes of xenophobia. The illusion of exceptionalism must be stripped away.

 

This is a painful admission, for it goes hand-in-hand with recognising a failure to create an inclusive society over the last 25 years. But this failure also presents the opportunity to start anew and begin to create an inclusive space – one which, importantly, transcends the bounds of artificial and random nationhood.

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South African Elections: Guilt? Pride? Neither.

SA elections 2014The up-coming South African general elections have me thinking about identity and belonging. They have me thinking in particular about pride and guilt – two things I really struggle to grasp.

I voted last week (I’m in the UK at the moment so I qualified for an early overseas special vote). I almost didn’t go and vote – as would be my right. As I mention below I don’t believe in the concept of a nation, and voting would endorse that structure. But on the morning of the day I decided to go and vote.

Why?

I voted not because I love South Africa. I don’t. I don’t love the abstract concept of a nation – I don’t understand how to, and most importantly I don’t want to. I love individual people living there.

I don’t believe in the “infinite potential” of the country. I fundamentally disagree with the concept of a nation and have no personal affiliation with the sort of national identity the government is trying to forge.

I’m not “proudly South African”. Pride, for me, is a deeply personal emotion. Am I ashamed to be from South Africa? Of course not – I am from there. Am I proud? No, why would I be? I had no say in where I was born or where I grew up. South African society shaped a part of who I am, but I’m not “proud” of that – it’s just a given, in the same way that I’m not proud to have brown hair, or two eyes. I just do. I just am. Do I admire the acts of certain other South Africans? Definitely. But I also admire the actions of individuals from other countries and other histories. Do I empathise with some of the struggles in the country? Yes, but as much as I empathise with the struggles of other people elsewhere. Perhaps it’s because I grew up looking to transnational identities or non-South African media forms to feel a sense of belonging when I was younger that I don’t fully grasp the concept of a national identity. I know a great deal has been written on the subject, but for me it comes down to the realisation that I can choose my subjectivities: being from South Africa is no more important than ‘being Queer’, or than being of German/Lebanese/Scottish/South African (not necessarily in that order) descent. Why should I privilege a national identity in an age of increased transnationalism? How can I be expected to attach concepts like “pride” (or “shame”) to facets of my upbringing over which I had no control?

So no, I didn’t vote because I believe in ‘the nation’. I don’t stand when national anthems are sung.

Rather, I voted because I care about my friends and family living in South Africa. I care about what happens tVoting South Africao them, and the conditions in which they are living. And I care about the conditions in which I live when I travel back and live there.

I voted because I care about certain principles, even if the structures in which those principles are realised are (deeply) flawed.

Of course the end result is the same. Whether I vote because I care about a nation or because I care about certain individual people I’m still buying into the same system. But I do think that intention matters, particularly in relation to defining and understanding one’s own sense of being and belonging (though to some theorists and philosophers argue that, of course, is all a part of the delusion…).

Thinking on that, there does seem to be some sort of shared danger when it comes to active citizenship in South Africa. A danger whether you support principles underpinning nation building, or whether you have individual views on what it means to be democratic. And I think this ‘danger’ is why I take such issue with the rhetoric of “endless potential” in the country. The danger: there seems to be a surge of (online?) voices encouraging people to vote, to be a part of change, to take ownership of the future, to be proudly South African…and yet between elections many of these voices are uncomfortably silent.

The danger is the illusion that active citizenship begins and ends with voting once every 5 years.

I wonder how many of those voices attend rallies and marches over the weekends during their free time. I wonder how many of them make daily ethical decisions about which shops to shop at, which items to buy, which brands to support. I wonder how many of them do more than ‘liking’ a post on Facebook or sharing an online petition. I wonder how many of them actively campaign for rights, or donate to causes, or call out day-to-day instances of prejudice. I’m sure many do. I’m sure many don’t. (And of course, many of those decisions can only be made when one is wealthy enough to make them).

I certainly don’t claim to be a paragon of good. I’m as guilty as the next person about not doing as much as I know I could do. I recognise that and I’m working on it. It’s a constant process.

Active citizenshipYet I do feel distinctly uncomfortable engaging with people who spew speak about ‘endless potential’ at election time and then do or say nothing more about being active citizens. Obviously it would be unreasonable to expect people to fully dedicate themselves to advancing democracy. Some people do, and I admire them hugely. Most people I know are just concerned with getting by day-to-day, regardless of the country they’re in. It’d also be unreasonable to expect that people, perhaps even most, don’t already do something ‘extra’ to speak true to their explicit views. Unfortunately I write from experience, and in my experience many of my connections have freely informed me that beyond being armchair activists and voting come election day they don’t “do” anything else – and many of them feel they don’t ‘need’, or want, to. Or – and this is the more common occurrence – they bemoan the state of affairs whilst actively perpetuating the underlying attitudes. Eating steak whilst shaking their heads about the cruelty inflicted upon Rhinos. Lamenting the spread of capitalism whilst tapping on iPads. That sort of thing . I think we’re all guilty of that hypocrisy at some point or another.

So I’ve wondered whether the rhetoric of endless potential is damaging to South Africa. Does the amount of energy spent on encouraging people to vote instill a false sense of democratic involvement? Does the speak about potential and voting and being involved foster a false education around what it means to be democratic citizens? Or do we acknowledge that the most we can reasonably expect is a single day of action once every 5 years? (If the latter it does seem to strongly sour the rhetoric of how much potential the people of South Africa have).

I do think that there’s potential in South Africa. Of course there is.

But I think that there’s potential in every country. In every location, with the right people.

As a part of the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship program I listened to a respected historian speak about the history of South Africa: she said something very unpopular, but something which stuck with me. She said there’s nothing unique about South Africa: there’s nothing unique about its history, its people, it cultures. Yes, there’s diversity and difference, but its history and future are not ‘special’. Extraordinary in many ways, yes. Admirable. Respectable. But not unique.

That’s not Afropessimism, of which she was accused. It was a frank assessment of her (very educated and researched) understanding of South Africa.

I think that the combination of a sense of privilege based on a false understanding of being special, and the illusion that democraticUniqueness citizenship begins and ends with casting a vote, is a dangerous one.

As I read news stories I find myself increasingly irritated and angry about the actions of certain politicians and “leaders”. But as I read news feed posts from my friends I also find myself exceptionally irritated by vociferous exclamations of eternal optimism, nationalistic pride and idealistic ambitions. Afropessimism annoys me – where’s the use in it? But Afro-optimism also annoys me – perhaps even more. Hopes and dreams are important, but so is a healthy dose of reality. I acknowledge, though, that straddling that line between reality and pessimism can be difficult. You need optimism to help you get through the harshness of reality – but that, too, is a balance.

Social issues aren’t going to be solved by dreaming, voting, and then retreating back to middle-class suburban bubbles. Whether you believe in nation-building (which I don’t), or you believe in a balance between individualism and a new form of re-imagined transnationalist collectivism (which I, partly, do) social issues are going to be solved by constant awareness, research, dialogue, reflection but – ultimately – engagement and action.

Democracy isn’t an end-point: it’s a constant state of being in which freedoms ebb and flow depending on how engaged a people are.

I voted for the party with the policies which most closely align with my own views, and for the party which currently exhibits the most democratic principles and attitudes. Histories are important to be aware of – but they certainly did not determine my vote. I did not vote according to how a party was 20 years ago. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to determine ‘which party deserves my vote’; to get caught up in discourse analysis – I’m often guilty of that. But at the end of the day action is required, as is the recognition that perhaps 10, 15 or 20 years ago South Africa had the potential to develop a truly pluralistic parliament, but that may no longer be the case.

The election has me thinking about broader questions of what it means to be – perhaps because some (most?) political figures and political parties draw on identity politics to stir up voters. I’ve seen friends post articles about white guilt, middle-class guilt, patriotism, nationalistic pride…and I’ve felt a strong sense of disconnect.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been trained, through my studies, to be highly critical of emotional connections to identity categories. Perhaps it’s because I’ve struggled, personally, with questions about what it means to belong in various contexts where belonging is so conditional. Perhaps it’s just because I have no soul. Ha.

But in relation to white guilt, or middle class guilt, or other forms of guilt that people assume (or often expect) I should be feeling, I often feel quite perplexed. I don’t take responsibility for the attitudes or behaviours of my ancestors. How can I? I don’t feel obliged to identify in certain ways, although sometimes resisting pressures to conform can be difficult. Am I white? Yes. Do I feel proud about that? No, but I don’t feel ashamed or guilty either. I just am. Do I recognise it gives me privilege? Yes, but I act to remain aware of that – I don’t take on guilt or shame for it. In the same way I don’t feel pride for a national categorisation I don’t feel guilt for a class or race categorisation.

I feel proud of my achievements, and I’m proud of many of my friends and colleagues. But I’m not proud of Nelson Mandela, or Desmond Tutu – how can I be? I admire them hugely, but pride? No – I don’t know them well enough to feel pride on their behalf. I feel guilty about not exercising enough, and about writing this instead of my PhD chapter. But I don’t feel guilt about being labelled and socialised as white, or middle-class. Of course, it’s from a position of privilege that I am able to recognise that. But that’s okay – it doesn’t mean I can’t check my privilege and remain conscious of how I think and behave.

I feel neither proud to be from South Africa nor guilty that I do not espouse the values of nation building. I just am from South Africa and I just have a different set of ethics to a nation building agenda. Does that mean I will deride and dismiss achievements? No. Does that mean I will celebrate the potential of the country? No more than I will celebrate the potential of individuals in other contexts.

So what can I take, then, from these thoughts and feelings at election time? Not the hope that South Africa will enter a new era of prosperity – that will only come with hard work. Definitely not a sense of despondency that it will collapse into anarchy – that will only come when no-one fights for democracy. Certainly not the dream that the country will become great, and wondrous, and all shall feel pride – I have absolutely no desire to be a part of fighting for the development of a nation-based identity.

What I think I can take is the personal reminder that it’s easy to disconnect from the world and to be seduced by the bubble of middle-class seclusion – but that will undermine the ethics to which I try and live up. I can take from my feelings of frustration a reminder that constant action and constant consciousness is required – whether in the form of making decisions about where to shop, what to eat, or how to recycle. That engagement does not begin and end with voting. I can take from it the affirmation that even though I am bound to a national structure I can exercise certain prerogatives to take steps towards living out what I claim to be, and what I think are, my principles.

I can take from it the realisation that even though I voted if I truly believe in progress or change I need to follow-through with constant engagement and action, as exhausting as it may be. And I can take from it the very important recognition that even though I have friends who may not vote I cannot, should not, judge them, for they may be far more engaged with democracy and change in their day-to-day lives than I am.

PhD Outline

This week I submitted my research outline for the next 3 years. The working title of my PhD is:

Querying “Double Stigmatisation”: understanding everyday experiences of xenophobia and homophobia in contemporary South Africa

I’ll upload the entire document at another stage, but the summary of my research is:

This project seeks to explore the intersection of dual prejudices in South Africa through the lenses of globalisation, the media, and senses of belonging. It engages with socially and/or economically marginalised men from other African countries who express same-sex desires or subjectivities and who live or work in South African urban spaces, and explores their experiences of xenophobia and homophobia. The project contextualises these everyday experiences of social discrimination within a broader South African culture of legal protection and social intolerance. The project sets out to generate an understanding these of experiences in relation to the mediascape of South Africa, focusing on the role that the media plays in supporting or disrupting senses of belonging among such men. This is based on the recognition of an urgent need to engage with day-to-day local experiences and representations and move away from imposed assumptions about identity. The ultimate goal is to facilitate the generation of a collection of narratives, and offer suggestions for mediated intervention with the intention of increasing social understanding and aiding social reconciliation. 

Beginning a PhD at Sussex

University of SussexI moved from South Africa to undertake PhD research at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom. Like my blog description says, my research focuses on the South African context. A couple of people have asked me why I’m doing a PhD in the UK if I’m focusing on South Africa. A bit of a bizarre question on the surface, given the transnational nature of information today. But it is a legitimate query.

There are a couple of reasons why I chose to study here. On a pragmatic level I received funding to base myself at Sussex. I would have had to have been several degrees of stupid to turn this down.

On an idealistic level I appreciate the liberal and interdisciplinary history of Sussex, and I enjoy the youthful and socially-committed nature of research within the School of Media, Film and Music.

On an experiential level I felt it would be highly beneficial to gain a critically distanced perspective on the South Africa context. Although my field work will be immersive, I think that gaining insight from an institution (and country) with strong historical links to South Africa will be incredibly helpful. During research for my MA in South Africa I often felt that discourses of race overshadowed other issues of identity and consideration – completely to be expected, given how important discussions of race are in the South African context. However, for my PhD I want to remain critical of race as well as the intersection of other identities, subjectivities, and experiences.

Finally, on a personal level, I love the liberal, queer dynamic of Brighton and Sussex. And I’ve always wanted to live for an extended period in the UK and be able to explore some aspects of my heritage.

Brighton at night

Brighton, UK

Shifting to the UK education system has been a bit of an adjustment. I studied my first MA here a few years ago, so I was prepared for most of it. But some aspects have taken me by surprise. For starters, a different emphasis is placed on a Masters degree. In South Africa a Masters (in the Humanities and Social Sciences) is usually a 60 000 word dissertation undertaken solo over an intense one-year or two-year period – it’s something akin to the MPhil in the UK, I think. Although it doesn’t qualify one to get a permanent full-time job as a lecturer, at some institutions one may apply for a position with a Masters and the intention to undertake a PhD. Certainly it is not uncommon for Masters students to lecture parts of or entire modules. I lectured on contract for 2.5 years with my Masters degrees – I designed the course outlines, set essays and exams, held consultations… Perhaps it is because the number of MA students here is much higher, but teaching assistant opportunities are only afforded to 2nd year PhD students and above. I also think, perhaps, it has to do with the fact that in SA an Honours degree is something quite different: it is a 1-year postgraduate degree, much like a taught MA in the UK, and is a prerequisite for being accepted to any Masters program. A Masters, in the UK, is the next step up from undergraduate.

I’m certainly not complaining, though: I would hardly feel equipped to teach here at this stage! Just an observation. I’m thoroughly looking forward to auditing a few undergrad classes this term to understand how things are taught here.

It speaks to another adjustment, though.  Things are far more structured for postgraduate research. Which is fantastic – I enjoy structure. It’s easy to slip into the illusion of having time when it comes to a PhD, I think. Each term here has set research goals: this first term (September – January) had the goal of writing my research outline, which frames exactly what I’ll be doing over the next 3 years. This coming term has the goal of completing a research paper, which will effectively be a draft chapter. Each supervision requires me to type up a report, which is kept on file for future reference. There is an incredible amount of researcher support and development, and a strong network of postgraduate researchers.

Looking out of Silverstone Building

Looking out of Silverstone Building

Although I do not doubt that there will be stressful moments, and that there will be moments when I want to throw my computer out the window, I am going to try and refuse to allow myself to buy into the culture of being stressed as a PhD student. My very wise friend and role-model, Elizabeth Mills, shared this little tip. Everyone knows that the process is stressful at times, but at the same time I know what I’ve signed up for, and I enjoy the work, and am passionate about the social implications of my research. Being stressed at certain times and constantly performing stress, consciously or unconsciously, are two very different things. One acknowledges moments of difficulty to be overcome, the other speaks to a constant state of rush and anxiety which risks eliminating any joy that may be experienced in the actual process. So while there were moments of pressure this last term, I haven’t felt “so, so stressed”, like some of my friends.

Of course this is thanks, in large part, to having two fantastic supervisors: Dr Sharif Mowlabocus and Dr Paul Boyce.

This decision to not buy into stress culture sometimes makes me feel as if I’m doing something wrong: am I not working hard enough? Am I not intelligent enough to realise how difficult this is? Am I missing something? It takes a moment to stop myself and pause and remind myself that it’s okay to enjoy the work and to thrive under the pressure. Sure, I’m just starting, but I’m going to try to hang onto this attitude.