Citizenship and belonging

2008-07-25 00:00

The regrettable incidents of xenophobic attacks against Africans by other fellow Africans have come and gone. However, the scars of those attacks will remain with us for some time. Most important is the manner in which local, provincial and national governments dealt with and continue to deal with people on the move.

Our migration policies, which contain structural forms of discrimination, have helped to fuel xenophobic attacks against people on the move. The inability of the government at all levels, jointly and collectively, to deal with the crisis resulting from xenophobic attacks leaves much to be desired. The vicious and non-caring manner in which Durban City and its security apparatus have dealt with the refugees, consisting mainly of women and children, is appalling, to say the least.

This is the same treatment that fellow Africans who are on the move for various reasons are subjected to in places such as Lindela. What also remains with us is the question of what constitutes a citizen and who therefore has a right to belong to a particular society or group. What are the boundaries of belonging, who sets these boundaries and for what purpose are they? I would argue that the boundaries of belonging are shaped and influenced by the rich and powerful elites of the North to serve their interest in particular.

Throughout the ages and in all parts of the world people have been on the move seeking safer and better lives. However, in the 21st century having the right to move is becoming increasingly constrained for the majority of poor people. For the very poor, the world is divided by boundaries and categories, which define what is possible for them and their families.

On the other hand, the rich and middle class can move with impunity as tourists and travellers and therefore exploit the possibilities of prosperity. Categorisation of people who are on the move is informed by racial, class and gender dimensions.

This brings me to the notion of citizenship and belonging. What does it take to be a citizen of a particular country or society? In Zimbabwe for example, the majority of Malawians and Mozambicans who constitute a large number of farm workers are still not regarded as Zimbabwean citizens despite the fact that they have lived there for ages and have helped to build the agricultural economy of Zimbabwe. The same could be said in South Africa regarding mine workers from southern African countries.

The intensification of neo-liberal economic policies throughout the world, in the South and in Africa particularly, continues to undermine the ability of national governments to pursue policies that will result in a balanced development of the region.

The question of open borders must be at the top of the agenda of our struggles. It was at the Berlin Conference in 1884 where the borders of Africa were redrawn to serve the interest of bloodthirsty Europeans. The notion that the opening of borders will lead to the erosion of cultural and national identity is neither here nor there. Culture and identity are not rigid and static stations. The myths surrounding nations promote and protect private property, which in turn sustains inequality in all parts of the world. The historical processes of inclusion and exclusion that have given birth to “imagined” communities of modern nation states, particularly in the North, have tended to define who is permitted to participate within the national space.

Workers have no country and they should be allowed to move freely around the globe. The majority of the poor people in South Africa and in the South, generally have much more in common to unite them against their elite, despotic leaders

• Thabo Manyathi is an activist working for the Association For Rural Advancement (Afra). He writes in his personal capacity.

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