The Pitfalls of Nativism in South Africa

2014-11-18 12:15

There is a tendency among some nationalists and Afro-radicals (or populists such as Juju) to appeal to narratives of nativism and indigeneity as the indispensable basis for certain entitlements (particularly the land and its natural resources). They believe their indigeneity to be an authoritative instrument with which to demand particular configurations of the socio-economic order of the nation-state.

Most of such claims, perhaps, ought to be seen as legitimate expectations, and as means of protracting the anti-apartheid struggle to its logical end, that is, the restoration of resources to the indigenous people and a fair distribution of socio-economic opportunities.

Unfortunately there is an often understated need to reflect critically on some of the implications of nativism with a pinch of vigilance, especially those nodes of its trajectory that seem to cross the most sacred terrains of the constitutional a liberal democracy that most south Africans enjoy today.

Today there is little doubt that nativism and nationalism have been dragged in to irredeemable disrepute by some elites who have used these noble ideologies as tickets for their own “embourgeoisiement” and self-enrichment. There has been little appreciation of Frantz Fanon’s prediction that at a time when the ‘native bourgeoisie’ descends in to confrontational economic competition with the Europeans and descents of colonial settlers for major resources such as land and mines, the ordinary people at their feet will turn on ‘non-national Africans’ in xenophobic scramble for minor resources such as employment opportunities and access to basic services. So the link between unchecked claims of indigeneity and nativism as entitlement instruments for the elites’ enrichment and xenophobic outlooks of the impoverished populace must be exposed if it is to be undone.

Xenophobia is therefore one of the most obvious and blatantly manifest pitfalls of nativism and sensationalized narratives indigeneity; of course, only second to the pervasive self-enrichment by nationalist elites who step on the necks of impoverished workers of their own kind to safeguard the share prices of their holdings. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and his alleged involvements in the Marikana massacre is just a worst case scenario of a highly prevalent reality in this regard.

So, despite the nationalist-elites and the poor indigenous masses both standing on a plateau of nativist claims, what they get from these claims of their indigeneity or claims of Black-South-Africaness necessary leads to shockingly unequal gains, which in turn exacerbate the already dangerously high levels of inequality.

But still, setting aside the enrichment of elite-nationalists (and the connected few), inequality and xenophobia, pink-skinned Citizens (mostly known as ‘Whites’) have constantly been at the firing line of most narratives of both nativism and nationalism. The most reasonable basis for this is that the greater part of their genealogy flows from colonial settlers and certain colonial personalities who brutally oppressed the indigenous people for centuries and a significant number of them continue to benefit from socio-economic arrangements that can be traced directly or indirectly to apartheid. So, most claims of Black people against Whites do stand the litmus test of Justice, as the Constitutional Court has often shown (more recently in the Barnard Case).

However, there is certain degenerated strand of nativism that is nothing but an embodiment of racism and narrow social chauvinism of the highest calibre that can hardly be associated with the ideals espoused some of South Africa’s most celebrated bulwarks of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Such strands of nativism, a bulk of them imported from President Robert Mugabe and his company of rhetoricians, have unfortunately exploited South African Black people’s genuine and legitimate expectations of social justice and land redistribution, and they have been deployed as canons of rhetoric by certain anarchic populists who are not only racist chauvinists themselves but also hypocritical demagogues who are exploiting the frustrations of the unemployment Black youth. So there is a possibility of nativism and indigeneity to degenerate from being noble emancipatory philosophies to being narrow legitimations of blatant racism, usually at the hands of pseudo-communists who think their mere hatred for white people makes them great revolutionaries. As Lenin himself conceded: “every chauvinist is now a Marxist!”

Perhaps the most irritating version of nativist nationalism is the one that legitimates communal tenure of land under the custodianship of a tribal Chief or a King. These Chiefs and Kings hold massive tracts of land under forms of traditional rule that are seemingly above political accountability whilst at the same time giving in to elements of tribalism and sexist-patriarchal tendencies such as denying women access to land and certain claims that nativism guarantees for men. Hence this strand of nativism is not only a threat to ideals of gender parity that are expected of any democracy but they also thwart any meaningful attempt to land (re)distribution (I credit COSATU for these insights on communal tenure).

SO, my point: certain claims must not remain unchecked or above criticism, whether they are made by descendants of native Africans or descendants of colonial settlers. Unchecked narratives of indigeneity and nationalism can in fact be abused and deployed for the enrichment of a few elites, xenophobia, racism, sexism and patriarchy, or the upholding of certain obsolete institutions such as Chieftainships and Kingship- all of which can hardly be thought of as desirable elements of a democracy by any fair minded person.

With that said, If you think I am entirely dismissing nativist thought, you have misconstrued the purpose of my criticism, perhaps you may need to read my next post.

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