The danger of ‘the anti-immigrant narrative’

22 Oct 2019 - 10:15

Panellists Dr Mandla Langa (left) and Assoc Prof Suren Pillay discuss the perfect storm in South Africa, comprising a concerted onslaught of violence – especially against women and children, xenophobia and the breakdown of law and order.

South Africa is witnessing a perfect storm, a concerted onslaught of violence – especially against women and children – xenophobia and the breakdown of law and order. And while none of this is new, if left unchecked it will continue into the next millennium, Dr Mandla Langa warned.

The award-winning poet, writer and cultural activist was one of two speakers at a panel discussion, “Race and transformation in higher education”, part of a series titled “Resilience, colonialism, xenophobia and femicide”, under the Faculty of Humanities’ “Citizenship and Violence” banner. His fellow panellist was Associate Professor Suren Pillay, senior researcher in the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape.

The discussion was presented by the faculty’s acting dean Associate Professor Shose Kessi and the Humanities Postgraduate Student Council, in response to recent events on campus and in the country. These had necessitated “a deep and ongoing engagement with the question of citizenship, the politics of belonging and gendered violence”, said Kessi.

“In these series of dialogues and performances we hope to situate and talk about variegated practices of violence that target different bodies across time and place,” she said.

To open, Langa cited the famous line of Nobel laureate Keorapetsi Willie Kgositsile, who reminds us that “there is nothing left after wars, only other wars”, and that “an injury to one is an injury to all”.

He commended the University of Cape Town (UCT) for using its institutional creative and intellectual capabilities to “chip away at the monolith of inaction”.

 “Sociologies have defined for the world what race and ethnicity are. As we speak, the world is ablaze with all sorts of manifestations of attacks against peoples seen as inferior: In the minds of the perpetrators the belief of the inferiority of others helps justify the harsh treatment they suffer.”

Hierarchies of acceptability

To illustrate the absurdity of these manifestations, Langa shared a boyhood story about a friend, an AmaMpondo who bore traditional vertical facial markings. Most AmaMpondo in KwaMashu in KwaZulu-Natal, where Langa grew up, were itinerant labourers on the sugar plantations.

“There were all kinds of stories among us; that they were wild, subhuman…”


“What differentiates a Zanzibari, a freed minority slave, from any other black South African? What is the hierarchy of acceptability?”

One day he and his AmaMpondo friend tried to buy tickets at a local cinema, owned by Indians. His friend pretended to be a Zanzibari, migrants from north of the country’s borders. Zanzibaris were permitted to attend the cinema; local blacks were not. But the Indian ticket seller turned him away, having seen through his ploy because of his traditional facial scars, the “telltale lines” that identified him as a South African black.

“I often think of that Indian man at the ticket office and what must have gone on in his head when he had to deal with the byzantine calculus of identity. What differentiates a Zanzibari, a freed minority slave, from any other black South African? What is the hierarchy of acceptability?”

That question has now become a national issue, reflected in xenophobic attacks and debates.

Langa said that when one of our own, icon Miriam Makeba’s passport was revoked in 1960, Tanzania was one of many African countries that offered her citizenship. In all, she held nine other passports.

“To do our bit in chipping at the edifice of racism and xenophobia we could take a leaf from Sis Miriam’s playbook and understand that the world is an interconnection of interests, and that we are more likely to survive the more we are able to borrow capacity from the neighbour.”

Narrow nationalism

“How do we move?” he asked.

“There’s one thing we have learnt: the bigness of the African continent and the bigness of the struggle. The blood of the people and host countries caught up in the cross-border raids was the blood of solidarity of brothers and sisters who didn’t believe in the smallness, the narrow nationalism that saw neighbours as strangers, aliens, but [who believed] in the infinitude of solidarity [and] who took seriously the words of an African free from Cape to Cairo.


“I believe in the power and activism of intellectuals, both students and teachers, across all race and gender.”

 “I believe in the power and activism of intellectuals, both students and teachers, across all race and gender. It’s my belief that collective power-building from the demonstrated past strength to organise and mobilise should be reclaimed and rechannelled to face the scourge of dispossession, of racism, sexism and chauvinism.”

He said South Africans should see the danger in the current anti-immigrant narrative.

“We must see each other’s pain. Yes, there is a place for pain to serve as a creative crucible for academic pursuit and especially those in the humanities need to lead a path for intellectual pursuit to generate ideas and create a better society which recognises that we are bigger united.”

Pillay reminded the audience that xenophobia in Africa is not new. In 1983 Nigeria expelled two million undocumented migrants from the country. Half were Ghanaian. In 1988 the Ethiopian government planned to strip of citizenship anyone of Eritrean origin. Some 75 000 left, never to return. In 1972 Uganda threatened to expel its South Asian minority, some 80 000 people, giving them 90 days to leave the country.

“The list goes on… I don’t cite these events to ask why we are focusing on South Africa, as if it hasn’t happened in other parts. But I do think that we [should] locate our rage in a historical context.”

In terms of race and higher education in South Africa, how might these things be connected, he asked.

“It’s clear that in South Africa we are rapidly approaching a series of predicaments to which certain answers are going to become obvious in the public discourse.

“The answer is increasingly going to be if populism and demagoguery, for example, become answered through nativism. This is one instance we saw in the Nigerian expulsion of Indians and of course today in the politics of the US and Europe. What role might the university play in recognising and making sense of these events? We may have to ask the question of ourselves in a different way.

Seduction of nativism?

“Instead of it being about the politics ‘out there’, it may also be about how might we as a university conduct our politics ‘in here’. Is there a politics among ourselves that could be entertaining this seduction of nativism? Some of us may be susceptible to these kinds of seductions.”

Parochialism could be undone by making the university a place located somewhere in time and space, “but also a place from which we think of the world in ways that try to be less imperial”.


“Instead of it being about the politics ‘out there’, it may also be about how might we as a university conduct our politics ‘in here’.”

“What does it mean to think of the world from the vantage point of the dominated, not from the part of the civiliser?”

One answer was in public intellectual Edward Said’s project of democratising humanism.

“It’s not about accepting the story that human knowledge tells about itself that it is discreet and self-creating, but helping ourselves by saying, ‘No, we don’t reject Europe, we reject the Eurocentric account of Europe and we can write a different account about how Europe came to be…ʼ ”

There were other challenges attached to our apartheid inheritance; what was taught and how it trained those educated at its institutions: epistemic injustice.

“How do we address the absence in our own training of expertise in knowledge, for example, of history, politics, philosophy, languages, literatures… the non-European traditions of East Africa, West Africa and North Africa, the languages of Omari, Arabic and Swahili? And knowledge and expertise of the colonised parts of the world whose lives and experiences we are so intimately connected to: the Middle East, South Asia, the Americas and South East Asia?

“Surely a project of epistemic justice will have to recognise that we are in a phase of training a new generation of trainers and we need to decide: Are they are going to be just a different colour… or part of a new humanism of a democratic, intellectual pan-African future?

“We will not be producing a really new post-apartheid generation of black South Africa scholars if we are not flexible in how we implement fair discrimination in our appointments of postdoctoral and new academics. And we cannot work against ourselves by denying ourselves the chance to benefit from knowledge from parts of the world that apartheid denied to us because of its prejudices of Eurocentrism.”

Story:  Helen Swingler

Photo:  Brenton Geach