Friday, July 16, 2010

Nationalism, a Janus-faced animal: the potential for xenophobia

These have been heady times as millions of South Africans celebrate the successful hosting of the World Cup. Being the first African country to host this global event does indeed seem worthy of celebrating. This extremely costly event has produced an extraordinary sense of global citizenship and national pride and belonging. Yet, not all observers are optimistic and euphoric. Dale McKinley (Cape Times 14th June 2010) and Patrick Bond are amongst some of the many critics who have questioned FIFA's claims about the economic and developmental benefits of hosting the event. In fact, Bond claims that FIFA has taken out of South Africa an estimated R25 billion in tax-free profits without leaving nearly as much in terms of financial benefits for the host nation (Cape Times 5th July, 2010).

Detractors, who bemoan the massive costs of hosting this event, claim that these resources could have been put to far better use by building houses and establishing other more appropriate development projects. Yet millions of South African patriots passionately wish for the feel-good fraternity and festivity of the soccer carnival to continue. They do not wish to be burdened by mundane realities of crime, corruption, violence, xenophobia and labour strikes that have periodically penetrated FIFA's well fortified football bubble. Even Left critics such as Richard Pithouse acknowledge the extraordinary social levelling power and utopian effects this global sporting event has generated. As he puts it, 'in a world where inequality is so profound and so effectively policed, administered and legitimated there is something utopian in the moments of transcendence that football can create' (Cape Times, 5th July, 2010).

Events such as the FIFA World Cup can indeed be seen as ritualised utopian spaces in which spectacle is cordoned off from the mundane realities of everyday life. Like the temporary suspension of everyday conventions and social practices during carnivals and rites, the month long World Cup in South Africa has resulted in the suspension of business as usual.

I too experienced this carnival-like atmosphere and camaraderie at the World Cup matches I attended in Cape Town. Although I encountered passionate competition between supporters of different nations at World Cup games, this rivalry was generally accompanied by the recognition of common humanity and mutual respect.

For me this 'feel good' bubble was punctured when I was recently asked to give a talk on the photographs and poems by David Lurie and Patricia Schonstein on display at the Right to Refuge exhibition at Cape Town Holocaust Centre. The photographs and poems focus on victims of the xenophobic violence that erupted in South African cities in May 2008. This exceptionally powerful collection of images and poetry hints at something quite unsettling about unrestrained outbursts of nationalist fervour of the sort that we witnessed in soccer stadiums throughout South Africa. This sense of foreboding was heightened by having the Holocaust Centre as the exhibition venue.

A number of scholars have drawn attention to the shadow side of nationalism and the nation state. They draw explicit attention to the political violence associated with the foundation of nation-states. For instance, Ranjana Khanna has drawn attention to the mass expulsions of an estimated 16 million people that occurred following the 1947 Partition when India was split into India and west and east Pakistan. These historical events demonstrate that the creation and celebration of nationalism and the formation of the nation-state are often accompanied by processes of xenophobic violence that result in displaced refugees becoming stateless and vulnerable.

Jewish scholars such as Hannah Arendt and Judith Butler have written critically about how the formation of the State of Israel was one such moment, and the continuing suffering of Palestianian refugees is a tragic consequence and continuing legacy of this founding moment. Arendt noted that the 'solution to the Jewish question' in the aftermath of the Shoah 'merely reproduced a new category of refugees, the [Palestinians], thereby increasing the number of stateless and rightless by another 700,000 to 800,000 people'. Israeli historian Ilan Pappe's book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006) also draws attention to the massive violent displacement of indigenous Palestinians during the 'War of Independence' or 'Nakba.' While Jewish supporters of the State of Israel continue to struggle to acknowledge this grim reality, Palestinians have indeed become stateless refugees and what the late Edward Said referred to as 'the victims of the victims.'

The founding of the State of Israel is by no means the only example of such violent processes of expulsion. Moreover, even when nation-states are well established, the nationalist desires and ambitions of leaders and citizens, especially those citizens experiencing chronic poverty and marginalization, can be expressed through the expulsion of internal 'enemy populations' that are transformed into non-nationals and stateless peoples. Idi Amin's expulsion of the Asian population in Uganda is but one of numerous such examples on the African continent and beyond. The genocidal violence against Jews in Nazi Germany is certainly a limit case when it comes to these nation-state processes.

In her 1951 study of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt referred to the ways in which xenophobic nationalist responses to those displaced and stateless in the period between the two world wars contributed towards the pathologising and criminalising of refugees and non-nationals. Reflecting on the devastating consequences of statelessness for Jews and other displaced peoples, Arendt concluded that human rights depended on national rights, that is, rights that constitute and protect one as a citizen of a nation-state. Without national rights, she argued, talk about human rights was simply 'hopeless idealism'.

At first glance this dire warning from Arendt seems wholly inappropriate for the South African context. After all, South Africa has a democratic constitution and a responsible state that is certainly not bent on the violent expulsion of foreigners. Yet, Arendt's observations do seem to have resonance for us today. Could it be that the ways in which refugees and non-nationals are treated in their daily interactions with police and other state functionaries share some resemblances with the processes described by Arendt? Let me illustrate this by means of anecdotal evidence.

Over the past few years I have come to know a group of over a dozen young Zimbabwean men who sell crafts, and more recently national flags, close to where I reside in Newlands, Cape Town. These young men seek to make a living to support themselves and their families in Zimbabwe. When the xenophobic violence erupted in May 2008, fearing violence from neighbours, these men fled the communities in which they lived in Cape Town's poorer working class suburbs. Most of them lost their possessions, including the tools and materials that they needed to make 'tourist paintings' of the townships and Table Mountain which they sold to make a living.

Forced to seek refuge from the violence by sleeping in Newlands Forest completely exposed to the bitterly cold Cape winter, they managed to find temporary shelter in churches and community centres. Notwithstanding these setbacks, in a remarkably short period they had managed to get their arts and crafts enterprise up and running. Since they continued to be harassed by Metro Police and SAPS, I attempted to intervene on their behalf by writing letters and speaking to the local Counsellor and the Station Commander at the Claremont Police Station. I explained that these young men were responsible breadwinners who, under extremely harsh and precarious conditions, sought to support their families back in Zimbabwe. Although it seemed police harassment had significantly subsided, a few weeks ago I received a call from the brother of one of the men who had been arrested by the police. After having the spent the night in jail, the young man was released, having paid a R50 admission of guilt fine for 'disturbing the peace'.

It turned out that a Newlands resident regularly calls the police complaining about the noise from the dozen vendors selling fruit, flowers, newspapers, the Big Issue, and crafts next to his house. Yet it is the Zimbabweans who are routinely arrested. How is it possible that the resident and the police know exactly who amongst these vendors is responsible for 'disturbing the peace'. Clearly, the South African sellers have employers who will complain loudly if their employees are fined, arrested or have their goods confiscated. The Zimbabweans, by contrast, are soft targets for police who feel obliged to make an arrest to mollify irate Newlands residents who complain about noise.

This brief anecdote draws attention to the complicity of ordinary citizens and state functionaries in rendering non-nationals vulnerable to criminalisation and discrimination. Once criminalised, these non-nationals are rendered increasingly susceptible to violence from South African men who are unemployed and who may resent what they perceive to be 'illegal' economic competition from foreigners. So, while Zimbabweans sell South African flags to patriotic football fans, they are acutely aware that the benign nationalistic spirit of the soccer festivities could quite easily morph into resentment and violence against foreigners once the FIFA carnival closes shop.

Nationalism is indeed a Janus-faced animal: during the struggle for national liberation it helped forge solidarity in the fight against a repressive apartheid state; yet, after apartheid it has demonstrated its potential to become a far more menacing and ambiguous beast. Unless citizens, civil society and the state begin to respond constructively to the rumours, threats and everyday violence directed against non-nationals, the benign rainbow nationalism and expressions of global citizenship of the World Cup celebrations could tragically morph into the kind of lethal violence that has been historically associated by Hannah Arendt with conditions of statelessness. The photographs and poems at the Right to Refuge exhibition at the Holocaust Centre provide a poignant reminder of how exclusivist versions of national belonging can so easily end up dehumanising and discriminating against others.

By Steven Robbins.

Robins is professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at the University of Stellenbosch

This article was first published in the Cape Times, Monday 12 July, 2010.