South Africa

South Africa

Op-ed: One person, one passport, one road to injustice

The issue of nationality, nationalism and what it means to be South African is something we, as a relatively young nation, are still grappling with. Normally, we try to concentrate on the warm and fuzzy; we all celebrate sporting victories, we all party when we host big international events. But there is a dark underside to our understanding. It goes to the heart of what it really means to be South African. It now appears the African National Congress is seriously contemplating forcing people to hold only the passport of one country. While it is unworkable in a real world, even the fact that it is being considered is revealing. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

On Sunday the Sunday Times splashed with ‘ANC threat to ban dual citizenship’, a lengthy and well-sourced report suggesting that the African National Congress wants South Africans to have only one passport. In other words, if they currently have two passports, they would have to give up the other, if they wanted to keep their South African passport. The money quote is from the chairman of the ANC’s international relations commission, and Deputy Minister in the Presidency Obed Bapela, in which he says: “The question is to see if the world still needs this model of dual citizenship … We say in this new world order, people should just say I am a citizen of South Africa and I pledge my allegiance to this country. But I do have a home (outside the country).”

As a statement it seems to make sense. It’s all very simple. Someone is born in South Africa, of South African parents, and they should just say they are therefore, South African. Simple, isn’t it?

Except, life often doesn’t work that way. Human beings are not like that, not anymore. They live complex, mixed-up and diverse lives with very different experiences.

Let’s start with the premise that someone is South African if they are born here of South African parents. What if they are just born here, are they any less South African? And if only one parent is South African? What if both their parents are South African but none of their grandparents are? What if they claim South African heritage going back five generations but only speak Chinese? Or Gujurati? What if they arrived in this country not long ago and have South African citizenship? How do you really decide?

And that’s before we look at the part of Bapela’s statement that refers to this “new world order”. Which “new world order” exactly? The US version, HW Bush-, Clinton-, W Bush- or Obama-doctrine? Russian? Chinese?

People are moving around more than ever before. Families consist of many nationalities, languages and hues, many of them combined. Most of the world is moving away from single nationalities, not towards it. Forty years ago every country in the European Union (EU) had its own passports. Today, the EU is listed on top of the name of the specific country.

Those who disagree may say in response, well, that’s fine, but we as South Africa are a free nation, have no membership of any body of that sort, and never have in the past. But that would be forgetting that South Africa, as a nation state, is only 115 years old. In the next 50 years, we may not even exist as a nation state, and in 100 this land may well become part of something else. That is simply the way the world is moving. Borders that once stopped knowledge, goods and people from moving around don’t exist in the way that they used to.

Bapela, and the commission he chairs, simply doesn’t seem to understand that simple fact, just how much humans move around nowadays. Like everything, it looks simple on paper. But reality is not on paper.

Look at the new visa regulations, it seems simple to ask parents to provide affidavits and unabridged birth certificates for their children to travel. But as a recent letter to Business Day points out, you can’t actually plan for real life when it comes to this sort of thing. In this case, two parents found themselves on opposite sides of the world when their three-year-old niece died. One in Italy, one in Singapore. Their children were in Italy, the funeral was soon, and there was simply no way to get all the correct documentation from one place to another in time for the children to travel with one parent to the funeral. Tragically, they had to miss it.

It is the same with nationality, how do you say to someone who spent half their life in one place, and half in another, that they must now choose. Must they give up half of their family? Must they borrow the sword of King Solomon? It simply does not make sense in this day and age to say that people can only be of one country. Especially if the rest of the world is saying the opposite.

Bapela may feel that he can win the political argument here. But even if he does, this debate should not be about politics but about the people of South Africa. Of course, there’s also that pesky thing called ‘reality’: the plan will never survive legal scrutiny.

The South African Constitution is clear: Clause 20 of the Bill of Rights states simply “no citizen may be deprived of citizenship”. That’s it. No ifs or buts. Any mechanism to take away the citizenship of someone would be unconstitutional.

Which means you could fine someone for having another passport, or put them in jail. Can you imagine the court hearing, who would testify, a passport officer from another country? Unlikely. An ex-wife? Perhaps. But certainly it would be very hard to get a conviction without proper proof.

But even if that could be gotten around, what then? How would you know if someone did have a passport from another country? Do you really think the British government is going to tell Pretoria if someone it sees as a citizen has one of its passports? Pretoria certainly wouldn’t tell Britain if things were the other way around. So, would there be pre-dawn raids on people with English accents. Will Operation Fiela be changing its focus to look for little red books with EU stamps on them? Presumably they’ll start with every pub in the McGinty’s chain? Or will police cars cruise around looking for people who have braais on Football Association Cup Final Day? And what about Bruma? The Chinese community there is large, would you start to profile people based on how they look?

For some countries, there is no mechanism to renounce your citizenship anyway. If you are British or Russian or Chinese, those government’s may decide that you are British, Russian or Chinese for life. In Zimbabwe, legend has it that when dual citizens went to the British Embassy to hand in their British passports, they would be met with by a bland official explaining that they couldn’t hand it back, but that the embassy would be more than happy to look after the passport for safe-keeping in the meantime. In other words, they could simply go and get their passport whenever they needed it. At one point, Zimbabwe forced the human rights campaigner Judith Todd (daughter of former Rhodesian prime minister Sir Garfield Todd) to give up her New Zealand citizenship (to which she had access as her father had been born there). As part of a legal struggle to get her Zimbabwean nationality returned to her so she could vote, she did so. When her Zimbabwean passport was confiscated, the Kiwis immediately gave her a new passport, without her asking for it.

Which demonstrates exactly how much of a fiction nationality is in the first place. Few of us can really claim to be just from one place. We are all the product of people moving around for generations.

It is sometimes forgotten that all nation states and nationalism itself, are, at their roots, works of fiction. They have been created, often arbitrarily. There was nothing really that drove the colonies of the Cape and Natal and the former republics of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal together. They were forced into it.

It would appear that the main driving force behind this new bid to force people to have only one passport is the desire to stop South Africans from serving in the Israeli armed forces. While there are strong views on that particular conflict, it would seem hard to believe that there are many South Africans doing this at any one time. That the ANC and the government have not been able to provide any hard figures on how many people might be doing this may suggest that it is impossible to prove that any South Africans are doing so in the first place. But it would seem it’s only a handful of people. It is really difficult to justify, or understand, such a strong response that would affect probably millions of South Africans.

At the same time, the government already has a law in place to deal with these cases. It is already illegal, as a South African, to fight for a foreign army, or to be in a place of military conflict helping one side. The Foreign Military Assistance Act has been on the books for over a decade. Strangely, up until now, it has not been used to prosecute any South African taking part in the Middle East conflict. But, should it be used against someone in the Israeli Defence Force, it would presumably be only a matter of time before someone who was both a South African and a Palestinian, is found to be involved as well.

One of the few prosecutions under this Act, perhaps the only one in fact, relates to the coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea that involved many South Africans. After serving time in Zimbabwe, they were convicted here. And one of them ended up flying President Jacob Zuma himself to the United Nations in New York. Which hardly suggests it’s an effective deterrent.

If all of this is the case, why then would the ANC, or parts of it, be trying to push in this direction? It may be that it is simply one of those strange brain farts the party has from time to time, that it will join the ranks of broken promises, like “we’ll nationalise the Reserve Bank” or “stop the Springboks from competing until they’re majority black”.

But it may also be that some people are trying to redefine what a South African actually is. That they will try to say some people are “more South African” than others. We all know what the subtext of that message will be. But in the end, it would be the very undoing of the ANC. If the party is not for all South Africans, it will simply cease to be a unified organisation. It’s a small hop from saying the party is for all South Africans except those who have other passports, to saying it’s only for black people, to saying it’s only for Zulu or Xhosa people. That particular road ends in a dark, dead end, and nowhere else.

And the party itself should not forget, there will be many of its own leaders who, due to their own personal histories, the fact that they were exiled, forced out of their own country for a time, were given passports by those nations that took them in. Would it not simply be kicking them in the teeth to return them? DM

Photo: OR Tambo (Photo by Leandro Ciuffo)


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