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Violent vocabularies and hypernationalism: #PutSouthAfricansFirst is misguided xenophobia

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Suntosh R Pillay is a clinical psychologist in Durban, South Africa, who writes widely on social issues.

We should not be fooled by hypernationalist hashtags such as #PutSouthAfricansFirst and #WeWantOurCountryBack. These movements hide the anti-black logic of coloniality that violently distorts our common humanity.

When Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave’s three children asked about him, their mother replied: “South Africans burnt him alive.”

This is the trauma that Hortencia Masangwa and her children were left to endure after the murder of Nhamuave, a Mozambican national, who was set alight in a township in Gauteng, back in 2008. The photographs of his burning body stain our collective memory and remind us as South Africans that our humanity can be sold for a matchstick.

That Nhamuave was murdered in a place called Ramaphosa, on 18 May 2008, a week before Africa Day (which celebrates the birth of the African Union) are cruel ironies that capture the contradictions of our (post?) apartheid, (post?) colonial country. The flames of Nhamuave’s body became the ashes of ubuntu in South Africa, humwe in Zimbabwe or ujamaa in Tanzania and Kenya. Pan-Africanism is dead. That much we can be sure of. 

From these ashes, among the charred coals of a common humanity, we find a language of nationalism desperate for oxygen. It is an aggressively patriarchal, violent patriotism that I refer to as hypernationalism. The “burning man” has come to symbolise the atrocities committed in the name of this hypernationalism, which flares up sporadically like demonic wildfire intent on destruction. 

We are re-witnessing this via seemingly patriotic hashtags such as #PutSouthAfricansFirst and #WeWantOurCountryBack. Social media and the “real world” are mutually constitutive, so it would be remiss of us to ignore these slogans as mere online activism. These hypernationalists are energised by politicians, across parties, who unashamedly blame foreign migrants, asylum seekers and refugees for the multiple social ills that they — the politicians — have failed to address with efficient service delivery.

People like Herman Mashaba build entire political brands on anti-immigration rhetoric. One of the first steps South Africa took to prevent the spread of Covid-19 was budgeting R37-million to secure the Beitbridge border with Zimbabwe, an action that ultimately undermined our coronavirus response

#PutSouthAfricansFirst is being used in tandem with sinister phrases like #CleanUpSA. It takes little historical acuity or imagination to see why these catchphrases lay the discursive foundations for dehumanising processes of “othering”. If “we” want “our” country back, then “they” must go back to “their” country. Similar linguistic bullets were consistent precursors to atrocities in Germany, Rwanda, Burundi, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and Idi Amin’s Uganda. 

Normalising these phrases and then deploying them strategically can incite a panga-wielding mob already primed by divisive political utterances. At the core of this vulnerability to violence is centuries of suffering, expressed in the only emotion that a toxic society openly permits: anger.

Professor Tinyiko Maluleke once commented that “our streets are teeming with self-hating violent men” — an apt observation on the unfinished business of Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness and its relationship to hegemonic black masculinities. Or, as Frantz Fanon observed, colonial streets are teeming with a zombification of black identity; colonial caricatures lost in the zone of non-being.

Perhaps one of the most apt headlines following Nhamuave’s murder was in The New York Times: “South Africans take out rage on immigrants”. The wretchedly poor certainly have countless reasons to feel rage. Rage is at the heart of violence and its intersections with economic emasculation. A recent Human Rights Watch report wrote:

The violent mobs… were made up of black South Africans who are angry at the economic and living conditions they are experiencing — poverty and inequality, chronically high unemployment, high crime rates, and poor public services. They are directing this anger at African and Asian foreigners who they believe are taking jobs and livelihoods away from South Africans.

HRW urged us to “reverse the psychological effects and impact of apartheid and colonialism in order to reflect contemporary discrimination and inequalities”. If we are to take human rights seriously, we must centre human beings. Any analysis of xenophobia must therefore acknowledge the embers of coloniality that continues to spark violent processes of dehumanisation. If not, the wretched roam the Earth as living dead. 

Professor Rothney Tshaka reminds us that American slave-owners were able to create and exploit artificial differences among their slaves to sow distrust, envy and fear within slave groups. Willie Lynch’s infamous speech, “The Making of a Slave”, remains a sinister model for amplifying dissimilarities among black people so that they turn on one another in the false belief that some have closer proximity to humanity than others.

These “nervous conditions” ensure that black people become complicit in their own psychological slavery. This self-directed rage — Afrophobia to some — enables a self-regulating hierarchy of humanity. Biko warned against this in his appeal for radical black solidarity. But Biko’s words, like Nhamuave’s dying screams, fall on deaf ears. We continue to place foreigners at the lowest rungs of this hierarchy: easy scapegoats for a rage that struggles to find healthy expression. Yesterday’s oppressed become tomorrow’s oppressors, always.

Patrick Egwu, a Nigerian journalist, recently lamented how we are repurposing the bigotries of our apartheid past and weaponising it against foreigners such as himself: 

Xenophobia exists everywhere, as do claims that foreigners are taking jobs. But in South Africa, petty bigotries take a particularly violent tone — and fellow black Africans are always seen as far more threatening than whites or Asians.

Egwu’s experience of our brand of Afrophobia as particularly violent speaks to the nervous rage, unprocessed but simmering, ready to erupt and disrupt. As a psychologist, I must ask: If that raw rage could find the words to speak, what would it say? I imagine it would be a primal scream. A loud, visceral howl, a deeply infantile cry, a body-shaking wail, an existential prayer of despair. The embers of broken political promises, of intergenerational trauma, of daily humiliations, of hopelessness, burn into the psyche of a people waiting for material emancipation. Waiting for Godot. 

To be sure, this is not new. A study by the South African Migration Project in 1997 found that we had the highest levels of opposition to immigration, despite Mandela’s Rainbow Nation euphoria. As I have written previously, xenophobia is often premised on an anti-black logic that skews reality:

Single stories — they’re stealing our jobs — are not innocent exasperations; they are dangerous forewords to violent endings. Constructing, demonising, and dividing our fellow humans into foreign “others” has been the modus operandi of colonialism in Africa. Present-day xenophobia, as the narrative and material extension of these tactics, points to an enduring form of mental colonisation in which we turn against the very people who share our pain.

We must not be fooled by colonial gimmicks like hypernationalist hashtags. Lurking in the subplots of xenophobic violence we must locate and challenge coloniality and its oppressive manifestations — capitalism, neoliberalism, global white supremacy, heteronormative patriarchy and trauma.

If we are to truly put South Africans first, it would mean putting our humanity first, gifting South Africa with what Biko called “a more human face”. It is in Biko’s conception of humanism, in his liberatory, anti-racist, anti-colonial, anti-xenophobic psychology of Black Consciousness, that we find a theory of change worth trending. Let us #PutHumanityFirst because #WeWantOurHumanityBack. DM

Connect with Suntosh R Pillay on Twitter or Google Scholar.

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  • Copy & paste: ‘We must not be fooled by colonial gimmicks like hypernationalist hashtags. Lurking in the subplots of xenophobic violence we must locate and challenge coloniality and its oppressive manifestations — capitalism, neoliberalism, global white supremacy, heteronormative patriarchy and trauma’.

  • Well said Suntosh Pillay. We are proud to have had you on our emerging African leaders program at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance at UCT.