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Read my lips, Joburg Mayor Jolidee Matongo is a South African citizen; he is not a ‘foreigner’

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Dr Stephen Phiri is a southern African representative of the Kwame Nkrumah Ideological Institute (a Pan-African organisation). He is also an alumnus of the National Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences.

Citizenship is not necessarily inherited, neither is it a natural status, but a mere construct whose legal status is regulated by colonial boundaries and to some extent ‘nativism’. If we want to perceive citizenship as a natural phenomenon, we might all end up being ‘foreigners’.

Jolidee Matongo, a son of a Zimbabwean immigrant, “was elected (mayor of Johannesburg) after receiving more than 260 council votes on Tuesday [10 August 2021] and remained uncontested, a rare occurrence in the city”, according to Sowetan Live. He is replacing Geoff Makhubo, who succumbed to Covid-19.

Despite this overwhelming acknowledgement based on his “tested” abilities, there was growing social media buzz (“#WeRejectMayorOfJHB”) that seems unhappy that the mayor’s late father was a Zimbabwean.

In a signed letter, the ANC described this campaign as a “social media malicious Afro-phobia… led by faceless people and therefore does not represent the people of Johannesburg”. According to The Star “[some] opposition party [members] in the council had gone as far as approaching Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs MEC Lebogang Maile to ask him to force the council to choose a new mayor”.

These growing sentiments prompted City of Johannesburg Speaker Nonceba Molwele to remark that “the metro’s new mayor [Jolidee Matongo] is not a foreigner”. Hence, it seems, the crisis of citizenship is beginning to raise its ugly head again. Most of these social media posts seem to confuse citizenship as being an inherited entity.

Citizenship is not necessarily inherited, neither is it a natural status, but a mere construct whose legal status is regulated by colonial boundaries and to some extent “nativism”. Migration as a natural phenomenon greatly influences the nature of citizenship, and points to the fact that citizenship is negotiated and fluid. In other words, if we want to perceive citizenship as a natural phenomenon, we might all end up being “foreigners”. 

The sentiment of declaring the present mayor of Johannesburg a foreigner is neither a new phenomenon nor restricted to South Africa, but a common human misunderstanding. Interestingly, in most cases where these pronouncements are expressed, the driving force is mostly based on insecurity, greed, selfishness or “raw” nationalistic pride, rather than reason.

In Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, after serving as president for 40 years, was called a Malawian because his parents were Malawian migrants. This was single-handedly pushed by former president Frederick Chiluba. The latter’s intentions had nothing to do with the good of Zambia or the Zambian people, but was nothing more than a means to gain political power since Kaunda was his biggest rival at the time. Kaunda was for years sidelined from the citizenry of the country which he knew as his only home.

The same thing happened in the US when Barack Obama was elected president. Those with “undiscerned nationalistic” tendencies started to identify him with his father, a Kenyan, not his mother, an American. They even strengthened their “essentialist exclusivity” by categorising him as a Muslim due to the negative stereotypes attached to this religion in the West. In other words, they wanted to prove that he is a foreigner, and they cannot be ruled by someone who is not “one of their kind”. What is sickening about this categorisation is that the US is essentially built on migration, and without it, its greatness would have been a pipe dream.

I am a grandson of Malawian migrants and my parents were born in Zimbabwe. Even if I was also born in Zimbabwe, I knew myself as a Malawian. What is sad is that I have never been to Malawi, and I cannot psychologically identify myself with Malawians, but with Zimbabweans.

Malawians (in Zimbabwe) are/were normally called Mabrandaya or Manyasarande. The former is drawn from a Malawian town called Blantyre; the latter was taken from the colonial name of Malawi, Nyasaland. These terms were as derogatory as the commonly used word Makwerekwere but not as malicious as it is used here in South Africa.

Around the year 2000, when the Zimbabwean ruling party’s political dominance was threatened by the opposition, former president Robert Mugabe declared most people of foreign descent “foreigners”. It seems as if Mugabe thought foreigners were the problem since they were supporting the opposition. We had to verify our citizenship status, even if we knew we were citizens, because we committed only one crime: we were daughters and grandsons of migrants.  

As a result of this “citizenship-harassment”, many people who were categorised as foreigners could not vote. Was this unnecessary harassment because migrants are criminals, or they were against the development of Zimbabwe? Of course not. It was just because of political expediency, power hunger and insecurity.

One of the greatest South African music figures is the late Ray Phiri. He was venerated by the state, and people never insulted him. No one cared about his origins. A lot of good things were said about him and even government departments related to music and culture paid tribute to him. Phiri was the son of a Malawian migrant.

The same logic applies to current Johannesburg mayor Matongo. His father was a Zimbabwean migrant. Both Phiri and the mayor were born here before 1994 – this, legally, makes them South African citizens just like any Zulu, Xhosa or Pedi. The only difference between these two is that the mayor stands as a threat to “South African identity” while Phiri added value to their national pride.

If only those who base their judgements on identitarian mentalities would just reflect how migrants or their children or grandchildren have contributed to the wellbeing of this country with little credit, they would start to rethink the essence of citizenship not just as a birthright, but substantially a negotiated process judged by one’s contribution towards nation-building.

Let us give the mayor a chance to lead the city, and if he fails let us judge him according to his performance, not his origin. After all, he is a South African citizen. DM

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  • and yet, as a white Afrikaner of German/Dutch descent whose family has been in various countries in Africa since the 1700’s and in South Africa specifically since 1805, I’m characterized as a colonialist and a foreigner and told to go back wherever it is that I came from?

    • Thank you Stephen for articulating this. As a first generation white South African – my parents were British- I never experienced challenges to my SA citizenship. There seems to be is a racist element to what is happening now with the Johannesburg mayor.

  • Great article. Places the emphasis on who you are rather than what you are….Also interesting that Barack Obama’s Black ancestry is given more weight than his White ancestry, which is an indictment on using skin colour (a what) as a basis to judge people (who).