A heritage that shames us

The idealism of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle is in danger of dissolving in the acid of pragmatism, warns Darshan Vigneswaran, a fellow at Wits University’s forced migration programme.

The country’s woes make citizens think they cannot afford to be generous, especially to immigrants seeking a better life.

But Vignsewaran, who studies migration and xenophobia, points out a complexity: the country’s past—steeped in the idea of a universal brotherhood—pulls in the opposite direction.

The son of a Sri Lankan father and a Burmese mother, Vigneswaran was born in Adelaide, Australia. His sense of being marginal in that bastion of white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism instilled in him an abiding interest in territoriality.

Inititally influenced by Robert Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative, he studied politics at various Australian universities.

His focus is the relationship between humans and the spaces they inhabit, claim as their own, intrude on, pass through or from which they exile others, their not-so-fellow citizens.

As a doctoral student he completed a dissertation on three territorialities—the 12th-century Italian city state, the British Raj in India and the European Union—focusing on how they came into being, legitimised themselves and administered their territories, defining an “inside” and “outside” of citizens, subjects and sojourners.

In a paper titled Free movement and the movement’s forgotten freedoms: South African representation of undocumented migrants, Vigneswaran analyses the standard response of states, citizens and the media to “illegal immigrants”.

In his scenario the state polices its borders and territory to keep out various classes of migrants, some of whom are admitted only as refugees and subsequently enmeshed in a bureaucratic process and kept under surveillance.

The migrant who has slipped through the net is perceived as a threat to the nation, as prone to crime as a survival mechanism, as an intruder aiming to exploit the nation’s advantages or who harbours ill-will against the nation—the terrorist.

The media’s treatment of the undocumented migrant takes shape against a series of assumptions about who belongs to the nation and who does not. In this way the nation-building narrative is continually developed and reinforced.

Sub-Saharan Africa obeys a slightly different logic from Europe and North America, Vigneswaran says. Here, the state has never quite managed to secure national territory, borders are porous and officials extort money from those they administer, making the state a quasi-criminal institution.

“The territorial prerogative of the state has been captured by non-state actors and criminal networks,” he writes. The exception—in some respects—is South Africa. Vigneswaran highlights its hesitations and contradictions in the way the South African media portrays undocumented migrants.

As elsewhere, the media repeats the national narrative and reinforces ideas of an “inside” and an “outside”. But South Africa’s history offers a stark and still-remembered basis for a counter-narrative and for alternative views about the state, citizenship and human rights.

The migrant evokes the black urban “sojourner” of the apartheid period, throwing up questions about responses to immigration that do not betray the spirit of the anti-apartheid heritage.

In line with this, four themes dominate media coverage: xenophobia and black on black violence, farmers’ exploitation of black foreigners, police abuse of authority and inadequate detention methods, especially at the Lindela centre in Johannesburg.

Document fraud is another key theme, with the media lambasting the home affairs department for its suspicion of black people who apply for documents, its denial of grants and the “sale” of identities to foreigners.

But Vignewaran emphasises that media reportage is not entirely free of prejudice: it also portrays migrants as willing to exploit South Africa’s laws, especially when they gain rights that enable them to take top positions.

Migration is also frequently depicted as a post-apartheid phenomenon, obscuring the fact that many migrants worked in South Africa under apartheid.

Concluding, Vigneswaran hints at a parallel between South Africans and the people of the United States and France, who have largely forgotten their revolutionary heritage of equality and universal brotherhood.

But South Africa is one of the few countries where freedom of movement has been a core revolutionary ideal, and where in public discourse there is “a genuine questioning of the assumptions of difference upon which the modern immigration regime is built, and the condition of ‘illegality’ sustained”.

Like his mentor, international relations theorist John Ruggie, Vigneswaran believes there is an epochal shift in the way states deal with each other and the people who live in their territory, legal or otherwise.

An African Union modelled on the European superstate he has studied could be one way out of the problems of migration and xenophobia, but would bring its own ills.

The EU is a grand experiment in the free movement of people, goods and money, but Vigneswaran warns that it evolved over a long period of time and was not simply the result of a dissolving of borders.

It had to transform its forms of control and surveillance to police asylum-seekers and refugees, a process that has ultimately diminished the rights of citizens.

In his interview with the Mail & Guardian, Vignaswaran admitted he could not offer a fully-formed alternative to the humiliations suffered by undocumented migrants across the world. But his project is to search for a different form of politics, where the state, to ensure its existence, does not demand exclusions.

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