No African is a foreigner in Africa – except down in South Africa

Blame: South Africans, including men from hostels, targeted foreigners when violence broke out last month in Jo’burg suburbs such as Jeppestown and townships. (Fredrik Lerneryd)

Blame: South Africans, including men from hostels, targeted foreigners when violence broke out last month in Jo’burg suburbs such as Jeppestown and townships. (Fredrik Lerneryd)

In sorrow over the way migrants are treated in South Africa, Achille Mbembe calls for Africa to adopt a pro-migration stance, phase out colonial borders and become ‘a vast space of circulation’


We must name our times in a way that leaves us with a small window of hope, the hope that not all is lost. Seasons, just like tides, come and go, never exactly the same each time. In this incessant movement, life keeps unfolding, while something remains, which it is our task to decipher and to reanimate.
I see my task tonight as that of reanimation.

But let me be clear. As far as South Africa’s place in Africa’s imagination (or for that matter in global imagination) is concerned, a lot has been squandered. It is not only the world’s goodwill that has been squandered. South Africa may have needed Africa’s support and international solidarity in the midnight of apartheid. Nowadays, many profess to not care any longer.

So much having been so carelessly lost in a relatively short time — things priceless, to which no quantifiable value can be attached — anger and rage have become endemic. Speech is at risk of being silenced, so great is the disappointment. Where speech is crippled, the will to hurt and to take revenge reigns supreme. Maybe this is what many call “populism”. All over the world, the desire to inflict as much brutality as possible on the weakest among us seems to be irrepressible. In such circumstances, the only thing many are left with is the power to testify.

Ruth First was a scholar and an activist. More importantly, she was a witness of her own times. She understood that the duty of the witness is to testify.

Strictly speaking, a testimony is not an indictment. It is nevertheless a powerful way of settling accounts. In old African traditions of thought, a testimony is a speech delivered on behalf of truth, in the hope that truth will lead to justice and justice to restitution, redress and reparation.

We have long believed that of all figures of human speech, reason was the most appropriate in any quest for truth, justice and reparation. We now live in an age when reason itself is on trial. This is particularly the case regarding matters pertaining to the presence of African migrants in our midst. Reason, memory or facts no longer matter. They should.

I wasn’t born here

I wasn’t born here, but I have spent most of my adult life in South Africa. I will probably die here, and this is where my ashes will be scattered.

I grew up in Cameroon in the fear that I would die young, but with the deep conviction that I would never die abroad. In those years, to die abroad meant to die in a foreign land. It was understood that to die away from home was the biggest misfortune to befall any person. One thing was to die abroad, another was to be buried away from home. To be buried away from home meant to have been turned into a foreigner.

I always thought I would be buried in my country, so deeply convinced I was that Cameroon was my home. In truth, many of us in the world today no longer know where home is.

We were taught that “home” is the land one belongs to and which, in turn, belongs to one. “Home affairs” were affairs of co-belonging and reciprocal ownership, which is not the same thing as “private possession”. In the narratives I grew up listening to, to be the owner of the land meant to take care of that land and to care for all who inhabited it, humans and non-humans. Ownership had a double meaning. It was about caring and caretaking, taking care in memory of those who came before and on behalf of those who were still to come. We were neither subjects nor citizens, but custodians.

Priceless, incalculable and unquantifiable things could not be the object of private possession. They could only be the subject of care and caretaking. Home was the land or, more precisely, the piece of ground, the abode supposed to protect the body, the earth every person or being hoped to return to once their journey had reached its final destination, in a grand gesture of share (as opposed to appropriation) and cosmic reciprocity.

The right to inhabit the Earth

In South Africa’s public mind, the term “foreign nationals” is a euphemism, a supposedly polite way to designate those who do not belong, those black Africans whose home is elsewhere, some of whom are now requested to go back where they came from.

Not to belong does not only mean to not have been born here. Not to belong does not only mean to have no fundamental right to be here as a result of not having been born here. It also means to have no right to die here and to be buried here because being buried here, in the deepest of African traditions, entitles one to a piece of the earth to contain one’s remains, that is, to engender a potential genealogy.

In Meadowlands, vehicles were set on fire and shops were looted and burned down. (Gustav Butlex)

In South Africa’s public mind, “foreign nationals” are mostly black people from the rest of Africa and, eventually, from the various African diasporas in the world. From a South African perspective, what characterises African “foreign nationals” is their blackness and the fact that, Nigeria notwithstanding, they enjoy no protection from a powerful state. Nobody will be held responsible for the hurt and nobody will be obliged to account. Were they to be killed during one of those cyclical Afrophobic attacks we have become accustomed to, their death would be tantamount to pure loss.

I do not believe that any African, or for that matter any person of African descent, is a foreigner in Africa, the existence of 54 nominally sovereign territorial states notwithstanding.

In making this statement, I do not mean to disrespect our current states and governments, the only such entities recognised in international law. I recognise to those states the full right to decide whom they want to let inside their borders and whom they want to keep out. The Republic of South Africa can decide tomorrow morning to deport me. Were this to happen, there is not much I would be able to do about it. But forcing me out of South Africa would not stop me from believing that I am not a foreigner in South Africa — or anywhere else on this continent.

I am therefore not talking about the brute fact of the law, or the dose of arbitrariness already built into any manifestation of the law. I am talking about something beyond the prosaics of the law, something foundational that refers to our common right to inhabit this Earth, to share it, to take care of it, and to repair it as a condition of its durability as well as ours, the human race and other living beings.

Black racism

Obviously, many in South Africa today do not share these views.

Such is the case of the mayor of Johannesburg. When he speaks of Africa, it is as if it is a foreign body, a burden. Africa is neither an idea, nor a project but a mortal threat. If the borders were shut South Africa would lose 26% of its total exports. This is the equivalent of $25-billion.

Of almost all African states, South Africa has the best record in terms of immigration enforcement and control capacity. After all, the South African state was founded on the capacity to ruthlessly coerce black people into rigid patterns of mobility. It invented one of the most brutal migrant labour systems the world has known beside slavery. It partitioned space and divided it into fragments, peppered it with enclaves, zones of affluence and zones of abandonment, reserves and corridors, buffer territories and bantustans, all under the sign of race and ethnicity.

If this machinery has been partially dismantled, its habitus has remained alive. It involves a capacity to arrest, detain, deport or forcibly remove unauthorised entrants unmatched by any other state in Africa. For its operation, it requires the production of violence as well as disastrous and emotionally traumatic experiences.

Today, many black “foreign nationals” are at the receiving end of this violence originally designed to discipline and to domesticate black South Africans. This is a fact.

The second fact is that South African immigration policy has only been partially deracialised. During the apartheid era, the country promoted a “two-doors” immigration system. People coming from historically white and European countries could enter from the “front door”. Black South Africans were subjected to pass laws and black immigration from surrounding states could enter through the “b(l)ack door”. Nominally, “blacks from here” and “blacks from elsewhere” were but “temporary visitors”.

In relation to “blacks from elsewhere”, South Africa’s post-apartheid immigration machinery has readjusted its aims. Work having almost disappeared (especially in the mines), the logic of capture (of the labour force) is no longer the main pursuit. It has been superseded by the logic of temporariness. “Blacks from elsewhere” cannot and should not aspire to permanent settlement in South Africa. Constitutionally, South Africa cannot become their home both by virtue of their not being from here.

As Frantz Fanon foresaw, South African forms of black nationalism are morphing into virulent forms of black-on-black racism. An ethno-racial project, this new form of black nationalism seeks to secede from Africa and its diasporas. It has forged for itself two enemies, an enemy it fears and envies (whiteness or white monopoly capital) and another it loathes and despises (black people from elsewhere). It believes that xenophobia will create jobs, bring down crime and turn South Africa into an Eden on Earth. It has internalised white racism and has weaponised it against black non-citizens through the vicious use of state apparatuses.

If yesterday the role of state apparatuses was to capture black bodies for purposes of labour extraction, today the targets are black non-citizen bodies, the new cogs in the vast machinery of deportation South Africa has built since 1994. In relation to “blacks from elsewhere”, the overriding imperative underlying each major attempt at rewriting immigration laws has been to keep so-called unskilled blacks from elsewhere out. This is what is called “undocumented, irregular or low-skilled migration”.

Since 1994, successive governments have revised, amended and tightened immigration laws. Key attempts to reform the migration regime have thus taken place. They include the 1998 Refugees Act, the 2002 Immigration Act, the 2011 Immigration Amendment Act and Refugees Amendment Act, the 2016 Immigration Amendment Act, the 2017 Refugees Amendment Act to which should be added the 2016 Border Management Authority Bill and the 2017 White Paper on International Migration.

These attempts have resulted in South Africa deporting “more people per capita than several OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] states”. Such high levels of deportation have been made possible thanks to the fact that South Africa polices the immigration of black African foreigners the way it used to police black South Africans under apartheid — through a combination of race profiling and spatial profiling. Race profiling as such may no longer apply to black South Africans. At the lower end of the long chain of vulnerability, black people from elsewhere are now its main targets. It is against them that the “spirit of violence” that underpinned forced removals, Bantustan policy and the general disenfranchisement of black South Africans has been redirected.

As far as refugees are concerned, various amendments have reduced to the minimal what they can expect. In the current dispensation, their permits as asylum-seekers are forcefully rescinded if they are not renewed 90 days after expiration. Their right to work has been limited to certain categories only. Those found in possession of an expired asylum-seeker visa are fined or imprisoned for up to five years. The time after which they can apply for permanent residence has been extended from five to 10 years.

Officially, South Africa is in need of “skilled migrants”. In fact, the number of quota permits has been reduced since 2004. Work permit policy has been adjusted to apply to people of a specific profession, category or class. Temporary residence permits have been redefined as “visas”. The appeal window for residence permits has been reduced from 20 to 10 days. The length of time a person must be married to a South African to apply for citizenship has been increased. In terms of the 2011 Immigration Amendment Act, eligibility for a business visa requires applicants to commit a R5-million minimum investment to the South African economy. This is five times the amount required in Singapore.

Until very recently, African students had to pay a repatriation deposit. The clause that says the Refugee Act must be applied with due regard to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Convention and United Nations Convention and Protocol having been repealed. Asylum-seekers are no longer treated as refugees until their status is determined. South Africa is not only at pain to define what her Africanity consists of. The country is in the throes of a virulent form of neo-nationalism. This repressive and isolationist trend is supposed to culminate with the establishment of the border management authority.

In a piece published on October 2 by the Daily Maverick (“Xenophobic attacks: Equivocation by South Africa is a silent nod of approval”), former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo recalls Nigeria’s contribution “to the struggle against colonialism in southern Africa and apartheid in South Africa”. It was, he says, “our obligatory duty to do so as Africans”.

“We, as black people, believed and still believe that we would be second-class citizens in the world if we allowed any black people anywhere in the world, not to talk of Africa, to be treated as second-class citizens because of the colour of their skin.”

Obasanjo is right and early South African pan-Africanists understood this well. Our citizenship in the world is inseparable from our citizenship at home, in Africa. In the history of modern times, it has not been evident to all that we, Africans, belonged to the world. For centuries, the struggle of people of Africa and of African origins has been to make sure that the destiny of Africa in the world would squarely fall in our own hands. For our sake, but also for the sake of the human race at large, because our fate is inseparable from the fate of all others, what Edouard Glissant called “le Tout Monde”.

It is therefore with the utmost sorrow that we witness the treatment meted out to black people from elsewhere — or for that matter, any other migrants — in South Africa. I must speak about Africans at the lower end of the chain of vulnerability because they are the most loathed, the most despised, the most exposed. Africans and people of African descent are ridiculed whenever they remind us of their humble contribution to the struggle against apartheid.

Many, including in the ANC, nowadays only speak in the language of “national security” and “national interests”. They claim that they owe Africa nothing. They are convinced that Africa is a liability and South Africa owes no debt to our continent. Yet, as Obasanjo puts it, “we were not doing it for reward or material benefit. We did it because we were convinced that it was our duty, our responsibility and our obligation to humanity and to the black race.”

Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba argues that influx of undocumented foreigners puts pressure on resources such as health and housing that are for the city’s residents.

I will not be talking about “the black race”. But I know one thing. There is no country on Earth that has no obligation to humanity. South Africa will squander everything if, instead of consciously and dutifully fulfilling its obligation to humanity, it chooses to put its faith in the sheer and always precarious politics of power. For power to mean anything at all — and for it to endure — it has to rest on firm moral foundations.

Towards a borderless Africa

We need to gradually phase out the borders we inherited from the colonial era. We need to turn this continent into a vast space of circulation, into its own centre.

In 1963, the OAU embraced the principle of the intangibility of colonial borders. The time has come to unfreeze the borders. This, I call “deborderisation”.

A key, transitional step towards a borderless Africa consists in the adoption by all African states of apro-migration stance in our own continent. Decolonisation will only be achieved with the conquest, by every single African or person of African descent, of the fundamental right to move freely in the continent of our ancestors. To be able to move freely, unshackled and to settle without having to justify ourselves and our humanity, without being harassed and asked to go back where we came from.

People who submit applications to the home affairs department wait for months for permits. (Madelene Cronjé)

This is why I am calling for a moratorium on deportations in our continent. Let’s give ourselves a decade during which, as a continent, we embark on a project of border management for continental integration.

We do not have to close existing borders. We need to invest in their modernisation as a necessary step towards decommissioning them.

What we need to do is to set up systems and technologies and nurture competence to better govern human mobility in our continent.

This involves prioritising e-permits, one-stop border posts as a way of facilitating trade and the swift movement of goods, adopting biometric systems, of electronic single-window customs clearance systems, the use of scanners and efficient vehicles.

It involves the implementation of visa waivers, the streamlining of processes for those wanting to do business in our respective regions and the granting of visas at arrival.

Let us open a decade during which we will rekindle the old dream of an African nationality by granting citizenship and other forms of naturalisation to those who qualify for it and by extending to each other and to people of African descent worldwide what the Ghanaian Constitution calls the right of abode.

I will now end.

We need to reach a point in our history on Earth when no African or person of African descent will again be subjected to deportation, when no African or person of African descent will be forced to flee, to wage his or her life trying to cross mountains, deserts, rivers and seas, on the way to places where they are not welcomed or is likely to be severely mistreated, his or her body and soul brutalised, and his or her face covered in shame and humiliation.

Once and for all, let’s bring that age of shame to an end.

May South Africa, the youngest and oldest daughter of our continent, take the lead in this final push for our collective liberation.

This is an edited version of the speech delivered by Achille Mbembe, professor in history and politics at the University of the Witwatersrand, at this year’s Ruth First Memorial Lecture on October 3. 

This article was first published by New Frame

Achille Mbembe

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