Sorrowing over the treatment of migrants, the Cameroonian philosopher calls for Africa to adopt a pro-migration stance, phase out colonial borders and become ‘a vast space of circulation’.

In his Ruth First Memorial Lecture* at the Johannesburg Wits Theatre on 3 October 2019, Achille Mbembe reflects on the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa. 

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

I see my task in this lecture 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 unnecessarily or carelessly squandered that could have been spared. 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. 

Where human speech is crippled, the will to hurt and take revenge reigns supreme.

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 itself is at risk of being silenced, so great is the disappointment. As it happens, where human speech is crippled, the will to hurt and to take revenge reigns supreme. Maybe this is what many have called “populism”. As we speak, all over the world, the desire to inflict as much brutality as possible to the weakest amongst 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 human speech delivered on behalf of truth, in the hope that truth will eventually 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 when it comes to 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 ultimately 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 human being, the kind of misfortune one only wished to one’s enemies. 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 complete foreigner. 

I always thought I would be buried in my own 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 spend most of our lives silently mourning the home we either never had or never knew or the home we actually lost. 

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 exactly the same thing as “private possession”. In the narratives of autochthony 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. 

Ownership and belonging were not about private possession. Priceless, incalculable and unquantifiable things could not be the object of private possession. They could only be the subject of care and caretaking was the closest to ownership. Home was the land or more precisely the piece of ground, the vital envelope, the abode supposed to protect the body, the earth every fully constituted human person or being hoped to return to once his or her 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, as if we were free to choose where we come into existence and from whom we are born to. 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 since being buried here, in the deepest of African traditions, entitles one to a piece of the earth thus called upon to contain one’s remains, that is, to engender a potential genealogy – to make a claim on a piece of the earth by virtue of it having become the bosom of one’s remains, what once stood as one’s living body in the world.

In South Africa’s public mind, so-called “foreign nationals” are mostly Black people from the rest of the African continent and, eventually, from the various African diasporas in the world. From a South African perspective, what characterises so-called African “foreign nationals” is their blackness and the fact that, Nigeria notwithstanding, they enjoy no protection whatsoever from a powerful State. Were they to be seriously hurt by South Africa, no constituted State will spontaneously rise on their behalf. In short, 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.

No African is a foreigner in Africa.

I keep referring to the term “so-called foreign nationals” for one reason and one reason alone. 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. As a matter of fact, I recognise to those States the full right to decide whom they want to let inside their existing borders and whom they want to keep outside those borders. As a matter of fact that, following its own laws, 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, for that matter, anywhere else on this continent. 

I am therefore not talking about the brute fact of the law, or the dose of arbitrariness always already built into any manifestation of the law. I am talking about something beyond the prosaics of the law, something in regard of which any law is merely a law, something foundational which refers to our common right to inhabit this Earth, that is, to share it as equitably as possible, 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.

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

Such is the case of the Mayor of Johannesburg (Herman Mashaba, Democratic Alliance, ed.). The Mayor of Johannesburg does not speak in terms of the human race or other living beings. He has convinced himself that the politics of survival trumps any other figure of the political. Whenever he speaks of Africa, it is almost always as if it were a foreign body, a burden, sheer waste. In his mind, Africa is neither an idea, nor a project but a mortal threat to South Africa. Africa is the Trojan horse that will herald the destruction of South Africa and this is what must be avoided no matter the cost. 

In his eyes, South Africa’s biggest misfortune is its location in Africa rather than elsewhere on the planet. That South Africa is not in a position to extricate herself from this continent is a source of great frustration for him. So is the fact that South Africa is not able to shed the term “Africa” which, God knows why, has been unfortunately appended to its name, the only one it should have had all along, “The South Republic” maybe.

The Mayor has been fuming about migrants. He is not alone. 

In the United States of America, President Donald Trump too is fuming about migrants. His country, he believes, is full. We learnt from The New York Times (1 October 2019) that in order to keep migrants away, he has “often talked about fortifying a border wall with a water-filled trench, stocked with snakes or alligators”. This is not all. “He wanted the wall electrified, with spikes on top that could pierce human flesh”. He was told that this was not allowed. Apparently the President wants US soldiers to “shoot migrants” if they throw rocks, to shoot them “in the legs to slow them down”. The President wants a complete shutdown of the border. So does the Mayor of Johannesburg.

Let us imagine the Mayor’s plan is implemented. South Africa would lose 26% of its total exports or would have to redirect them elsewhere in the world. This is the equivalent of 25 billion US dollars. 

I do not know whether our Mayor or, for that matter, the leader of the Democratic Alliance, is dreaming about a Trump-style border closure, that is, whether in his mind South African borders should also be turned into places where human flesh would be pierced or human bodies “braaied”, or electrocuted. What I know is that a human person who wishes another human’s flesh to be pierced or another human body to be electrocuted or turned into meat – such a human person has no human heart. Not having a human heart might not count for much in the kind of raw and naked game of power South African “isolationists” dream about, in which case they are consciously preparing the ground for a nightmare. 

Black-on-black racism

Now, what are the facts since, after all, facts exist.

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 Blacks into rigid patterns of mobility. To achieve a quasi-monopoly over their movements, it invented one of the most brutal migrant labour systems the world has known beside slavery. It partitioned space and divided it into various fragments, peppered it with various 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, to detain, to deport or forcibly remove unauthorised entrants unmatched by any other State in Africa. For its operation, it requires the production of violence on a massive scale 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 actively 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”. Apartheid might have been abolished. But the fact remains. 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. Their presence in South Africa can only be transitory. Residing here in permanence can only be an exception. For ‘blacks from elsewhere’ must ultimately go back to where they came from. Constitutionally, South Africa cannot become their home both by virtue of their not being from here and by virtue of their being black.

To the age of white racism has therefore succeeded the age of black on black racism. As Frantz Fanon foresaw not so long ago, 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 (Blacks from elsewhere). In a miraculous turn of events, 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. Indeed, in relation to "blacks from elsewhere", the post-1994 immigration system has been built around the concept of waste disposal. The overriding imperative underlying each major attempt at rewriting immigration laws has been to keep so-called unskilled  blacks from elsewhere out of South Africa. If, for the Apartheid state, the goal was to bring whites in, for the post-Apartheid and democratic regime, the command is to keep 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 SA 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.

South Africa polices immigration of black foreigners the way it policed black South Africans under Apartheid.

These attempts have resulted in South Africa deporting “more people per capita than several OECD 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, that is, through a combination of race profiling and spatial profiling. Race profiling as such may no longer apply to South African blacks. At the lower end of the long chain of vulnerability, blacks 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. Their rights to basic healthcare and primary education have been rescinded in 2008. 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 so-called “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 money must originate from outside the country. As noted by many observers, this is five times the amount required in Singapore.

Until very recently, African students still needed to pay a repatriation deposit. The clause that says the Refugee Act must be applied with due regard to the OAU Convention and UN Convention and Protocol has 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 2 October 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”, he adds.

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 others, all the others, what Edouard Glissant called “le Tout Monde”.

It is therefore with the utmost sorrow that we are forced to witness the treatment meted out to Blacks 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 nowadays ridiculed whenever they remind us of their humble contribution to the struggle against Apartheid. Many, including within the African National Congress 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 Olusegun 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”. 

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

So what needs to be done?

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 Organization of African Unity 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 a pro-migration stance within 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 constantly justify ourselves and our humanity, without being constantly harassed and asked to go back where we came from, has been one of the most tragic challenges of our history in the modern world. 

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 massive project of border management for continental integration.

We do not have to close existing borders. We need to massively 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 the prioritising of e-permits, the generalisation of one-stop border posts as a way of facilitating trade and the swift movement of goods, the adoption of biometric systems, of electronic single-window customs clearance systems, the use of scanners and efficient vehicles.

It involves the implementation of visa waivers for as many African countries as possible, 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.  

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 he or she is 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!

*Who was Ruth First? A South African political activist, scholar and investigative journalist, First played a major role in the struggle against Apartheid. She was assassinated by order of Craig Williamson, a major in the South African army, in August 1982 when she opened a parcel bomb that was sent to the University of Maputo, Mozambique.