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A more inclusive idea of citizenship

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A more inclusive idea of citizenship MICHAEL BLEBY

THE riots against foreigners that are now a fortnight old broke out in the week I received my certificate of naturalisation as a South African citizen.

Last Thursday, after my trip to home affairs to collect the piece of paper that said the minister of home affairs was pleased to state that I was a citizen, a colleague joked that it could come in useful.

Following the Passover-like example of Alex residents who had written their names on the outside of shacks to let would-be attackers know they were South African, and not jumping the queue for jobs or services, Sam said I should stick the certificate up outside my house so that when the mobs poured through Melville I would be safe.

The certificate would look good just below the ADT sign.

The absurdity of it made me think, again, just how removed the violence was from my comfortable suburban existence. I had a similar experience on Sunday night, after helping manage news coverage of the riots for Monday’s paper. Afterwards, I drove home through sleepy streets that were the same as always at 10pm on a Sunday.

Of course, this sense of separation between different groups in SA is not new. Colonisation specialised in it, apartheid legalised it. And now, as academic Adam Habib argued this week, SA’s leaders are perpetuating it.

Post-apartheid SA’s attempts to even out the equation are blunt instruments that do not benefit those who really need it, the University of Johannesburg’s deputy vice-chancellor said at the launch of a book he edited with fellow academic Kristina Bentley, called Racial Redress & Citizenship in South Africa.

The African nationalist- inspired approach to black economic empowerment assumes homogeneity in the black population that makes up about 80% of the 46-million South Africans, and specifies measures to help anyone who is black. It fails to recognise differences between blacks and, by default, means that better-off black people will benefit most from upliftment policies. They will have more resources and know-how. An established black business will access financial support more easily than a one-woman outfit selling fruit on the street .

In areas as diverse as education and sport, the tendency of post-apartheid SA is to take promising black children out of their poor environments and give them better opportunities in formerly white schools, rather than tackle the harder task of raising standards at the bottom of the scale, Habib says.

Thus, empowerment efforts to date have reinforced the privilege of those better off in the black population at the expense of the really poor, who need it most, he says.

The alternative approach, the multicultural one favoured by elites in each ethnic group, is to preach tolerance by respecting different identities. “I am an Afrikaner,” “I am an African,” “I am coloured,” and “I am Indian” are all constructs created by the well-off and privileged, but they are myths that ignore the aspirations and poverty of the poor in each of these groups, Habib says. At the bottom end of the rainbow nation lies not a pot of gold, but aggrieved and excluded people.

In such a state, Habib argues, there can be no hope of a sense of citizenship that embraces all and is embraced by all.

Things will be shaken up only when policy makers and elites in the country are prepared to accept a definition of being South African that is not tied to a particular stereotype, be it Africanist or classist. It is one that recognises being South African in 20 years will differ from what it is today. And it will include the people who fall outside of the current definitions, and provide fertile ground for horrific violence to grow.

And maybe that will lessen the difference felt between a white citizen of two weeks’ standing and his fellow black citizens who are still wondering, 14 years later, when apartheid’s demise will benefit them.

Source: The Weekender