Nations With/out Borders:
Anthropologists are fond of stories and riddles. The stranger, the more puzzling, the better. So let us first pose a riddle, then tell a story.
The riddle: What might the Nuer, a remote Nilotic people in the southern Sudan, have to do with Carl Schmitt, the noted German philosopher, notorious apologist for Nazism, and, of late, one of the most quoted social theorists in the English-speaking world? For their part, the Nuer are famous among anthropologists, not least because, in the 1940s, they were held to pose an epistemic challenge to received Western political theory (Fortes and Evans-Pritchard 1940:4). This was largely due to the fact that they had a political system without government. According to Evans-Pritchard (1940a, 1940b), their storied ethnographer, they lived in ‘ordered anarchy’: a state of being without a state to rule over them. In this respect, they were the archetype of so- called ‘acephalous’ African political systems, systems that were later to be evoked, by Michael Barkun (1968) and others, in efforts to account for the segmentary oppositions on which the fragile coherence of the Cold War world system sustained itself. Contra Hobbes, order here did not congeal in offices or institutions, in courts or constabularies, in finite territories or fixed geo- graphical borders. It inhered, rather, in a virtual logic of action encoded in the idiom of kinship: in an immanent socio-logic of fission and fusion, of relative social distance, that brought people together or forced them apart in situations of conflict. Thus, if a homicide occurred within the ‘tribe’, it was dealt with by established means of self-help and retribution; if it occurred beyond its margins, what followed was warfare between polities. Practically speaking, though, those boundaries between inside and out were renegotiated, dialectically – they were objectified and made real – in the process of dealing with the very transgressions that breached them. The Nuer polity, in sum, was a field of potential action, conjured by the need to distinguish between allies and antagonists, law and war.
Which is where Carl Schmitt comes in. In his study of the nature of the political, Schmitt (1966) portrays politics, Nuer-like, as a pragmatic matter of the will to make life-or-death dis- tinctions between friend and enemy. In other words, as a matter of making order by drawing lines: of inscribing the political in collective identities, at once physical and metaphysical, carved as much out of the logic of who we are not as who we are; indeed, of entailing the one in the other and both in the sublime act of arriving at unequivocal oppositions when they count. Like those, for example, of radically different theologico-civilizations caught up in an apocalyptic clash between the good and the bad in the ugly days after 9/11; days in which the planet was terrified by uncertainty because it was so uncertain about terror, specifically, by the capacity of violence without sovereign signature to ambiguate formerly clear axes of global geopolitics; days in which US came to spell not just the United States but ‘us’. As Nuer might have put it, in an orderly world, a world of absolutes, everything is relative since all things are relatives. Except those who are not, who fall beyond the law, beyond the ethical margin and who, therefore, are to be excised, outlawed or, in extremis, unsacrificially disposed of (cf. Agamben 1998). Order, in short, is wrought from disorder, political existence from anarchy, by virtue of drawing the line. It is at that line that the riddle is resolved: that line where the Nuer and Schmitt meet, there to agree on the inscription of the normative in a grammar of difference, made manifest by enacting boundaries at once existential, ethical and legal – and, as we shall see, immanently violent.
Fire, last time
So much for the riddle, to which we shall return. Now for the story. It is about a fire, about aliens, about a nation-in-the-making and about its borders, both internal and external. It is also about a world in which borders, sui generis, are becoming ever more enigmatic, ever more troublesome. We have recounted this story before, but think it worth revisiting in light of recent global events. It raises a host of questions: What might natural disasters tell us about the architecture of twenty-first-century nation-states? How might the sudden flash of catastrophe illuminate the meaning of borders and the politics of belonging? And to what extent are those two things, borders and belonging, morphing – along with the substance of citizenship, sovereignty and national integrity – in this, the neoliberal age, an age frequently associated with states of emergency? These questions have a number of deeper historical implications hidden in them. But we are running ahead of ourselves. Let us title our tale …
Apocalypse, African style
The millennium passed in South Africa without incident; this despite public fears, before the event, of murderous violence and mass destruction. Then, two weeks later, Cape Town caught fire. On a hot, dry Saturday, the veldt flared up in a number of places across the greater metropolitan area. High winds carried walls of flame up its mountain spine, threatening historic homes and squatter settlements alike. As those in its path were evacuated, the TV projected disjunctive images of civic cooperation: of the poor helping each other their carry paltry possessions from doomed shacks; of the wealthy, having dropped their silverware into their swimming pools, lining up to pass water buckets to those dousing the flames.1 As the bush continued to burn, helicopters dumped ton after ton of water on it. Round-the-clock reports told horrific tales of beasts grilled alive, of churches incinerated, of vineyards razed. The city sweltered beneath a blanket of smoke as ash rained down on its boulevards and beaches.
In total, 9,000 hectares burned. The mountains smouldered sullenly for weeks. So did the tempers of the populace. Blame flew in many directions, none of them politically random. Fire is endemic to the region. But, being of calamitous proportions, this one raised fears about the very survival of the natural kingdom at the Cape. Its livid scars evoked elemental anxieties, saturating public discourse as it called forth an almost obsessive desire to construe it as an apocalyptic omen, an indictment, a call to arms. The divinations that ensued – in the streets, the media, the halls of government – laid bare the complex social ecology whence the conflagration itself had sprung, casting a sharp light on the state of a nation then barely six years old.
Apocalypse, of course, eventually dissolves into history. Therein, to borrow Mike Davis’s phrase, lies the ‘dialectic of ordinary disaster’ (Davis 1995). Thus, while early discussion of the fire was wild and contested, it reduced, in time, to a dominant interpretation, one that, while not universal, drew enough consensus to authorize strong state action and broad civic collaboration. Here, clearly, was an ‘ideology in the making’. As such, it played upon an implicit landscape of affect and anxiety, inclusion and intrusion, prosperity and loss. Via a clutch of charged references, it linked the fire to other public concerns – concerns about being and identity, about organic society and common humanity, about boundaries and their violation – at the heart of contemporary nationhood. But its efficacy in this respect rested, first, on producing a plausible explanation for the extent of the blaze.
Initially, cigarette ends and cooking fires were held responsible. But this soon gave way to talk of arson, pointing, specifically, to a campaign of urban terror attributed to Muslim fundamentalism that had gripped the Cape long before 9/11.2 Then the discourse abruptly changed direction, alighting on an aetiology that took hold with unusual force: whatever sparked it, the catastrophic scale of the fire was blamed on alien plants, plants that burn more readily and fiercely than does native vegetation. Outrage against those plants grew quickly. Landowners who had allowed them to spread were denounced for putting the population, and its ‘natural heritage’, at risk.3
Note: ‘natural heritage’. Heritage has become a construct to conjure with as global markets and mass migration erode the distinctive wealth of nations, forcing them to redefine their sense of patrimony. And its material worth. A past mayor of Cape Town, for example, was wont to describe Table Mountain as a ‘national asset’ whose value is ‘measured by every visitor it attracts’.4 Not coincidentally, South Africa was then engaged in a bid to have the Cape Peninsula declared a World Heritage Site in recognition of its unparalleled biodiversity. This heritage is embodied, above all, in fynbos (Afrikaans, ‘fine bush’).5 These small-leaved evergreens that cover the mountainous uplands and coastal forelands of the region have come to epitomize its organic integrity and its fragile, wealth-producing beauties. And, as they have, local people have voiced ever more anxiety that their riches are endangered by alien vegetation, whose colonizing effect is to reduce it to ‘impenetrable monotony’ (Hall 1979:134). Ours, to be sure, is an age in which value and profit reside, perhaps more than anything else, in the creation of variety, difference, distinctiveness.
The blaze brought this to a head. ‘Wake up Cape Town’, screamed a newspaper headline set against the image of a lone red fire lily poking, phoenix-like, from a bed of ashes. Efforts by botanists to cool the hysteria – to insist that fire in fynbos is not abnormal – had no effect. A cartoonist, casting his ironic eye on the mood of millennial anxiety, drew a flying saucer above Cape Town. Peering down on the city as it sinks into a globally-warmed sea, its mountain covered by foreign flora, a diminutive space traveller exclaims ‘Glork plik zoot urgle’: ‘They seem to have a problem with aliens’.6
The satirist touched a raw nerve: the obsession with alien plants gestured toward a scarcely submerged sense of civic terror and moral panic. Significantly, when the fire was followed two weeks later by floods to the north, another headline asked: ‘First fires, now floods – next frogs?’.7 By then, it was not surprising to read that vast forests of alien trees, owned by logging corporations, were held to have ‘caused all the trouble’.8
What exactly was at stake in this mass-mediated chain of consciousness, this litany of alien nature? What does it tell us about perceived threats to the nation and its patrimony? To the conception of social cohesion, ethical citizenship and shared humanity at its core? Observers elsewhere have noted that an impassioned sense of autochthony, of birthright – to which alienness is the negative counterpoint – has edged aside other images of belonging at the end of the twentieth century; also, that a fetishism of origins seems to be growing up the world over in opposition to the effects of neoliberal laissez-faire.9 But why? Why, at this juncture in the history of the modernist polity have boundaries and their transgression become so incendiary an issue? Could it be that the public anxiety here over invasive plant species speaks to an existential conundrum presently making itself felt at the very heart of nationhood everywhere: In what does national integrity consist, what might polity and society mean, what moral and material entitlements might it entail, at a time when global capitalism appears almost everywhere to be dissolving sovereign borders, almost everywhere to be displacing politics-as- usual?
In order to address these questions – in order to make sense both of our narrative of catastrophe and of the more general matter of why it is that aliens of all kinds have become such a widespread preoccupation – we must take a brief detour into the interiors of ‘the’ late- modernist nation-state.
The nation-state in perspective, retrospectively
Euro-nations – as Benedict Anderson (1983) has emphasized – were founded on the fiction of cultural homogeneity: on an imagined, often violently effected sense of fraternity. Much has been said about that imagining: that Euro-nationhood was always more diverse than its historiography allows, always a work in progress. But that is another story. Since the late twentieth century, those polities have had increasingly to come to terms with difference. Historical circumstance has pushed them, often unwillingly, toward ever greater heterodoxy. Hence the growing concern, scholarly and lay alike, with citizenship, sovereignty, multiculturalism, minority rights and the limits of liberalism. Hence, too, the xenophobia that haunts contemporary nationhood almost everywhere, of which more later.
The move toward heterodoxy is itself part of a more embracing world-historical process, one in which 1989 figures centrally. That year, symbolically if not substantively, heralded the political coming of age, across the planet, of neoliberal capitalism. While its economic roots lie much deeper, this, retrospectively, is typically taken to have been the juncture at which the old international order gave way to a more fluid, market-driven, electronically articulated universe: a universe in which supranational institutions burgeon; in which space and time are recalibrated; in which geography is rewritten in four dimensions; in which a new global jurisprudence displaces its internationalist predecessor, overlaying the sovereignty of national legal systems; in which transnational identities, diasporic connections and the mobility of human populations transgress old frontiers; in which ‘society’ is declared dead, to be replaced by ‘the network’ and ‘the community’ as dominant metaphors of social connectedness; in which governance is reduced to a promiscuous combination of service delivery, security provision and the fiduciary; in which liberty is distilled to its postmodern essence, the right to choose identities, subjectivities, commodities, sexualities, localities and almost everything else. A universe, also, in which older institutional and instrumental forms of power – refigured, now, primarily as biopower – depart most states as never before, dispersing themselves everywhere and anywhere and nowhere tangible at all: into transnational corporations and NGOs, into shadowy, privatized parastatal cabals, into syndicated crime and organized religion, and into unholy fusions of all of these things.
In the upshot, ‘the’ state, an entity ever more polymorphous and amorphous, is held, increasingly, to be in constant crisis: its legitimacy is tested by debt, disease, poverty and corruption; its executive control is perpetually pushed to the limit; and, most of all, its hyphen- nation – the articulation, that is, of state to nation, nation to state – is everywhere under challenge. This is especially so in postcolonial nation-states, whose ruling regimes often rely on theatrical means to produce state power, to conjure national unity, and to persuade citizens of the reality of both (Mbembe 1992; Worby 1998). They are not alone in this, of course. Resort to mass-mediated ritual excess – not least ritual orchestrated in the name of security – features prominently right now in the politics of states in many places.
This broad historical transformation – the move, that is, from an imagined homogeneity to the inescapable realities of heterodoxy – has any number of corollaries. For present purposes, we raise just three.
The first is the refiguration of the modernist subject-citizen. One corollary of the changing face of nationhood, of its growing diversity, has been an explosion of identity politics. Not just of ethnic and cultural politics, but also of the politics of, among other things, gender, sexuality, age, race, religiosity and style. While most human beings still live as citizens innation-states, they tend only to be conditionally citizens of nation-states. Which, in turn, puts ever more stress on their hyphen-nation. The more diverse nation-states become, the higher the level of abstraction at which ‘the nation-state’ exists, the more dire appear threats against it. And, at least for those affectively attached to it, the more urgent become the need to divine and shadowy, privatized parastatal cabals, into syndicated crime and organized religion, and into unholy fusions of all of these things.negate whatever endangers it. States, notes David Harvey (1990:108), have always had to sustain a definition of the commonweal over and above sectarian concerns. One solution that has presented itself in the face of ever more assertive claims made against it in the name of identity is an appeal to the primacy of national autochthony: to the ineffable loyalties, the inter- ests and affect, that flow from rootedness in a place of birth (see above). Nor is this just a tactic, one that appeals to those in the business of government. It resonates with deeply felt populist fears – and with the proclivity of citizens of all stripes to deflect shared anxieties onto outsiders.
Autochthony is implicit in many forms of identity of course; it also attaches to places within places, parts within wholes. But, as a specifically national claim against aliens, its mobilization appears to be growing in direct proportion to the sundered hyphenation of the sovereign polity, to its popularly perceived porousness and impotence in the face of exogenous forces. Citizens in many contemporary states, whether or not they are primarily citizens of those states, seem able to reimagine nationhood in such a way as to embrace the ineluctability of internal difference: ‘multiculturalism’, ‘rainbow nation’ and terms like them provide a ready argot of accommodation, even amidst political conflict. However, when it comes to the limits of that difference, autochthony constitutes an ultimate line, the fons et origo of fealty, affect, attachment. Whatever other identities the citizen-subject of the twenty-first century may bear, s/he is unavoidably either an autochthon or an alien. Nor only s/he; it too. Non-humans, also – flora, fauna, commodities, cultural practices – may be autochthons or aliens.
The second transformation of the modernist polity concerns the regulation of borders – and, hence, the limits of sovereignty. Much of the debate over the ‘crisis’ of the nation-state hinges upon the contention that governments no longer control the mobility of currencies and commercial instruments, of labour and goods, of information, illegal substances and unwanted aliens. What is more, goes the same argument, they tend to enjoy limited or no dominion over enclaved zones, the frontiers within their realms, under the sway of organized crime, religious movements, corporations and the like; all of which has led many contemporary nation-states to resemble patchworks of sovereignties, laterally arranged in space, with tenuous corridors between them, surrounded by terrains of ungovernability (Comaroff and Comaroff 2006). National frontiers have always been more-or-less porous, of course. But technologies of space– time compression do appear to have effected a sea change in patterns and rates of global flow – of the concrete and the virtual, of humans, objects, signs, currencies, communications. Which is why so many states, most maybe, act as if they were constantly subject both to invasion from the outside and to the seeping away of what ought properly to remain within. South Africa, for instance, laments the pull of the market on its human capital,10 while anguishing, xenophobically, over the inflow of migrants. And the global North, despite its so-called ‘demo- graphic winter’, agonizes over the ubiquitous presence of racially marked, criminally inflected ‘others’ of various provenances, not to mention the spectre of a future Muslim Europe.
Our object, though, is not just to remark the heightened concern with borders and their transgression. It is also to observe that this concern is the product of a paradox. Under current global conditions, given the logic of the neoliberal capitalist economy, states find themselves in a double bind. In order to garner the value spun off by that economy, they are required at once both to open up their frontiers and secure them: on the one hand to deregulate the movement of currencies, goods, people and services, thus to facilitate the inflow of wealth; on the other, to establish enclaved zones of competitive advantage so as to attract transnational manufacture and media, investment, information technology and the ‘right’ kind of migrants – tourists, corporate personnel, NGOs and the sorts of labourer who will work cheaply and tractably without the entitlements of citizenship. In this way, the nation-state is made, in aspiration if not always in reality, into a meta-management enterprise: a business both in itself and in the business of attracting business. In sum, part franchise, part licencing authority. This in the interest of its ‘stakeholders’, who desire simultaneously to be global citizens and yet also to be corporate national subjects with all the benefits that accrue to membership of a sovereign nation. The corollary is plain. The border is a double bind – ‘schismogenic’, to recall Gregory Bateson’s (1972) term – because the commonweal appears to demand, but is threatened by, both openness and closure. No wonder the angst, the avid public debate in so many places, about what should or should not be allowed entry, what is or is not in the collective interest. And who ought to share it. Hence the arguments, also, between those who would globalize capital by erasing all barriers and those protective of the national patrimony.
The third salient feature of the predicament of the nation-state is the decentring of politics into other domains: into the law, religion, the media, the non-governmental sector and, above all, the economy.11 The conventional argument goes like this: neoliberal capitalism, in its triumphal, global phase, appears to offer no alternative to laissez-faire; nothing else seems even thinkable. The primary question left to public policy is how to succeed materially in the ‘new’ world order. Why? Because this order hides its ideological scaffolding in the dictates of the ‘free’ market, of capital growth and the accumulation of wealth, in the exigencies of technology, in the imperatives of national security, in drawing sharp lines between friend and foe. Older axes of ideological commitment seem ever more anachronistic as public action tends to be articulated around urgent questions of the moment, often sparked by catastrophe, be it ecological, terrorist or whatever. Each takes the limelight as it flares into public awareness, becomes ‘hot’ for a while, and then burns down, its embers consigned to the recesses of collective consciousness – only to flame up again if kindled by contingent conditions or vocal coalitions – or both.
Our evocation of the imagery of fire returns us to South Africa, but to a South Africa now situated, if all too summarily, in the contemporary history of capitalism, governance and the nation-state: a history that implicates altered forms of citizenship, an obsession with boundaries, aliens and autochthony, and various displacements of the terms of modernist politics as we have come to know it.
Naturing the nation
A lesson from fynbos
The full impact of the fire in January 2000 flowed from the capacity of the burning bush, of the flowers and flames, to signify. To signify charged political anxieties, many of them unnameable in everyday discourse. To signify the aspiration that, from the ashes, might arise a distinctly local, new South African sense of community, nationality, civil society. The question, patently, is how: How did those flowers and flames come to mean so much?
First, the flora. Flowers have long served as national emblems. The giant protea (Protea cynaroides) which typifies fynbos, has been South Africa’s for many years. It stands in a totemic relationship to the nation; a relationship, that is, of people to nature, place to species, in which the latter enriches the former – so long as it is venerated and not wantonly consumed. But it is also a fetish, a natural displacement of emotively charged identities rooted in acts of ethno- racial exclusion.
It was not always so.
For a start, the use of the term fynbos for the indigenous plants of the southern Cape is recent. It was only at the end of the 1960s that the word, and the category to which it now refers, became established in either popular or botanical parlance.12 This was precisely the time when international demand for local flora took off, and a national association was formed to market it; fynbos export is now a huge industry. It was also the point at which statesmen began to dub these flora a ‘natural asset’ – and at which botanists first asserted that they were a fragile species worthy of conservation as a ‘unique biome type’ (Kruger 1977). Not long before then, in 1953, an authority on the subject actually described fynbos as an invader that threatened the local grassveld (Acocks 1953:14, 17). What is now said of aliens was being said, a half-century ago, of this ‘South Africa treasure’, this passionately protected icon of national, natural rootedness.
But it is not just as fragile natural heritage that fynbos has captured the imagination of the South African public. It is also as a protagonist locked in mortal struggle with invasive aliens that threaten to take over its habitat and choke off its means of survival. A parenthetic note here: similar anxieties about plant invaders have manifested themselves in other Western nations as well: nations, tellingly, where human in-migration is a mass concern – in the USA for example, and in Australia, where, ironically, South African flora are demonized (Carr et al. 1986; Wace 1988); also Britain, where huge expanses of alien rhododendrons, once very popular, are to be removed at great cost from National Trust properties.
Time was when there was great enthusiasm for non-indigenous vegetation. In the high colonial age, British expatriate rulers encouraged the import of exotics for what seemed, at the time, like good, ‘modern’ ecological reasons (Hall 1979). It took a long while for desirable imports to become ‘invasive aliens’, ‘pests’, ‘colonizers’, even ‘green cancers’.13 It was only in the 1950s that the Botanical Society of South Africa started to promote awareness of the problem; only in the 1960s that the first volunteers took to the veldt to cut down the interlopers; only in the 1970s that the Department of Nature and Environment Conservation at the Cape published its popular sourcebook, entitled, like a pornographic work of science fiction, Plant Invaders, Beautiful but Dangerous (Stirton 1978); only in the 1980s that ‘hack groups’ spread in upper-middle-class rural white areas. And it was only in the 1990s that aliens came to be held largely accountable for the fragility of Cape flora. This is abundantly clear from the way in which attitudes to fire in the fynbos has shifted over the past decade, culminating in the catastrophe of January 2000.
Playing with fire
Which takes us to the matter of fire: as we have said, fires are endemic to the Cape. While the media usually speak of them as ‘devastating’ (Fraser and McMahon 1988:140), expert opinion acknowledges that the conservation of biodiversity actually depends on natural conflagration (van Rensberg 1986:41).
Such caveats, however, were muted in the debate that raged after the millennial blaze in Cape Town. Most salient to us here is the changing place accorded to aliens in this argument, and in the politics and the perceptions that informed it. In the past, foreign plants were only one of many factors held to produce fires of distinct kinds; in fact, an authoritative report on the topic published as late as 1979 does not even list them as a concern (see Kruger 1979). Neither, remember, did public blame in 2000 alight immediately upon them – although when it did, they became a burning preoccupation. Literally.
As we said earlier, not everybody held alien flora to account (see Comaroff and Comaroff 2001). One view attributed the inferno to global climatic change.14 It was paid no heed. This was a calamity that seemed to demand a local explanation. Another argument came from the Afrikaans press, which glossed the event as an indictment of the African National Congress, of its inefficiency in government.15 For yet others, excluded altogether from the public debate, foreign plants have a totally different value. Many of the jobless poor who reside in informal settlements around the city, a large number of them recent migrants, depend on those plants for their survival.16 Their unelectrified communities in the bush comprise row upon row of square shacks built mainly of thin slats of Australian wattle (Acacia Cyclops; Afrikaans, rooikrans). This ‘imported’ kindling is their chief fuel (van Wyk and Gericke 2000:284). It is also a vital source of income for them: they sell it at roadsides to white commuters for whom alien trees, like rooikrans, are an important component of the braaivleis (barbecue), a key ritual of commensal sociality in South Africa. Non-indigenous vegetation, in short, has long been a critical part of the local economy – the underclass part, which only tangentially touches the lives of those for whom aliens are held as anathema; and those by whom they are seen to jeopardize civic order and national heritage. Not unexpectedly, the material salience of foreign flora to the poor did not divert the drama of alien nature as it became a public passion play.
But how, precisely, did that passion play take shape? To what anxieties, interests and emotions did it – does it – respond? Which brings us to …
Aliens and the African renaissance
Until the fall of apartheid, the term ‘alien’ had archaic connotations in South Africa, being enshrined in laws aimed primarily at barring Jewish entry in the 1930s. These laws remained in place until amended in the mid 1990s (when they were replaced by the Aliens Control Act 96 of 1991 and subsequent amendments), when immigrants became a fraught issue in a society seething with a surplus of the unemployed, the unwaged and the unruly. It was at the same time that foreign plants became both the subject of ecological emergency and an object of national renewal (Hall 1979:138). The most striking symptom of this was the Working for Water Programme, launched in 1995. Part of the post-apartheid Reconstruction and Development Plan, the scheme, a flagship project to create jobs and combat poverty, centred on routing out alien vegetation. Its tone was urgent: alien plants are like ‘a health epidemic, spreading widely out of control’, said the programme’s home page.17 Out-of-work women and youth, ex-offenders, the disabled, even the homeless would be rehabilitated by joining eradication teams – and by toiling in industries that turned the invaders into commodities. Meanwhile, the public was exhorted not to buy foreign plants. Alien nature, in other words, was to be the raw material of communal rebirth.
The blaze in Cape Town gave yet further impetus to this. As popular feeling focused on the foreign ‘scourge’, the African National Congress seemed intent on coaxing ‘a spirit of community’ from the ashes. Ever more overt connections were made, in official discourse, between the war against aliens and the prosperity of the nation. A much-publicized symposium was held to discuss international cooperation in dealing with invasive species, drawing four ministers of state and several high-level representatives from other nations – notably Australia, Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom – all of which evinced similar anxieties.18 Global trade and tourism, the participants noted, had created a new class of ‘unwanted traveler’ in foreign flora and disease-bearing insects.19 But the most portentous words were those of President Mbeki: alien plants, he said, ‘stand in the way of the African renaissance’.20
Foreign objects: the politics of estrangement in the postcolony
And so invading plants became embroiled in the state of the nation. But this does not yet answer our key question. To what precise anxieties, interests and historical conditions did the allegory of alien nature speak? An answer is to be found in the public discourses of the time: in a cluster of implicit associations, indirect allusions and organic intuitions that, together, give insight into the infrastructure of popular consciousness under construction – specifically, into the way in which processes of naturalization made it possible to voice the unspeakable, thus to address the challenge of constructing a nation under neoliberal conditions. Conditions, that is, that involve precisely the transformations of which we spoke earlier: the changing meaning of citizenship and belonging, borders at once open and closed, people unavoidably on the move, irreducible social and cultural heterodoxy, the displacement of politics and a shrinking commonweal. Take this satirical comment by a well-known South African journalist:
Only the truly patriotic can be trusted to smell the roses
Doubtless there are gardening writers who would not think twice about sounding off in blissful praise of something as innocent … as the jacaranda tree … But … you may be nothing more than … a racist. Subliminally that is21 … Behind its blossoms and its splendid boughs, the jacaranda is nothing but a water-hogging … weed-spreading alien.
In times past, the jacaranda was regarded as ‘almost South Africa’s national tree’ (Moll and Moll 1994:49). Now, in a bizarre drama in which flora signify what politics struggles to name, it has become an object of estrangement, even racialization. It is not happenstance, then, that, in the heat of the millennial moment, public discourse went as far as to bespeak the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the countryside.22 This in a land obsessed with who is or is not a citizen, with constitutional rights and wrongs, with routing out all vestiges of racism. But it was a wry letter from a West African scholar to the Mail and Guardian, the nation’s most serious weekly newspaper, that made the political subtext most brutally plain.
It is alien-bashing time again. As an alien … I am particularly prickly about criticisms of aliens even if they are plants … Alien plants cannot of course respond to these accusations. But before the Department of Home Affairs is dragooned into investigating the residence permits of these plants I, as a concerned fellow alien, wish to remind one and all that plants such as maize … soybean, sunflower … originated outside of the continent of Africa. In any case, did the fire-and-flood-causing alien plants cross the borders and establish plantations … by themselves?23
For this human alien, ecology had become the site of a distressingly familiar crusade: the demonization of migrants by the state and its citizenry alike.
It has been noted that the migrant is the spectre on whose wretched fate the triumphal neoliberal politics of the ‘new’ Europe has been founded.24 In South Africa too, a phobia about foreigners – above all foreigners from elsewhere in Africa – has been the offspring of the fledgling democracy, waxing, paradoxically, alongside appeals to ubuntu, a common African humanity. Over the past decade that phobia has congealed into an active antipathy to what is perceived as a shadowy alien nation of ‘illegal immigrants’. The qualifier (‘illegal’) has become inseparable from the sign (‘immigrant’), just as, in the plant world, ‘invasive’ has become locked, adjectivally, to ‘alien’. Popularly held to be ‘economic vultures’ who usurp jobs and re- sources,25 and who bring crime and disease, these anti-citizens are accused – in uncanny ana- logy with non-indigenous flora – of spreading uncontrollably, and of siphoning off the wealth of the nation.26 This is in spite of the fact that their role in its economy, especially in the ‘informal’ market sector, is wealth-producing, and often remarkably innovative.
Aliens, then, are a distinctive species in the popular imagination. In a parodic perversion of the past, they are ‘profiled’ by colour and culture, thence to be excluded from the moral community. Once singled out, ‘illegals’ are seldom differentiated from bona fide immigrants.27
All are dubbed makwerekwere, a disparaging term for incompetent speech. Not surprisingly, they live in terror that their accents will be detected.
The fear is well founded. With the relaxation of controls over immigrant labour, South Africa – Africa’s ‘America’ – has become the destination of choice for many people from the north; a decade ago, estimates already ran as high as 8 million.28 This influx has occurred amidst transformations in the domestic economy that have altered relations of production, leading to a radically downsized job market in which over 80 per cent of employers opt for ‘non-standard’, casualized work (Adam et al. 1998:209), much of it done by low-paid, non- unionized ‘illegals’, whom farmers and industrialists claim are essential to their survival in competitive global markets.29 These transformations have also placed a strong emphasis on entrepreneurial initiative and small business ventures, a domain in which many migrants from elsewhere in Africa have prospered. Small wonder, then, that routing ‘the’ alien – who has come to embody the threat to local work, wealth and welfare – presents itself as a persuasive mode of confronting economic dispossession and regaining a sense of organic community.
Thus it is that dark strangers have become objects of hatred, of hostility, even of homicidal violence across the nation,30 a process in which the state is an ambiguous actor. On the one hand, it insists volubly on upholding universal human rights and has supported a ‘Roll- back Xenophobia Campaign’.31 On the other, it contributes to that xenophobia: its law enforcement agencies, their capacity to deal with rampant crime and lawlessness deeply in question, have taken to ‘waging war’ on the foreign spectre. Every now and again, official announcements are made of ‘US-style bid[s] to rid SA of illegal aliens’.32 So-called ‘gentle- men’s clubs’ said to traffic in undocumented sex workers have been subject to high profile raids.33 So, periodically, have immigrant businesses, all in the name of removing ‘all criminal elements and illegal[s]’.34 At the Lindela Repatriation Centre, a privately owned deportation facility, foreign nationals – and some South Africans mistaken for aliens – have been harshly beaten, their human rights seriously violated, their property looted.35 The state has taken no steps to put a stop to this. And public outrage has been, at best, muted.
Reference here to the ‘US style’ of alien management is telling. In the United States, too, shows of decisive action in the face of the ‘immigrant problem’ exist alongside an almost farcical legal paralysis on the issue at a national level. A long history of official double-speak makes plain how acutely that ‘problem’ underscores the paradox of borders at once porous and assiduously policed, highlighting the contradiction between sovereignty and deregulation, neo- conservatism and neoliberalism, national protectionism and a globalized division of labour. In the United States, too, spectacles of enforcement serve as futile attempts to redress the anomaly of strangers who have become essential to domestic reproduction; who mix intimate local knowledge and foreign loyalties, real or imagined, raising spectres of crime and terror; who are simultaneously indispensable and disposable, visible and invisible, human and abject; who reside ambiguously inside and yet beyond the law. In December 2006, for example, ‘dozens of armed immigration agents, supported by local police in riot gear’ stormed a meat-packing factory in Greeley, Colorado, one of five simultaneous, well-publicized raids on similar facilities across the nation.36 Termed Operation Wagon Train, these raids were hailed by US Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement – ICE by name and nature – as a ‘major blow’ in its ‘war against illegal immigration’. Many of those deported were back within a week. Their labour, like that of an estimated 12 million other undocumented workers, is essential to American industry, agriculture and the service sector; this being evidence of just the kind of late modern boundary-making impasse we witnessed in South Africa – although, in the United States it is exacerbated by the conflict between transnational agreements like NAFTA, which liberate capital, and local politicians, who seek to criminalize foreign labour and keep it imprisoned within the ‘developing world’. Here, observes Gary Younge, the politi- cal border is no longer coterminous with the physical borders of the nation-state. The former, the de facto frontier, is now more a matter of ‘economic expediency and political opportunism than either law or order’. And it criss-crosses the country, mobilizing ethnic profiles and securing the homeland by dividing citizens from aliens wherever they might be, which is how, on that December day, ‘the border came to Greeley’, a town more than 700 miles from the nearest national boundary line.
Shades, here, of the kind of contingency we identified at the outset as characteristic of the Nuer polity and Schmittian philosophy. In Nuer politics, recall, in the absence of fixed geographical borders, the objectification of boundaries between inside and out occurred in the process of dealing with the very transgressions that breached them. For Schmitt, the essential political gesture lay in drawing the line, making life-and-death distinctions, between friend and enemy. This is exactly what happens when aliens in South Africa are flushed out by the police, with little attention to their rights, legal or ‘human’ – or worse yet, summarily killed by vigilante mobs of unemployed locals. It is also what happens in the United States, where would- be illegal migrants may be apprehended not only at points of entry into the country, but anywhere that their difference from nationals comes to light, anywhere that lines are crossed, anywhere that they may be espied and reported by citizens. Operation Wagon Train is no arbitrary turn of phrase. Its cavalier reference to the conquest of the Wild West frontier – a historical process, incidentally, that made America’s first autochthons into aliens – reveals a deeper truth. It returns the United States to a language of state-making as a species of colonial heroics, in which, as one anti-immigrant group put it, ‘citizen control’ is to be re-established.37 Seen in this light, armed raids on migrant enclaves might not seal the border, but they do create an ‘impression of effectiveness’ on the part of the state in a political context in which illusion has become, perforce, ‘as important as reality’.38 Here, in short, is an instance of the sort of symbolic activity of which we spoke earlier: the mass-mediated ritual excess, directed at producing state power and hyphen-nation that features so prominently in efforts to secure sovereignty in a neoliberal age.
Ends and meanings
Geschiere and Nyamnjoh (2000) have noted the growing stress, in Africa, on the exclusion of the stranger, not least in reaction to the kinds of social and economic uncertainties, and the destabilization of borders, set in motion by ‘global flows’. This is true of post-apartheid South Africa, where outrage against aliens has provided a versatile call to arms, forcing a new line of separation that unifies a home-grown population otherwise divided by class, colour, culture and other things; not fully or finally, of course, but nonetheless visibly and volubly. Nor, as we have intimated, is South Africa alone in this. Similar processes are evident more or less everywhere that the nation-state is perceived to be plagued by conditions that threaten to dissolve it borders, opening them up to unwanted aliens of all sorts, undermining the coordinates of moral and material community – and making them seem more like contested colonial frontiers than the secure boundaries of the Euro-modernist polity, at least as conventionally imagined.
The ambiguation of those boundaries, we have noted, arises from the absorption of contemporary nationhood into a global economy whose neoliberal ways and means have altered received patterns of production and consumption, the articulation of labour to capital, the movement of persons and commodities, the nature of sovereignty and civic identity, geographies of space and time, normative expectations of order and security, and much else besides. Because of their particular histories, postcolonies like South Africa manifest these transformations in especially acute form. But, in many respects, they are merely condensed, hyper-extended prefigurations of what is becoming increasingly visible elsewhere. Indeed, almost everywhere. As Western states resort more audibly to the language of ‘wagon trains’ and frontiers, as journalists talk of an ‘apartheid planet’,39 as the post-Cold War seems ever more to be giving way to a state of ‘ordered anarchy’, we may be forgiven for thinking that the colonial societies of the global South were less historical inversions of the metropole than foreshadowings of what, in a postmodern world, the global North might become.
This speculation is not idle. European colonial regimes managed the political and economic contradictions inherent in early capitalist modernity by means of a politics of spatial separation. The segregation of metropole from colony, their distantiation, not only obscured their material and cultural interdependence. It also served to keep well apart the humanitarian, rule-governed, rationalizing, freedom-seeking geist of liberal democracy from the exclusionary, divisive, violently secured forms of subjection and extraction on which it was erected. Colonial societies were zones of occupation, sites in which the civilizing mission was counterposed against the immediate dictates of command, control and profit – and against the need to secure the contested frontiers seen to insulate order from chaos. Defending those boundaries in the name of ‘progress’ often warranted the suspension of enlightened ways and means, even in the face of humanitarian outrage and righteous resistance.
The long process of decolonization that set the stage for a new, twenty-first-century Age of Empire has disrupted this spatial logic. The Cold War era might have marked time between two imperial epochs, but it came undone when economies were deregulated and capital moved offshore, escaping state control, globalizing its day-to-day operations, deterritorializing sovereignty and jurisdiction, trafficking in ever more abstract, virtual species of wealth and scrambling received relations between politics and production. As neoliberalized enterprise relocated its polluting factories to distant sites of cheap labour and low or no taxation, new forms of enclaved colonial extraction were invented, extraction with minimal costs, sans state apparatuses, safety restrictions, legal liability or civilizing missions. At the same time, workers who could move from devastated postcolonies sought access in exponentially greater numbers to the underclass reaches of cleaner, post-Fordist, Western economies. In the process, the structural and geographical segregation of metropole and colony has been deeply eroded. And as it has, camps for illegal aliens and asylum seekers, inner-city wastelands, zones of occupation and burning banlieus project colonial conditions and modes of governance into the heart of First World polities – there to draw the line, once again, between friend and enemy, law and war. Reciprocally, states in the South and East take on many of the features of the global North, from the growing preoccupation with democracy and the law to an inventive engagement with modern urbanism, electronic communications, global finance and the like.
In the face of all this, liberal democratic models of society and politics have undergone drastic revision in the West – among scholars and statesmen alike. The image is fading of an organic society, suivant Comte and Durkheim, in which divisions of class, race, religion and culture were contained, ideally at least, within national boundaries; in which, also, criminals and other pathogenic fractions of the population were believed, through welfare and reform, to be recoverable ‘citizens in waiting’. On the rise is a rather different archetype, that of the polity as citadel: of national territory as embattled homeland; of prisons as sites not of recuperation but of the warehousing of those deemed disposable; of borders as elusive lines to be drawn and redrawn within the nation-state and beyond against the endless onslaught of enemies who threaten its moral and corporeal integrity – enemies who take the form of aliens, migrants, terrorists, home-grown saboteurs, felons, criminals, deviants, the indigent poor. This, once more, is the world of Carl Schmitt, in which politics is less about national participation and redistribution than about securing the frontier between autochthon and intruder, good and evil, citizenship and subjection. It is also the world of the Nuer, with their constantly shifting lines between inside and out, law and war. Is it any wonder, then, that conditions that nurture phobias of alien nature and campaigns of ethnic cleansing should also have generated a newly animated, newly designated industry, the so-called ‘homeland security sector’? Or that the signature products of this industry, which is rapidly gaining ground on a global scale, are ‘high-tech fences, unmanned drones, biometric ID’s, video and audio surveillance gear, air passenger profiling and prisoner interrogation systems’, many of them originating in Israel, recently des- cribed as ‘a living example of how to enjoy relative safety amid constant war’?  All this may seem a world away from allegories of alien plants and natural autochthony. But the link between them is patent. Both speak to efforts to bring to order the anarchy of our late modern age. Or, to be more precise, to make sense of, and act upon, some of the contradictions and contingencies, the uncertainties and insecurities, the ambiguities and ambivalences, that come with a world-historical disjuncture: the disjuncture, that is, between the modernist universe as we once knew it and the neoliberal universe now rapidly taking shape around us.