Naturing the Nation

Aliens, Apocalypse and the Postcolonial State

Publication Date: 08/04/2010

Journal: Journal of Southern African Studies

Reissue Date:

Page start: 627

Page End: 651

Volume: 3

Edition: 27


The White Heat of Apocalypse,  or “The Week the Cape Burned”

Helicopters scampering over the blazing vineyards of Constantia became the “mo- tif” of the Cape of Storms this week as the Peninsula burst into flames producing scenes that could have been staged for a mega disaster movie. From the beaches of Muizenberg columns of smoke rising above the mountains…looked like Mount Vesuvius in full rage burying the fleeing victims of Pompeii…Overhead the tiny he- licopters buzz mosquito-like against the sky, heroic in purpose, but only adding to the sense of helplessness as they dash their toyish…waterbombs against the…advance of the lunatic flames.

Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, 21-27 January 2000, p.61

What might “natural” disasters tell us about the ecology of nationhood? Or about the contempora- ry predicament of the postcolonial nation-state? How might the flash of environmental catastrophe illuminate the meaning of borders and the tortured politics of belonging? How might nature remake the nation under neoliberal conditions? How and why, to be more specific, do plants, especially foreign plants, become urgent affairs of state? And what might they disclose of the shifting relations among citizenship, community, and national integrity in an era of global capitalism? Pursuing these questions in South Africa, we run up against two faces of “naturalization” in the politics of the postcolony: one refers to the assimilation of alien persons, signs, and practices into the received order of things; the other, to the deployment of nature as alibi, as a fertile allegory for making people and objects strange, thus to forge critical new social and political distinctions. But we shall make our way back to such matters of theory – about naturalization, about the postcolonial state, about the ecology of nationhood – in due course. First, though, a dedication. This essay is written for Shula Marks, long-time friend and colleague, who has herself reflected astutely on the manner in which botanical knowledge, conservationism, and the aesthetics of nature – not least, in respect of the mountains of the Cape – have been mobilized “in the service of nationhood”.2 Possessed of a sharp appreciation of natural beauty and its social uses, she shares with us a deep emotional attachment to the human and horticultural landscape discussed here.

We begin our narrative with the fire.

Apocalypse, African Style

The turn of the millennium came and went in South Africa without incident; this despite public fears of violence and mass destruction. Then, two weeks later, Cape Town caught fire. On an unusually hot, dry Saturday afternoon the veld caught flared up suddenly in a number of places across the greater metropolitan area. Gale-force south-east winds carried walls of flame up the stately mountain spine of the Cape Peninsular, threatening historic homes and squatter settlements alike. As those in the path of the in- ferno were evacuated, SATV showed disjunctive images of civic collaboration: of the poor helping each other carry paltry possessions from doomed shacks; of the wealthy dropping their valuables in swimming pools and lining up to pass buckets of water.3

On Monday, as the bush continued to burn, airforce helicopters dumped thousands of tons of water on the flames. Volunteers aided emergency fire-fighters brought from as far afield as Pretoria, more than 1500km to the north. Round-the-clock reports told a distressing tale of cheetahs and ostriches grilled alive in local game parks, of landmark churches facing incineration, of world renowned vineyards razed to cinders. The Mother City sweltered under a blanket of smoke as ash rained down on her bou- levards and beaches. Air pollution increased by 20%, causing the closure of many major roads. At the national naval headquarters, shore leave for sailors was cancelled as flames devoured key administrative buildings.

In total, some 9,000 hectares burned. The mountains smoldered on sullenly for weeks. So, too, did the temper of the population. One man was charged with viciously assaulting a youth whom he suspected of starting a blaze along a rural road4 and attributions of blame flew in many directions, none of them politically random. Fire is endemic to the region and to the regeneration of its vegetation; those who profit from its bounty have no option but to live with the risk. But this, a conflagration of unprecedented scale, raised fears about the very sustainability of the natural kingdom in the “fairest Cape”. For weeks, the blaze, some termed it “the holocaust”, dominated public discourse. Its livid scars and apocalyptic proportions evoked elemental anxieties, calling forth an almost obsessive desire to construe it as an omen, an indictment, a call to arms. This public divination – the debate in the streets, the media, the halls of government – laid bear the complex social ecology whence the fire itself had sprung, enabling it to cast penetrating light on conditions-of-being in the postcolonial state.

Apocalypse, of course, soon becomes history, a process Davis aptly terms the “dialectic of ordina- ry disaster”.5 Thus, while early discussion of the fire was wild and contested, refracted along the divers facets of communal interest, it would reduce, over time, to a dominant interpretation. That interpretation was never shared by all. As we shall see, some people, barely audible in the media debate, had a different reading of the issues at stake. But the dominant view did draw a wide consensus; wide enough to authorize strong government action and broad civic collaboration. This, clearly, was an instance of “ide- ology-in-the-making”. As such, its efficacy rested, first, on producing a plausible, parsimonious ex- planation for the extent of the blaze. But it also succeeded in making the flames illuminate an implicit landscape of affect and anxiety, inclusion and intrusion, prosperity and loss. Through a clutch of charged references, it linked the conflagration to other domains of public experience, domains in which natural images frame urgent issues of being-and-identity. Especially being-and-identity in the body of the “new” nation-state.

In the initial heat of the event, stray cigarette ends and abandoned cooking fires were blamed for the blaze. But this was rapidly overtaken, in “official opinion”, by talk of arson, a theory supported by some circumstantial evidence; some even detected a new front in the campaign of urban terror, widely attributed to Islamic fundamentalism, that had gripped the Cape Peninsula for several years.6 Then the discourse abruptly changed direction, alighting on an etiology that took hold with extraordinary force: whatever sparked it, the calamitous scale of the blaze was a result of invasive alien plants that burn more readily and fiercely than native flora. Fire might be a “natural part” of the Cape ecosystem, government advisors attested, but the presence of invasive aliens had changed that system significantly.7 Outrage against these intruders grew steadily, particularly in the English-speaking press; the Afrikaans media had a somewhat different agenda (see below). Landowners who had allegedly allowed these interlopers to spread unchecked were denounced for putting life and limb, even “our natural heritage” itself, at risk.8

Note: “Our natural heritage”. Heritage has become a construct to conjure with as global markets erode the distinctive wealth of nations, forcing them to redefine their sense of patrimony. And its material worth: the mayor of Cape Town, for example, is wont to describe Table Mountain as “a national inspiration”, whose asset value is “measured by every visitor it attracts”.9 Not coincidentally, South Afri- ca is currently engaged in a bid to have the Cape Peninsula declared a “World Heritage Site” in recogni- tion of its unparalleled biodiversity. This heritage is embodied, above all, in fynbos (Afrikaans, “fine bush”; from the Dutch fijn bosch),10 the sclerophyllous or small-leaved, evergreen shrubs and heath that dominate the vegetation of the mountains and coastal forelands of the Cape.11 In recent decades, fynbos has become the prime incarnation of the fragile, wealth-producing beauties of the region; and, as it has, local environmentalists have become ever more convinced that it is caught up in a mortal struggle with alien interlopers, which threaten to reduce its riches to “impenetrable monotony”.12

The blaze brought all this to a head. “Wake Up Cape Town”,13 screamed front page headlines set against the image of a red fire lily poking, phoenix-like, from a deep bed of ashes. Efforts by botanists to cool the hysteria – to insist that “fire in fynbos [is] normal”, not a “train smash in terms of biodiversity”14 – had little effect on the public mood. A cartoonist, allowing a rare moment of irony to flicker amid millennial anxiety, drew a UFO hovering over Cape Town as the city sank into the globally-warmed sea, its mountain tops covered by foreign flora. Peering down, the occupants of the space ship declare: “They seem to have a problem with aliens”.15

A problem with aliens indeed! Whether or not he knew it, the satirist had touched a deep nerve: the anxiety over foreign flora gestured toward a submerged landscape of civic terror and moral alarm. – Significantly, when the fire was followed some two weeks later by ruinous floods to the north, another headline quipped: “First fires, now floods – next frogs?”16 By then, it was not altogether surprising to read that “huge forests of alien trees” were being held by experts to have “caused all the trouble” in the water-logged Mpumalanga Province.17 In this, one of the poorest regions in the land, “large stands of in- vading aliens”, the vast plantations of powerful logging corporations, were blamed for thwarting the capacity of indigenous plants to act as “natural sponges”.18 At much the same time, a lead story in the na- tional press, apparently unrelated, told how the Aliens Investigation Unit of the South African Police Ser- vices had swooped down on a luxurious club in Johannesburg, ostensibly because it employed a growing army of undocumented, unhealthy sexworkers from abroad.19 Within days, the South Africa public was promised, again in banner newsprint, a “US-style bid to rid SA of illegal aliens”.20

What exactly was at stake in this mass-mediated chain of consciousness, this litany of alien-nation? Why the propensity to “blame it on the weeds”, as one journalist put it?21 How much does it all tell us about the meaning of moral panics inside South Africa, or about perceived threats to the nation and its patrimony? Observers elsewhere have noted that an impassioned rhetoric of autochthony, to which alien- ness is the negative counterpoint, has edged aside other images of belonging at the end of the twentieth century; also that a fetishizing of origins seems to be growing up the world over in opposition to the libe- ral credo of laissez-faire.22 But why? Why, at this juncture in the history of postcolonial nation-states, and of South Africa in particular, has the question of boundaries and their transgression, of membership and citizenship, become such an incendiary issue? Why, in the face of the burning bush, has nature pre- sented itself as a persuasive alibi for the conception of nationhood and its frontiers? And how, in turn, does the naturalization of nationality relate to the construction of older identities framed in terms of his- tory, culture, race, ethnicity? Could it be that the anxious public discourse here over invasive plant spe- cies speaks to an existential problem presently making itself felt at the very heart of nation-states everywhere: in what does national integrity consist, what might nationhood and belonging mean, what moral and material entitlements might it entail, at a time when global capitalism seems everywhere to be threatening sovereign borders, everywhere to be displacing politics-as-usual?

These questions are not meant to cast doubt on the danger actually posed by fire or flood; nor on the effort to explain and manage them with reference to the effects of foreign flora. It is precisely because these matters are so real and urgent that they carry the charge that they do. But the extent to which aliens of all kinds became a public preoccupation in South Africa just after the millennium went far beyond the usual bounds of botany, far beyond the concerns of the environmental sciences, beyond even the imperatives of disaster control. It is with this excess that we are concerned here. For, as we have already hinted, the explosion of events, emotions, and arguments “after the fire” has a compelling story to tell about citizenship, identity and nation-building in this and other postcolonies.


First things first, however. The postcolonial nation-state – and here we write specifically from an Africanist perspective – is not, for all the tendency to speak of it in the singular, a definite article. It refers to a labile historical formation, a polythetic class of polities-in-motion. South Africa, famously, is the latest country to join the class. As such, it reveals, with harsh clarity, many of the contemporary ob- sessions of postcoloniality, many of the contradictions which confront the effort to make modernist poli- ties in postmodern, neoliberal times. That effort, those obsessions, reach into diverse realms of collective being-in-the-world: into the struggle to arrive at meaningful terms with which to construct a sense of be- longing – and, hence, of moral and material community – in circumstances that privilege difference; into the endeavor to regulate sovereign borders under global conditions that not only encourage the transna- tional movement of labor and capital, money and goods, but make them a necessary condition of the wealth of nations; into the often bitter controversies that rage as people assert various kinds of identity to make claims of entitlement and interest; into troubled public discourses on the proper reach of twenty- first century constitutions and, especially, their protection of individual rights; into the complicated processes by which government, nongovernmental organizations, citizens acting in the name of civil so- ciety, and other social fractions seek to carve out a division of political and social labor; into the implica- tions of angst about the decay of public order, about crime both organized and random, about corruption and its policing.

Such issues have not always dominated the discourses of postcolonial nation-states – in the plural, note – or saturated their public spheres. These polities have long entertained mass flows of human, animal, and vegetable migrants across sovereign borders;23 but never before has the presence of aliens occasioned the same sort of alarm as it seems to nowadays.24 As this suggests, many things have changed since the dawn of the postcolonial age, an age still uneasily defined by a prefixation upon what it is not. Even at the most gross of levels, postcolonies have moved through two epochal phases, a passage from the past that casts into relief much about the present.

Epochal Shifts: from the past to the postcolony

The first was born, historically and figuratively, in India at midnight on 14 August 1947. It lasted forty years or so. This period is conventionally associated, in master narratives of Empire, with the deco- lonization of the Third World. It is also a period in which the new states of Africa found the promise of autonomy and growth sundered by the realities of neocolonialism, which freighted them with an impossi- ble toll of debt and dependency. Under these conditions, the master narrative goes on, the idyll of Euro- pean-styled democracy, the “black man’s burden” according to Basil Davidson,25 gave way to ever more authoritarian rule, itself buttressed by the coldwar imperatives of the First and Second Worlds. The details need not detain us. What is most important for now is that, in its formative years, postcoloniality was a product of the “old” international political order, of its organization of sovereign nations within the industrial capitalist world system. In that order, people, plants, commodities, and currencies moved ac- ross frontiers under more-or-less tightly enforced, normatively-recognized state regulation. Every so often, alarmists in Europe called for the repatriation of immigrants or for rigorous control over foreign flora and fauna. But cross border movement, mainly along the coordinates of former colonial maps – the British commonwealth, Greater France, the Black Atlantic – was regarded as a routine part of the bureaucratic work of governments everywhere.

The second epoch in the genealogy of postcolonial states, the epoch with which we are more im- mediately concerned, is very different. Its point of origin, says Bayart,26 it may be dated to 1989, when “most sub-Saharan African countries” began to experience “an unprecedented wave of demands for democracy”. These events were a product of the same world-historical movement that transformed Cen- tral Europe and reverberated across the planet at the time: the political coming of age – its economic roots and its ethos, patently, long predate the 1980s – of neoliberal global capitalism. This world- historical movement, the recitative now goes, metamorphosed the old international order into a more flu- id, market-driven, electronically-articulated universe: a universe in which supranational institutions burgeon; in which space and time are radically recalibrated; in which geography is perforce being rewrit- ten; in which transnational identities, diasporic connections, ecological disasters, and the mobility of hu- man populations challenge both the nature of sovereignty and the sovereignty of nature; in which “the network” returns as the dominant metaphor of social connectedness; in which liberty is distilled to its postmodern essence, the right to choose identities, subjectivities, commodities, sexualities, localities, and other forms of collective representation.

As this suggests, the second postcolonial epoch has been marked by a great deal more than just a move “back” to democracy. Indeed, while the renaissance of participatory politics has reanimated some of the institutions of governance eclipsed in Africa during the years after “independence”,27 its promise to empower “the public” in affairs of state came at a juncture when institutional power departed most states as never before, dispersing itself everywhere and anywhere and nowhere tangible at all: into transnational corporations and associations, into nongovernmental organizations, into syndicated crime, into shadowy, privatized parastatal cabals.28 Which may, in part, explain why there has been a strong countervailing stress on the reconstruction of civil society since 1989. We have argued in another context29 that, as a call to action, the force of latter – of “civil society”, that is – exists in inverse proportion to its density and content as a concept; that its appeal is largely underwritten by its inchoateness, its vacuity. We have also argued that its return as a dusted-off fetish in the late twentieth century bears strong parallel with its first rise in the late eighteenth. In each case, it has come to the fore under conditions of rapid transformation: conditions in which the present and future of economy and society, of community and family, of selfhood and the social division of labor have been called into question.

And, to be sure, the very existence of “society” is under scrutiny the world over at present; com- munity and family are said to be widely at risk; the nature of labor is seen to be changing uncontrollably; masculinity is felt to be compromised with the reconstruction of gender roles and relations. What is more, the politics of ideological struggle melt away into the politics of interest as the “me-generation” folds into the “we-generation”. And generation itself, in the guise of youth, becomes a major vector of political action, a problem, an ever more salient principle of social distinction.

For its part, “the” state, an ever more polymorphous entity, is held, increasingly, to be in perpetual crisis,30 its power ever more dispersed, its legitimacy tested by debt, disease, and poverty, its executive control repeatedly pushed to the limit and, most of all, its hyphen-nation – the articulation, that is, of the state to the nation, of the nation-state – everywhere under challenge.31 In the circumstances, offers Mbembe,32 “the postcolony” tends to be “chaotically pluralistic”, even when it evinces a semblance of “internal coherence”. Which is why, it is often said, postcolonial regimes evince a strong predilection to appeal to magicalities, especially, to anticipate what is to come, under the sign of autochthony. That ruling cadres rely on magical means to do the work of hyphen-nation is not new of course. But resort to mass-mediated ritual excess – to produce state power, to conjure up national unity, and to persuade ci- tizens of the reality of both – does feature prominently in the second postcolonial age; in rough pro- portion, perhaps, to populist perceptions of crisis. Thus, notes Worby, in those parts of Africa where the hold of government is stretched, its authority has become dependent on the performance of quotidian ce- remonial, extravagant in its theatricality; citizen-subjects, he goes on, live with the state in a promiscuous hybrid of accommodation and refusal, power and parody, embodiment and alienation.33

Belonging, Borders, Autochthony, Antipolitics

While these symptoms of the second age of postcoloniality are the stuff of anxious public discour- se across Africa, the stereotypically bleak portrait of states falling apart, of nations drifting into an unhy- phenated, Hobbesian state of nature, of nature itself out of control, is overdrawn; the political sociology of postcoloniality is much more complex, more diverse, than it allows. At the same time, both the contra- dictions and the perceptions of crisis experienced by many postcolonies are part of a broader condition. We refer, of course, to the much debated issue of the present and future of the nation-state under the impact of globalization. Elsewhere34 we have offered an extended commentary on this question, seeking to chart the transformation of the modernist polity in the Age of Neoliberal Capitalism. Here, however, it is enough to note just three things about that transformation.

The first arises out of the refiguration of the modernist subject-citizen. One corollary of the chang- ing face of nationhood in the neoliberal age, especially after 1989, has been an explosion of identity poli- tics. Not just of ethnic politics. Also of the politics of gender, sexuality, age, race, religiosity, economic combination, life-style, and, yes, social class. As a result, imagining the nation rarely presumes a deep horizontal fraternity any more.35 While most human beings still live as citizens in nation-states, they tend only to be conditionally, partially, and situationally citizens of nation-states. Identity struggles, ranging from altercations over resources to genocidal combat, seem immanent almost everywhere as selfhood is immersed – existentially, metonymically – into claims of collective essence, of innate substance and pri- mordial sentiment, that nestle within or transect the polity.

In short, homogeneity as a “national fantasy”36 is giving way to a recognition of the irreducibility of difference; so much so that even countries long known for their lack of diversity – Botswana, for example – are now sites of identity struggles. And culture, at once essentialized and open to constant re- invention, becomes yet another possession, a good to be patented, made into intellectual property, mer- chandised, consumed.37 All of this puts even greater stress – in both senses of the term – on hyphen- nation. The more diverse nation-states become in their political sociology, the higher the level of abstraction at which “the nation-state” exists, the more compelling appears the threat of its rupture. And the more imperative it becomes to divine and to negate whatever is perceived to endanger it. States, notes Harvey, have always had to conjure up “a definition of public interests over and above…class and sectarian” concerns.38 One solution that has presented itself in the face of ever more assertive claims on society and the state, of claims made in the name of different sorts of identity, has come to lie in autochthony: in elevating to a first-principle the ineffable interests and connections, at once material and moral, that flow from “native” rootedness, and special rights, in a place of birth. Nor is this merely a strategic solution that appeals to those caught up 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 pla- ces, parts within wholes. But, as a 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 contemporary nation-states, whether or not they are primarily citizens of nation-states, seem widely able to re-imagine nationhood in such a way as to em- brace the ineluctability of internal difference: “multiculturalism”, the “rainbow nation”, and terms of similar resonance provide a ready argot of accommodation, even amidst bitter contestation. However, when it comes to the limits of that difference, autochthony constitutes an ultimate line. Whatever other identities the citizen-subject of the twenty-first century polity may bear, s/he is unavoidably either an autochthon or an alien. Nor only s/he. It too. As we have seen, and will see further, nonhumans may also be ascribed the status of indigene or other.

The second follows closely: it concerns the obsession of contemporary polities with the policing of borders – and, hence, with the limits of sovereignty. Much of the debate over the “crisis” of the nation-state hinges upon the contention that governments can no longer control the flow of currencies and commercial instruments, of labor and commodities, of flora and fauna, of information, illegal substances, and unwanted aliens. It is true, of course, that international frontiers have always been more-or-less porous. But technologies of space-time compression do appear to have effected a sea-change in patterns and rates of global flow, human and virtual. 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 should properly remain within. South Africa, for instance, laments its brain drain and the pull of the market on its sports stars39 – while anguishing, xenophobically, over the inflow of millions of immigrants, makwerekwere, who, as we shall see, frequently suffer gross violations of their human rights.40

Similar xenophobia is on the increase in Western Europe. Much of it focuses on “unassimilable” migrant workers; for which read “black”. But not always. Recall the British fear that the Channel Tunnel would open England up to rabies, that the coming of the Euro would herald the end of sterling as its sovereign currency, that the authority of the European courts would destroy its legal dominion;41 or the phobic French reaction against the infiltration of US cultural products; or the Italian effort to protect grappa, a beverage become national intellectual property, from foreign makers. All alike express anxiety, in the face of global flow, about boundaries and their breach. Globalization, after all, has provoked anta- gonistic responses not only among peoples of smaller and/or less powerful nation-states, for whom it rep- resents itself as colonialism in new, largely North American guise; nor only among the marginalized of the world. Jeremy Seabrook recently observed that the “European left scarcely distinguishes itself from a right whose faith in global laissez-faire is matched only by a hysterical defense of evaporated sovereignties and atrophied national powers”.42

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 itself the product of a paradox. Under contemporary global conditions, given the logic of the neoliberal capitalism, nation-states find themselves in a double bind. In order to partake of that economy, to garner the value that it spins off, governments require at once to op- en up their frontiers and to secure them: on one hand, to deregulate as far as possible the movement of currencies, goods, people, and services, thus to facilitate the inflow of wealth; on the other, to regulate them by establishing enclaved zones of competitive advantage so as to attract transnational manufacture and media, investment, information technology, and the “right” kind of migrants – among them, tourists, highly skilled personnel, NGOs, development consultants, even laborers who will work more cheaply and tractably than locals without claim to the entitlements of belonging. In this way, the nation-state is transformed, in aspiration if not always in reality, into a mega-management enterprise, a business in the business of attracting business; this for the benefit of “stakeholders” who desire simultaneously to be glo- bal citizens and yet corporate subjects with shares in the commonweal of a sovereign polity. The corollary is plain. The border is a double bind because national prosperity appears to demand, but is simultaneously threatened by, both openness and closure. No wonder the angst, the constant public de- bate in so many places, about what ought or ought not to be allowed in, what is or not in the collective interest. And for whom.

The third salient feature of the predicament of the nation-state is, baldly stated, the depoliticiza- tion of politics. The argument goes like this: neoliberal capitalism, in its triumphal, all encompassing glo- bal phase, offers no alternatives to laissez-faire; nothing else – no other ideology, no other political economic system – seems even plausible. The primary question left to public policy is how to succeed in the “new” world order. Why? Because this new order hides its ideological scaffolding in the dictates of economic efficiency and capital growth, in the fetishism of the free market, in the exigencies of science and technology. Under its hegemony, the social is dissolved into the natural, the biological, the organic.43 “Political choices”, as Xolela Mangcu puts it for South Africa,44 are depoliticized and given the aura of technical truth. Public policies that get implemented are those backed by “growth coalitions” which span government, business, the media and other interest groups… [These] shape national consensus on priorities.

Politics, then, are reduced either to the pursuit of pure advantage or to struggles over “special” interests and issues: the environment, abortion, health care, child welfare, rape and domestic abuse, human rights, capital punishment, and the like. In the circumstances, there is a strong tendency for urgent questions of the moment, often sparked by ecological catastrophe and justified with reference to the technical imperatives of nature, to become the stuff of collective action, cutting across older, ever more anachronistic lines of ideological and social commitment. Each takes the limelight as it flares into public awareness, becomes a “hot” issue, 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 here of the imagery of fire – now situated within in the imperatives of the postcolo- nial nation-state, its location in the global world of neoliberal capitalism, its contemporary political so- ciology, its altered forms of citizenship, its obsessions with boundaries, aliens and autochthony, its dis- placements of the political – return us to the apocalyptic events in Cape Town at the turn of the millennium..


…Ralph Waldo Emerson once commented on the impact of immigration: “A nation, like a tree, does not thrive well till it is engraffed (sic) with a foreign stock”.

Hopewell Radebe, The Star, 16 March 2000, p.1345

A Lesson from Fynbos

It is possible to read the burning bush as an epic instance of nature’s deadly caprice. Such, to be sure, is a construction to which “white Africans”, who are disproportionately represented in current con- servationist circles, are especially prone. But the full impact of the blaze arose, we would argue, from the capacity of those flowers and flames to signify charged political anxieties, many of them unnameable in everyday discourse. Also from the promise that there might arise, out of the ashes, a greater good: a distinctly local, “new” South African, sense of community, nation, civil society. But we are running ahead of ourselves. How exactly did those flowers and flames come to mean so much?

First, the flora. Flowers have long served as signifiers of modern states, of course. Protea cynaroi- des (Giant/King protea) – the bloom that most typifies fynbos – has been South Africa’s emblem for many years. Sui generis, as an inclusive category, however, fynbos is associated primarily with the autochthonous identity and patrimony of the Western Cape; it is the distinctive mark, the “rich cloak”, of the region.46 Also with Cape Town, whose emergence as a global city it has come to symbolize. To both, it stands in a relationship resembling that of classic African totemism: in a relationship of humans to nature, place to species, in which each enriches the other so long as the former respects, and does not wantonly consume, the latter. Thus, while the export of fynbos plants has developed into a huge industry since the 1960s – market demand has actually stimulated the development of many new “wild” cultivars47 – Cape Flora have simultaneously become the focus of ever greater conservationist concern. Even “passion”.48 This vegetation, the object of ever widening state protection, is commonly described by re- searchers as being under serious threat. It is a threat born, increasingly, by invasive aliens,49 whose significance in environmentalist discourse has overtaken that of human beings.50

It was not always so. None of it.

For a start, the use of fynbos to refer to the indigenous plants of the southwestern Cape – the “Fyn- bos Biome” – is quite recent. Described by early naturalists as “Flora Capensis”51 or “Cape Flora”,52 this vegetation was “officially christened” as the “Cape Floral Kingdom” in the early twentieth century,53 and was known as such for decades.54 Fynbos does appear in Acocks’ Veld Types of South Africa in 1953, but only as the Afrikaans translation for “Coastal Macchia”.55 Sometimes used colloquially used at times to refer to the narrow-leaved, evergreen plants of the region, the term did not become established , either in popular or botanical parlance until the lat 1960s and early 1970s.56 Note that this was precisely the time when international demand for Cape Flora began to take off, and a national association was formed to market them. It was also the point at which politicians began to dub fynbos a “natural asset” and a “trea- sure-chest”57 – and at which botanists began to argue that it merited conservation as a “unique biome type”.58

In sum, for all the fact that fynbos has come to stand for a “traditional” heritage of national, natu- ral rootedness, it emerged as unique, and uniquely threatened, at a particular moment in the history of the South African state; at a moment, too, in the historical development of global capitalism when new rela- tions were being forged between transnational markets and the fashioning of subnational identities, cul- tures, and ecologies that appear endangered by the very forces that produce them.59 Before then, Cape Flora seem to have been resilient.60 As recently as 1953, an authority on the subject actually described fynbos as an invader whose expansion threatened the mixed grassveld of the southwestern Cape.61 What is now said of aliens was being said, not long ago, of this “national treasure”.

Admittedly, the vegetation of this ecological niche has altered much since then. But so have the values that inform our perceptions of it. Where, once upon a time, farmers saw Cape Flora as useless, as poor grazing on barren soil,62 a “fynbos landscape” – rather than a landscape of grassveld or of trees that bind soil and provide fuel – is widely taken for granted as the “climax community”;63 i.e. an evolutionary end-point to be achieved and conserved. This despite the fact that other views are possible. One has it that a “fynbos landscape” might be less an end-point than “a stage in succession to forest”.64 In this light, the ideal of sustaining such a landscape in perpetual equilibrium might be seen as an instance of the kind of functionalism that, Cronon argues, “remove[s] ecological communities from history”.65

Encounter with Aliens

But it is not just as fragile heritage that fynbos has captured the imagination of the public in the postcolony. It is also as a protagonist locked in mortal struggle with alien invaders that threaten to co- lonize its habitat and choke off its means of survival. Foreign “plants currently use…3300m cubic meters of water each year,…7% of South Africa’s mean annual runoff”, declared the Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry at a high level symposium on invasive species, held in Cape Town after the blaze.66 Anxiety about these invaders is not limited to South Africa. The issue has become urgent in other Western nations as well; among them, the USA, Australia, Britain and Germany. Ironically, in Australia, it is South African flora (like yellow soursobs and Capeweed) that are demonized;67 ironic because it was Australian species, vegetation that “grows taller and burns easier than fynbos”, that bore the brunt of blame for the Cape fires of January 2000,68 the “chief nasties” being wattles (including the infamous rooikrans), pines, bluegum, and hakea – this last, to close the ironic circle, a “Protea-type shrub”.69 There are, it is true, some telling contrasts between the other Western cases and the South African preoccupation with alien- nature.70 Still, alien plants do seem to have become the stuff of melodrama, of resonant allegory, on a worldwide scale. This, we shall argue, is because they transform and re-present diffuse political terrors as natural facts.

Time was when there was great enthusiasm at the Cape for plant imports. Already by the opening decades of the eighteenth century, species such as Mediterranean cluster pine had to be introduced to the mountain slopes in large numbers to cater for the timber demands of the settlers.71 By the mid nineteenth century, interest in horticultural borrowing had turned to Australia – the other antipodean British colony and South Africa’s enduring rival – whose heathlands constitute a Mediterranean biome so similar to the southwestern Cape that some posit an evolutionary convergence between them.72 In the effort to bind soils on the windswept Cape Flats, the most sizeable agricultural plain in the region, the then Colonial Secretary began bringing in Australian wattles and myrtle to provide screens and enable dune formation. By 1875, the government was encouraging large plantations of cluster pine and other imports, including hakea and Port Jackson, to shelter them. So eager were the authorities to see these exotics take root that they distributed millions of seeds and awarded prizes for the greatest acreages planted.73 This is in stark contrast to the present day: now there are moves to tax foreign seed and force landowners to clear their properties of these very same imports.74

What happened in the intervening hundred years? How did desirable imports become invasive aliens, “pests”, “colonizers”, even “green cancers”?75 For one thing, exotic species spread beyond the confines of plantations and gardens – both spontaneously and through human effort – establishing themselves with great success among Cape Flora. Experts note that, while this process as having gained ground through the twentieth century, it evoked little interest until quite recently among botanists, government, or the population at large; this despite the fact that some disquiet had already been voiced in the late nineteenth century, and legislation to curb some “noxious weeds” was passed, if ineffectually, as early 1937.76 It was only in the late 1950s and 60s that the Botanical Society of South Africa established a committee to promote awareness of the problem and voluntary “hack groups” first took to the veld to cut out the malignant growth.

During the 1970s and 1980s, plant invasion at the Cape came under increasing scrutiny. Botanists, noting that foreign “infestations” were visible even on satellite pictures,77 concluded that invasive weeds had “outgrown any merits they might have had in the fynbos region”. In 1978, the Department of Nature and Environment Conservation published a popular source-book, Plant Invaders: Beautiful but Dange- rous, and additional groups were founded in upper middle class rural white areas; although the effect of their efforts remained uncertain, as the aliens – like those in Hollywood B-movies – seemed to thrive on chopping and burning.78 At the same time, local expert opinion still had it that exotics, in controlled po- pulations, did have some utility; that, in any case, it was impossible to eliminate them altogether; and that, even if it were possible, “other species might appear as weeds in the future”.79 All of which implied a sense that botanical categories might shift over time, a view reflected in debates on the topic elsewhere – like Australia, where the line between the “naturalized” and the “native” is taken to be much more fluid (see n.70). At this juncture, too, threats to the Cape Flora were described in multidimensional causal terms, terms that embraced fire, climatic change, and human intervention.80

It was not always to remain so.

The 1990s witnessed a marked tendency to reduce multidimensional causes to monolithic agents – above all, to alien plants – in accounting for the fragility of Cape Flora. This becomes abundantly clear from the way in which attitudes to fire in the fynbos shifted over the decade, culminating in the “holo- caust” of January 2000.

Playing with fire

As we have said, fire has long been recognized as endemic to the Cape floral ecology;81 as even the earliest colonial observers noted, “natural” blazes consume large expanses every year, their rate and intensity varying with the age and state of the vegetation, with topography, and with prevailing weather conditions. Much burning is also intentional: African views of regeneration have long set great store on it, for instance – despite the fact that colonial authorities, unnerved by the prospect of natives playing with fire, applied stringent discouragements.82 Official disapproval continued until quite recently, when systematic research began to paint a more complicated picture of the forms and functions of fynbos com- bustion.83 Thus, while the media almost invariably labels these fires “devastating”,84 expert opinion acknowledges that the conservation of species diversity is “at least partly dependent” on burning.85 But these caveats were muted by the popular debate that raged after the millennial conflagration in Cape Town.

Most salient to our concerns here is the changing place accorded to aliens in arguments about the connection of fire to fynbos – not to mention in the politics and the perceptions that inform them. True, it has long been said that certain imports burn more intensely than Cape Flora, which is itself quite flamma- ble. But foreign vegetation was, in the past, only one of several factors held to produce fires of distinct kinds, scale, and effects. One authoritative report,86 for example, does not even discuss invasive plants; van Rensberg’s more recent popular guide to fynbos lists exotics only at the very end of a diverse list of possible combustible agents.87 As we have seen, not even the public discourse after the fires of 2000 alighted immediately on aliens. When it did, however, they became a burning preoccupation.

Not everybody blamed them. But dissenting voices were drowned out as the dialectic of disaster gained momentum. One view attributed the conflagration to global climatic change. It was given remar- kably short shrift;88 this, tellingly, was a calamity that seemed to demand an explanation grounded in lo- cal contingencies. Another line of argument was to be read in the Afrikaans press which, while it reported the same events, dealt with them rather differently. Indicative, here, was the stance of Die Bur- ger, major organ of the New National Party, which held a majority in the Cape provincial parliament. While the paper did say note experts blamed aliens for the blaze, it glossed the whole event as indictment of the ANC regime, of its inefficiency in government, its inability to deliver emergency services, its wanton neglect of the Cape, and so on.89

Such, of course, were divisions among more or less enfranchised fractions of the population; aside from echoing party political oppositions, they gave voice to the kinds of tension that often arise in post- colonies between regionalism and national governance. But many others were altogether excluded from the public debate. For some of them, alien plants had another significance altogether. We refer to the large numbers of poor and unemployed of the Peninsula – in particular, those living in informal settle- ments.

Squatter “camps” have loomed ever larger in the Cape metropolitan area since the late apartheid years. During those years, migrants to the city resisted forced removal to impoverished “homelands” and, in so doing, brought the savagery of the ruling regime to the attention of the world. Africans have long felt unwelcome in the Western Cape, which has long been predominantly the preserve of whites and co- loureds. But, since the transition, black in-migration has become a veritable flood. Informal communities have burgeoned along national roads and on mountain sides, many in close proximity to healthy populations of combustible alien trees – like the Australian rooikrans (acacia cyclops), fuel of choice for the braaivleis (“barbecue”), a key rite of white South African commensality.

What is extraordinary about many recent migrants to the Cape is the degree to which their lives are provisioned by alien timber.90 Unelectrified settlements in the hollowed-out bush comprise row upon row of square houses, most of them built of slim, laterally-laid logs of rooikrans and other Australian wattles. Threading between these abodes walk women and children, heads piled high with kindling of “imported” provenance; the search for fuel is a permanent feature of the lives of squatters, wherever they reside. Along the roadsides men sell small bundles of braai wood to commuters, the vast majority of them white and middle class, as they travel to leafy suburbs or the fynbos coast. Used in domestic food fests, these aliens, condemned in public, are, in private, the stuff of a hallowed cultural practice.91

Not surprising, then, that the first reaction to the blaze of wood vendor Thami Mandlana – one of only squatter camp residents interviewed by the press at the time – was to exclaim that “the price of logs will soar this month!”92 He was right. The cost of a bundle of rooikrans went up 50% after the fire. But its longer-term implications for these woodcutters was more alarming. Mandlana again:

[L]ots of people…cut wood around here and now there won’t we enough to go around. Our hearts are sore because of this fire …This is our only livelihood and now we hardly have any left.

This is the other face of the story of alien vegetation in the Western Cape. That vegetation has long been an integral part of the local economy – the underclass part, which is all but invisible to the more fortunate who touch its roadside edges. But in the postcolony, where wealth is ever more polarized and state provi- sion is largely absent, it is a vital part; a recent survey of “people’s plants” estimates the value of rooi- krans as fuel wood in the Cape at R30m p.a.93 But this touches hardly at all on the interests of those for whom aliens have become anathema, those by whom they are seen to jeopardize the future of a shared natural, national heritage. Where, in fact, imported flora does feed mainstream commerce, those who publicize its dangers have run into difficulty: Guy Preston (see n.7, 18), quoted as having blamed huge forests of non-indigenous trees for exacerbating floods in poverty-stricken Mpumalanga – where giant logging corporations are major employers – was later prompted to “clarify” his remarks. He went to some lengths to acknowledge that the planting of these forests was “usually acceptable”, that it provided much needed jobs and yielded foreign currency.94 The discourse of invasive aliens clearly has its limits. Still, as we shall see further, its ideological scope has become strikingly broad, encompassing the integrity and regeneration of the nation-state itself.

As Preston’s “clarification” makes plain, scholarly experts find themselves playing a delicate role as the drama of alien-nature has caught fire, fanned by an avid press. With the conservation of “natural heritage” being sucked deeper and deeper into a space of intense public passion, botanists are invoked as never before, their work taken to be a matter of urgent national import. But, as their findings become the stuff of political mobilization, nuances – like the fact that not all imported plants are aggressive invaders – are lost. To wit, polite protest to the media has added little subtlety to the escalating excitement.95

How has this ideological inflation occurred? To what anxieties, interests, emotions does it respond?

Aliens and the African Renaissance.

Until a few years back, the term “alien” had rather archaic connotations in South Africa, enshrined in laws – like the Aliens Act (1937) and Aliens Registration Act (1939) – which aimed to prevent an in- flux of European refugees prior to World War 2. This legislation remained largely intact until the 1990s,96 when “aliens” once again become a charged political issue, now in the “new” South Africa. It was at about the same time that foreign plants took on fresh salience; that they became both the subject of ecological emergency and an object of national renewal.97 Perhaps the most telling evidence of this was the Working for Water Programme (WFW), launched in 1995 by then Minister of Water Affairs and Fo- restry, Kader Asmal. Part of the post-apartheid government’s Reconstruction and Development initiative, the scheme centered squarely on the eradication of alien vegetation. Billed as a flagship public works project to create jobs and combat poverty, the Programme envisaged twenty years of bush clearing, at a cost of R600m p.a. Its tone was urgent: “[Alien plants] are similar to a health epidemic, spreading widely out of control”, declared the WFW home page;98 laws would be promulgated to prosecute landowners who failed to curb non-indigenous flora. Concerted intervention would not merely restore the productive potential of the land. It would also invest in “the most marginalised” sectors of South African society, thus to promote social equity. Unemployed women and youth, ex-offenders, even the homeless would be rehabilitated by joining alien eradication teams, and by working in industries that made invaders into marketable products. Meanwhile, the general public was exhorted not to buy or sell foreign plants – and to inform the authorities of anyone who encouraged their spread.

Alien-nature, in other words, was to become the raw material of communal rebirth. At first, the scheme met with mixed success. Financing eradication units in any sustained fashion proved difficult, al- though stirring pictures of the formerly unemployed hacking away at unwanted foreign growth appeared in the media. In July 1997, the Cape Argus reported that Minister Asmal had been “given the brush-off” by the Cape Metropolitan Council, which refused to fund the clearing of invasive plants on Table Mountain.99 Efforts to pass legislation were equally controversial: proposals to introduce levies on “water interception” (a.k.a. rainfall) and “alien seed pollution” drew strong protest from the forestry industry.100 But, while the eradication plan was made to “tread water” for a year or two, public anxiety about invasive species became ever more audible.

Thus, by the time the apocalyptic fires broke out in January 2000, there was no half-heartedness about attacking the alien. Ukuvuka, Operation Firestop, was launched within days of the blaze, and media and corporate sponsors stepped in to bolster the Working for Water Programme.101 Even the powerful Forestry Owners Association, formerly on “collision course” with the Programme, came to an uneasy compromise about clearing foreign flora from river banks.102 With popular feeling ever more sharply fo- cused on attacking the “scourge”, public commentators seemed intent on coaxing “a spirit of communi- ty”103 from the ashes. A newly elected Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry put it succinctly:104

The fire has united us all. All key stakeholders – the authorities, the commercial interests, the landowners and the general public – now can come together to ensure that we are never again placed at such risk. And the key to it all is the clearing of these alien plants…

There now appeared to be widespread faith in the fact that a purge of foreign flora had “huge potential for job creation”, itself a nation-making priority here. The Director of the Botanical Society of South Africa took the occasion to suggest that the “environmental sector” deserved 15% of the proceeds of that neoliberal substitute for the commonweal, the National Lottery.105 A national Water Week and Hack Day would soon follow, with special newspaper supplements illustrating the most offensive aliens, calling on the public at large to report those who harbored them, and appealing, in the name of patriotism, for recruits to voluntary hack groups.106

As time went by, politicians made ever more overt connections between the war against aliens and the collective prosperity of the nation. A symposium to discuss international cooperation in the control of invasive species, held in Cape Town a month after the blaze (see above), drew no less than four govern- ment ministers, one bearing a message from the state president. “We are all in this together”, pleaded the Minister for Water Affairs, “for alien species do not respect lines drawn on maps”. 107Global trade and tourism, it was noted, had created a class of “unwanted international travelers” like foreign flora and dis- ease-bearing insects.108 But the most portentous words of all were those of President Mbeki himself: Alien plants, he avowed, “stand in the way of the African renaissance”.109


And so, in rhetoric that both mirrored and magnified the public mood, invading plants become em- broiled in the state of the nation. But this does not yet answer the questions we posed a moment ago: To what anxieties, interests, historical conditions does the allegory of alien-nature, the allegory fed by fire and flood, finally speak? What underlies the ideological inflation which began with the burning bush, went on to inflame patriotic passions, and has flared so fiercely as to endanger the African renaissance? An answer is to be found in a cluster of implicit associations and organic intuitions that, as they surfaced into the public sphere, gave insight into the infrastructure of popular consciousness-under-construction; in particular, into the way in which processes of naturalization made it possible to speak the unspeakable, to assail the unassailable, thus to deal with the contradictions inherent in the making of postcolonial na- tionhood under post-1989 conditions. Also to deal with the sense of apprehension that seems accompany it in this age of global flow, of borders at once open and closed, of people unavoidably on the move, of irreducible social and cultural difference, of compromised politics, of a shrinking commonweal.

Take this comment by a well-known newspaper columnist, satirist, and self-confessed cynic:110

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 is…Behind its blossoms and its splendid boughs, the jacaranda is nothing but a water-hogging…weed-spreading alien.

As naturalized immigrants, plant imports used, in the past, to grace the nation. The jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia) as “almost…South Africa’s national tree”.111 Now, in a bizarre drama in which flora signify what politics struggles to name, they are objects of estrangement, even racination; this in a land obsessed with who is or not a citizen, with constitutional rights and wrongs, with routing out all vestiges of racism from within the body politics, not least in the liberal press.112 A second columnist made this yet more ex- plicit in speaking of the “ethnic cleansing” of the South African countryside. For centuries, she wrote, people enjoyed the shade of oaks, the smell of roses – aliens all. Now, “floundering in the complacency of democracy”, they blame all evil on those very aliens.113 But it was a wry letter to the Mail & Guardian, perhaps South Africa’s most distinguished weekly, that made the political subtext most brutally plain.114

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?

For this interpolated alien, himself under no illusions, the allusions are obvious. They flow from the natu- ralization of xenophobia. Barely displaced in the kingdom of plants is a distressingly familiar crusade: the demonization of migrants and refugees by the state and its citizenry alike.

It has been noted that the migrant, and more recently the asylum seeker, is the “specter” on whose wretched fate the triumphal neoliberal politics of the “new” Europe has been founded (see n.42). In South Africa too, a phobia about foreigners, above all from elsewhere in Africa, has been the illicit offspring of the fledgling democracy – waxing, paradoxically perhaps, alongside appeals to the African Renaissance and to ubuntu, a common African humanity. That this is occurring among a people themselves familiar with exile, who in the past lived reasonably peaceably with in-migrating labor, seems all the more ironic – and all the more in need of explanation. Of late, the phobia, which started out as a diffuse sense of misgiving, has congealed into an active antipathy to what is perceived as a shadowy alien-nation of “illegal immigrants”; the qualifier has become all but inseparable from the sign, just as, in the plant world, invasive has become locked, adjectivally, to alien. Popularly held to be “economic vultures”115who usurp jobs and resources, who foster crime, prostitution and disease, these doppelganger anticitizens are accused – in uncanny analogy with non-indigenous flora – of spreading wildly out of control. And of siphoning off the rapidly diminishing wealth of the nation.116

Aliens are a distinctive species in the popular imagination. In a parodic perversion of the past, they are marked ineluctably by skin color and “native” culture. This is most dramatically revealed, as such things often are, at moments of mistaken identity – when South Africans are themselves thought to be outsiders and treated accordingly. Like the national volleyball star, apprehended by police because she looked too dark, or the son of a former exile, arrested eight times over the past few years because his “fa- cial structure” and accent marked him as foreign.117 Once singled out, “illegals” are seldom differentiated from bona fide immigrants or refugees.118 All are referred to as makwerekwere, a disparaging Sotho term for incompetent speech – and, by implication, for exclusion from the moral community.

Their fears are well-founded. With the relaxation of controls over immigrant labor, previously se- cured by intergovernmental agreements and electrified borders,119 South Africa has become the destination of choice for unprecedented numbers of people from troubled countries to the north; estimates vary from two to eight million.120 This influx has occurred amidst transformations in the domestic econo- my that have significantly altered relations of labor to capital.121 Not only has drastic downsizing, euphemized as “jobless growth”, cost some 500,000 jobs in the past five years, most of them held by blacks;122 even more noteworthy, over 80% of employers now opt for flexible, “non-standard” labor,123 much of it done by lowly paid, non-unionized “illegals”, whom farmers and industrialists see as essential to their survival in competitive markets.124 Small wonder, then, that unemployment is a ubiquitous an- xiety; that it is seen as a major impediment to postcolonial prosperity; that routing the alien,125 who has come to embody the threat to work and welfare, presents itself as a persuasive mode of confronting economic dispossession.

Thus it is that foreigners – in particular, black foreigners – are the object of consternation and con- testation across the new nation, from politicians and their parties, through the media and trade-unions, to street hawkers and the unemployed.126 In September 1998, a crowd returning by train from Pretoria, where they had been protesting the loss of work, threw three makwerekwere to their deaths for purpor- tedly stealing jobs.127 A few months later came reports of a gang of hoodlums in Johannesburg dedicated to the “systematic elimination” of aliens.128 Immigrants and their property have regularly been attacked by local communities, forced into “ghettos”, criminalized and scapegoated.129 A survey conducted in 1997 by the South African Migration Project, under the aegis of the Institute for Democracy, ranked the hostility of South Africans toward newcomers as one of the highest in the world. So acute is it that the Human Rights Commission has launched a “Roll-back Xenophobia Campaign” and various agencies of government are actively supporting cultural projects aimed at combating discrimination against out- siders.130

Yet the state is itself an ambiguous actor in this drama. On one hand, it strives volubly to uphold the standards of liberal universalism, insisting on the uncompromising protection of human rights; on the other, it sometimes contributes, wittingly or not, to the mood of xenophobia. Thus its law enforcement agencies have been unable to resist the temptation of attacking the foreign specter. As its ability to main- tain public order has increasingly been questioned, the Ministry of Safety and Security has grown propor- tionately more active in its war on non-citizens: while anxiety about invasive plants was escalating in the opening weeks of 2000, government announced its “US-style bid to rid SA of illegal aliens” (see above, n.20) and to penalize those who knowingly employed them. The parallel could not have been more clear. Not long after, police around the country carried out high profile raids on “gentlemen’s clubs” suspected of trafficking in undocumented sexworkers.131 Onslaughts on “illegals” in show business, the media, and the music industry followed.132 Then, within weeks, the Minister of Safety and Security personally initia- ted a “blitz” in Johannesburg on strongholds of immigrant business, vowing to “thoroughly ventilate all criminal elements and illegal immigrants out”.133 Senior police in Pretoria followed suit. Panic ensued as some 14,000 people were searched, over 1,000 arrested134 and, despite their protests, “honest, taxpaying citizens” were humiliated in the streets and in taxis.135 Reports reminiscent of the apartheid era told of violence on the sidewalks where refugees, desperate for documentation, camped outside the Home Af- fairs Department. Foreign nationals, held at a privately-owned deportation center, were said to have been harshly beaten, their property looted.136

Then began the reaction: amidst accusations of excess, respected commentators maintained that the clamp down had seriously backfired, putting human rights at risk. They and others voiced urgent calls for a more adequate, enforceable immigration policy.137 Meanwhile, suspicion started to surface, just as it did in the case of invasive plants, that the zeal for weeding out aliens was misplaced. Why this harassment of strangers? asked one “appalled citizen”. It was not as if they were guilty of the “rape, murder, hijacking and bank robberies” that South Africans were perpetrating on each other.138 The answer seems plain, at least to Steven Friedman, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg.139 Arresting “illegal” immigrants may do “nothing to reduce crime”. But it does create “the impression of activity and effectiveness” on the part of government, an illusion “often as important as reality”. Here, in short, is an instance of precisely the kind of symbolic activity of which we spoke ear- lier; of the mass-mediated ritual excess, directed to producing state power and national unity, that features so prominently in the second postcolonial age. It appears to work. According to a Human Sciences Research Council poll, notes Friedman, most citizens believed, in December 1998, that the regime had lost its capacity to contain crime and to assure public order. Now some 60% think that it actually does have some control – despite no change in the incidence of serious felonies.


Geschiere and Nyamnjoh140 argue that the growing stress in Africa on autochthony – and, conco- mitantly, on the exclusion of the allogène, the stranger – departs in important respects from older ontolo- gies of being, belonging, and difference; most notably from ethnicity, with which it shares many features, among them a capacity to arouse strong affect and to justify the construction of unambiguous social boundaries. Autochthony, they suggest, is less specific, more protean in its substance, and thus more readily open to political manipulation on many levels at once; not least in reaction to the kinds of social and economic processes set in motion by “seemingly open-ended global flows”. Yet more may be said about its salience as a naturalizing allegory of collective being-in-the-world; also about its salience as a motor of collective action. But it is undeniable that, in post-apartheid South Africa, outrage against aliens has provided a versatile call to arms, uniting people long divided by class, color, and culture: it is enthusiastically mobilized by those who seek to conjure a new nation not merely by bridging familiar antinomies but by erecting finite frontiers under conditions that, by all appearances, threaten to dissolve them altogether. And, with them, the coordinates of material and moral community. We have spelled out those conditions. They lie in the particular historical circumstances of postcolonial nation-states at the close of the twentieth century, of their absorption into a global capitalist economy whose neoliberal ways and means have altered Fordist patterns of production and consumption, the articulation of labor to capital, the nature of sovereignty and civic identity, geographies of space and time, and much else be- sides. Hence the insistence earlier on situating our understanding of those nation-states not in a comfortable sociology of ideal-types, but in the hard-edged specificities of their second, post-1989 coming.

Here, then, lies one theme in the theoretical counterpoint that animates this essay: the conceptuali- zation of postcolonial polities. It is beyond our present scope to “theorize” those polities – whatever that might mean at this moment in the history of Western social thought. However, because of the manner of their insertion into world history, we have argued, they evince three notable features. Each is an intensifi- cation of the predicament of the contemporary nation-state sui generis, each a corollary of the changing face of capitalism, all of them interconnected. The first is the transfiguration of the modernist political subject: a move away from a sense of belonging in a homogeneously imagined community of right-bear- ing individuals towards one in which difference is endemic and irreducible, in which the polity subsumes persons with a range of diversely constituted identities and entitlements; from a stress on citizenship based on “deep horizontal fraternity” to which all other connections are secondary toward one in which each national is a “stakeholder” vertically rooted, like homegrown plants in soil, in a body corporate; from a notion that attachment may be acquired equally by ascription, residence, immigration, and naturalization toward the primacy of autochthony, making it the most “authentic”, the most essential of all modes of connection. The second is the contradictory logic of sovereign borders: the simultaneous necessity that they be open to various forms of flow – of finance, workers, commodities, consumers, infra- structure – and yet enclaved enough both to offer competitive advantage for global enterprise and to serve the material interests of a national citizenry; in other words, to husband the kinds of difference, the kinds of distinction between the local and the nonlocal, from which transnational capital may profit and rich nations protect their spheres of influence. The third is the depoliticization of politics, their displacement from the realm of the social and the cultural, the moral and ideological, into the technical, apparently value-free dictates of the market – and its attendant forms of economic and legal “rationality”. Also into the imperatives of nature, however those come to be constructed, disseminated, taken-for- granted.

Put these things together, and the moral panic about strangers becomes overdetermined. Take human aliens. Their very existence embodies the contradiction of borders and boundaries in the age of global capital. On one hand, by crossing those borders they import value into the heart of the polity, be it as cheap, manageable labor for agribusiness or industry, as traders who undersell indigenous merchants to the advantage of local consumers, as people with skills in short supply, or whatever. On the other, they are held to take away jobs and benefits from nationals, to undercut the struggles of local workers, to bring contagion, and, by trafficking in drugs, bodies and contraband, to commit the kinds of crime that unravel the social fabric itself. Moreover, their presence raises difficult questions about the changing nature of political citizenship in the postcolony: given that South Africa, like other nation-states, fe- tishizes human rights – rights, that is, which transcend parochial identities and borders of all kinds – should outsiders not enjoy them like any autochthon? What precisely ought to separate the entitlements of the citizen from those of any other human being? On what basis is discrimination against foreigners justified in a society dedicated to “nonracism”, in a nascent national culture that speaks the language of ubuntu, a common Africanity? Taking into account the apotheosis of the free market, why should strangers be the target of local protectionism? This, in sum, is where the liberal ideology of universal inclusion runs up against a politics of exclusion whereby identity is mobilized to create “closed” spheres of interest within “open” neoliberal economies. Note here, too, the depoliticization of politics in the treatment of the alien-as-specter, of their displacement into a technicist discourse about demography and economic sociology, about health and disease, about social pathology and criminality.

Much the same may be said of alien vegetation. We have seen how that vegetation may, simulta- neously, be one person’s livelihood and another’s apocalypse. The passage across frontiers, among plants as among people, illuminates all the contradictions of openness and closure, of regulation and deregula- tion, of otherness and indigenization: Is the jacaranda, “almost the national tree”, a naturalized South Af- rican? Or a hateful interloper? The fact that it has become the subject of ironic comment about subliminal racism and ethnic cleansing – something almost unthinkable a short while ago – makes clear how much the concern with borders, belonging, autochthony, and alien-nation has imploded in very recent times. It is, of course, but a short step to posing the same questions about humans. Who, exactly, is a South Afri- can? As this suggests, the transference into the floral kingdom of profoundly political questions is a dra- matic instance of the process of depoliticization of which we have spoken. While there is no doubt that real issues of ecology are raised by the effect of imported vegetation on fire and flood – as we have said, their gravity is not to be underestimated – the effort to construct a nation with reference to a rhetoric of exclusion, a rhetoric validated by appeal to the apparent value-free exigencies of botany and the environ- mental sciences, is a cogent instance of naturalization. To which, now, we return.

Before that, however, a parenthetic remark. Self-evidently, South Africa is not alone in its obses- sion with aliens and alien-nature. Earlier we noted that many countries, some of them postcolonies some not, are caught up in similar moral panics. These nation-states share a common feature: all are former la bor importers and centers of capital – and, as such, nexes of wealth within a vastly unequal world economy – into which job-seekers and fortune hunters are popularly imagined to be pouring, usually across ill- regulated borders, in order to take scarce work and resources away from locals. This standardized night- mare evokes exactly the same anxieties as those to which we have alluded in South Africa. It has his- torical precedents, as we all know. Similar panics about immigration and belonging, about inclusion and exclusion, have characteristically occurred at the close of imperial epochs, when people from former “overseas possessions” have sought entry to the “mother country” only to find themselves barred, as colonial subjects, from citizenship – and from the sovereign benefits that accrued to it.

But this leaves one remaining topic not yet resolved: Why nature? Here lies the other strand of our theoretical argument. It concerns naturalization. Central to our analysis are the claims (a) that the apoca- lyptic fire in Cape, under-determined by the proximate events themselves, became the lightning rod for a panic about non-indigenous vegetation, a panic (b) which crystallized inchoate fears about alien-nature, named them, and called them into the heart of public consciousness; (c) that this is owed, overdetermin- edly, to the fact that the anxiety concerning foreign flora, while real enough in and of itself, was, at the same time, also a metonymic projection of more deep-seated questions facing the postcolonial state about the nature of its sovereign borders, about the right to citizenship within it, about the meaning and the pas- sion inherent in national belonging – and, in particular, about the tendency to invoke autochthony in ans- wering those questions, both pragmatically and figuratively.

This is where naturalization enters the picture. Recall that classically, as we noted, it has had two contrary connotations. One is the assimilation of alien persons, signs, and practices into a world-in-place; its prototype is the metamorphosis of outlanders into citizens of the liberal nation-state. The other, whose genealogy stretches from Marx through Gramsci to Foucault, is the deployment of nature as alibi, as a fertile allegory for rendering some people and objects strange, thereby to authenticate the limits of the (“natural”) order of things; also to interpolate within it new social and political distinctions. It is tempting, in the South African case, to invoke yet another connotation – one owed to Durkheim – according to which processes in nature are taken to be a direct reflection of processes in society. Some local commentators did just this, as we have seen, finding in the panic about invasive plants a mirror for the angst about immigrants. But such a reading of the events in question is insufficient. Nature is every- where more directly, more dynamically implicated in the social practices by which history and ideology make each other. The unfolding controversy about indigenous plants and alien-nature became the vehicle for a public debate, as yet unfinished, over the proper constitution of the polity, over the limits of belonging, over the terms in which the nation, the commonweal, and the stakeholding subject are to be constituted in the age of global capitalism and universal human rights. In so doing, it permitted a vocalization of anxieties and conundrums not easily addressed by politics-as-usual. Even more, the dis- placement of the argument about outsiders into the floral kingdom made it possible, by analogy, to contemplate and legitimate discrimination against those humans not embraced in the body of the nation, those cast adrift on the currents of the new world order. And sanctioned, albeit unwittingly, a new, post- racist form of racism; a form of racism that, by concealing itself in the language of autochthony and alien-nature, has come to co-exist seamlessly with a transnational culture of universal rights.

As this implies, discourses of nature cast a sharp light on the everyday actions and events through which definitions of belonging and citizenship – and their dark underside, the politics of exclusion – are being reframed in the postcolony. In particular, they illuminate the question of why it is that autochthony – a form of attachment that ties people to place, that natures the nation, that authorizes entitlement – has become so central in an epoch when nationhood seems at once critical and yet in crisis, when borders everywhere present themselves as paradoxes, when a beleaguered political imagination strives to make sense of social being in a world of laissez faire.

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