Towards African Unity



In May 2008, forty-one migrants from other African countries and twenty-one South African citizens mistaken for foreigners were killed by agitated mobs in various parts of the country. Scores were injured physically and scarred emotionally, hundreds of shops were looted, and tens of thousands of displaced persons sought shelter in churches and police stations or returned to their home countries.

Heribert Adam and Kogila Moodley in their book Imagined Liberation: Xenophobia, Citizenship and Identity in South Africa, Germany and Canada

May 2008 signalled the intensification from verbally expressed antagonism against black Africans in South Africa to large-scale acts of violence that included rape, murder, and the looting of shops and homes. More than any other event in recent South African history, May 2008 came to represent the way black South Africa is responding to what it perceives as an unappreciated act of intrusion.

In April 2015, Operation Fiela, which can be loosely translated as “sweep out the dirt”, was launched by the South African Police Service. The campaign was criticised as a government-led attempt to use the law to perpetuate xenophobic acts against poor vulnerable black migrants in impoverished neighbourhoods.

These two events are a small window into the horrors endured by many black African migrants in South Africa. Taking these events as a point of departure, this text tries to formulate a response to the following question: How do people come to form such unanimous and blatantly hateful perceptions of the “other”? Why do people who arguably fear the consequences of declining resources, high unemployment, poverty and hunger choose the equally poor and disadvantaged black foreigner as the source of their social ills and insecurities?


Today the throwaway people we focus on are deemed “foreign” because their bodies are marked as such. They can be identified because they are rendered visible—their difference is marked on their bodies, through phenotype. It is the reading of identity as clearly embodied, through pigmentation, that allows for the categorisation of who belongs to South Africa and who [does] not. This bodily badge, codified as “very darkness”, the “excess” of melanin, hankers after the language of race science, apartheid and white supremacy. Its agents are Black and White. This is an important distinction no matter how glossed over it was in the media. It is not simply xenophobia but specifically negrophobic in character. No one is attacking wealthy German, British or French foreigners in Camps Bay or anywhere else . . . What makes [the attacks] unthinkable is the clear value and whiteness of the safe European versus the disposability and Blackness of the brutalised African “foreigner”.

Pumla Gqola in her essay “Brutal Inheritances: Echoes, Negrophobia and Masculinist Violence”

Adopting a decolonial approach to the phenomenon of xenophobic violence, I am here presenting a set of notes towards a decolonial analysis of the impact of Eurocentric frameworks and epistemologies on Africa’s relationship with itself. These notes are incomplete by default; they form the starting point of a decolonial project aimed at dismantling the coloniality of being in Africa.

In this context, my main focus will be on the process of “othering” as it is experienced by black African migrants in South Africa. My contention is that the relevance of subjective experiences cannot be overemphasised, and should not take a backseat in the decolonial project. Like other political and economic decolonial projects, the decolonisation of being and identity should be integral to our emancipation from the ramifications of modernity and the imperial designs that still pervade the everyday lived experiences of the subaltern. Frantz Fanon’s claim that subjective experiences are deep indications of collective problems informs my own methodological approach and framework.

In the decolonial struggle against the Eurocentric/Euro-American elevation of Western ideals as normative and superior, the epistemic mission is to forge new categories of thought, construct new subjectivities and create new modes of being and becoming. This mission is necessary because the colonial matrix of power has widely infiltrated every institution and every arena of African life: social, political, spiritual and cognitive.

Its impact is widespread and is felt in ways that are both visible and invisible. “Othering” in South Africa, especially in the xenophobic sense, takes many forms, both overt and covert. Presenting a critical discussion about its genesis and root causes, I want to suggest that, among other colonial legacies, the effect of the psychological experience of colonisation manifests in the form of an inferiority complex. This complex is driven by the fear of the “other”, often synonymous with the fear of the “black man”, and is the result of the systematic negative representation of black people by a colonially infused modernity. Consequently, a decolonial lens insists on the interrogation of the legacies of Western hegemonic structures and demands a delinking from Western constructions of difference, originating within Western patterns of modernity. Western modernity appeals to the Euro-Christian, Western-civilised imaginary, which is largely based on the categorisation of the “other” as barbarian, as primitive, as inferior.

My discussion draws on the South African experience, following political independence and the postcolonial nation-building project, which included the setting up of Western-informed borders. The central argument of this text is that African migrants in South Africa are faced with alienation and exclusion as a result of several structural factors that are deeply rooted in a long history of the coloniality of power. My discussion is divided into three parts; “Western modernity and coloniality”, “In South Africa, black is still the old black”, and “Subaltern agency: options and alternatives”.


According to Nelson Maldonado Torres and other decolonial thinkers, coloniality survives colonialism. Despite the explicit abolishment of colonialism’s political order, coloniality manages to remain the most pervasive form of domination. The abolishment of the colonial political order therefore does not translate into the elimination of the conditions and modes of exploitation championed by colonialism. Colonialism denotes a complex political and economic relation in which the sovereignty of a nation or a people rests on the power of another country. Coloniality, on the other hand, refers to a longstanding power pattern that emerged as a result of colonialism, and that has persisted long after it.

During the colonial period, (Western) modernity forged a very particular intellectual agenda, propagating a singular European view of history rooted in the idea of progress. This worldview glorified the “core” and negatively represented the “periphery” as traditional/primitive/backwards, in some cases writing peripheral others out of history altogether. The arrival of modernity radically altered the nature of day-to-day social interactions and affected the most personal aspects of experiences, effecting nothing less than a transformation of self. This confluence between the projects of coloniality and modernity was not accidental, in Quijano’s view. The European paradigm of rational knowledge was elaborated in binary opposition to non-Western epistemologies, which were deemed “irrational”.

One of my main concerns here is the concept of the nation-state, as it is derived from the legacy of Western modernity and coloniality, and its role in forging nationalism and a collective identity in Africa. The primacy given to the “national” category stems from the recognition that nation-states, as they existed in post-feudal Europe, were the arch boundary-keepers and containers of growing social existential pressures and anxieties about the “other”.

A large body of literature surrounds the formation of the nation-state, as both a political and a cultural project in which a nationalised society was established with modern institutions of citizenship and political democracy. In detailing, for example, Latin America’s experiences with the nation-state, Quijano argues that nation-states were erected for the purpose of coercing diverse and dispersed forms of social existence into a single articulated totality. These power dynamics ensured the imposition of certain groups upon others. This process, with its promotion of Eurocentric institutions, was central to modernity and did not allow for a more organic arrangement of political organisations and identity formations to unfold.

Those institutions generally referred to as postcolonial structures were inherited from the colonial past to satisfy a discriminatory agenda that continues to promote socially discriminatory categories now codified as “racial”, “ethnic”, anthropological or, importantly, “national”. In Quijano’s account, the nation-state was specifically intended to work against the majority of the population: Indians, blacks, mestizos. Conveniently, homogenising a diverse group created a favourable environment for capitalist ventures. Structural dependence required the emergence of fixed single identities for diverse peoples so that these consolidated new identities could be better articulated for specific forms of work (and control).

These insights from Latin America help us to understand Fanon’s assertion that, in the African context, unity can only be achieved through the upward thrust of the people and under the leadership of the people—that is to say, in defiance of the interests of the bourgeoisie. Consequently, the reification of the nation-state within the African experience can be seen as an act of authority and power that largely depends on current global relationships, which feign unity in pursuit of the economic benefits of the homogenization of society. Fanon’s famous chapter on this subject in The Wretched of the Earth (1963), “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness”, highlights the effects of the European fruits of colonialism, including the idea of the nation-state, on African unity.

The subjective emotional inclination to antagonise the “foreigner” is born within the hollows of nationality left behind by colonialism. Modernity’s enforcement of social organisation through categories such as nationalism (which encompasses race and ethnicity) has produced a host of problems around the notion of identity, with communities separated both by colonial borders and by social categories.

In relation to xenophobia, the acceptance of the Eurocentric ideology of nationalism as universal could be seen as one of Western modernity’s most devastating legacies in the postcolony. In the South African case, it is plausible to suggest that black South Africa presents itself as a united and indigenous citizenship in order to exclude the “other” on the basis of difference. The results are negative and exclusionary state practices and discourses that overwhelmingly shape the experiences of “foreign” African migrants in South Africa. The coloniality of power manifests itself by prohibiting any other path to collective identity, with local cultures and social orders considered unquestionably inferior to the Western model of the nation-state and shunned as obstacles that impede “progress”. However, in this time of unprecedented human mobility, the acceleration of cross-border migration cannot be stopped; as part of this process, the state repeatedly makes use of the differentiation between the “welcomed” group and the “unwelcomed” group, to consolidate its nationalist agenda.

The following section engages in a more rigorous discussion of this dynamic within the South African context, illuminating the characteristics and experiences of those who fall into the “unwelcomed” group.


The migrant worker in South Africa, legal or illegal—and often not white—has been the figure around whom shrill moral panics have regularly reverberated. The movement of skilled professionals and the affluent classes is perceived in a positive light. Migration, on the other hand, implicitly referring to the movement of unskilled and semi-skilled workers, refugees and asylum seekers, is a pejorative term in global politics. In this xenophobic view, whites are saviours and investors, Nigerians are criminals, Zimbabweans are troublemakers, Somalis are dirty foreigners, and so on.

South Africa’s previous socio-political context has laid the foundation for a divided and conflicted contemporary society. As with many other countries on the continent, the end of official colonisation did not usher in an independent democratic government, but rather established an oppressive and exploitative government that existed within a colonial/Western/white oppressive hegemonic agenda.

During apartheid, immigration legislation was used as a tool to maintain and reinforce barriers to the movement of black people on the basis of racial inferiority. The history of those oppressed by this system is complex, and one that is marred by the economic and psychological degradations inflicted by imperialism, even within the relationships among the oppressed. Here, again, it is important to evoke Fanon on the issue of how black people perceive themselves in a colonial setting. Given the way the South African state is dealing with black African migrants, it appears that black South Africans are aligning themselves with the values and practices of the Occident, thereby reinforcing an ideology that perpetuates the notion of black lives as disposable, and affirming a hierarchy of cultures in which the Occident affirms its own superiority.

There are several hypotheses explaining the factors that lead to a xenophobic climate. Perhaps the most influential among them are the isolation hypothesis, the scapegoating hypothesis, and the biocultural hypothesis. The isolation thesis claims that xenophobia is a consequence of South Africa’s isolation from the international arena prior to the 1994 elections. The scapegoating thesis emphasises the popular rhetoric that foreigners are behind the issues of limited resources and poverty. The biocultural thesis builds on the former thesis by explaining the rise of profiling techniques, including the use of physical and cultural markers of appearance to further the xenophobic agenda.

However, in terms of a decolonial analysis that links Africa’s history with its colonial legacy, these hypotheses fail to adequately account for the experiences of coloniality. Just like the coloniality of power and the coloniality of knowledge, the coloniality of being plays a crucial role in this context because of its capacity to make parts of humanity invisible. It allows for the widely held perception that, for instance, death itself was never an extraordinary affair among the colonised and those racialised into non-beings, but rather a constitutive feature of life. The concept of the coloniality of being reinvokes Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, which discusses the idea of black people as condemned people whose being amounts to a kind of “nothingness”.

African unity has always been threatened by the colonial matrix of power, which translates difference into a value system and links the oppressed, the black body, to moral panic and deviance. In an interesting way, South Africa’s alignment with Western ideologies in dealing with the “foreign” recalls the West Indians described in Fanon’s “Towards the African Revolution”. Perhaps South Africa and other African countries working along a similar trajectory should heed the caution evoked by this story. In Fanon’s narrative, the West Indian subject earnestly strived to situate himself in relation to the European, doing his utmost to avoid being considered black, being considered Negro. Before 1939, Fanon writes, the West Indian would endear himself to the Europeans with the following assurance: “Do not pay attention to my black skin, it’s the sun that has burned me, my soul is as white as yours.”

It is from this point of view that delinking from colonial thinking becomes absolutely necessary. Such a process of delinking involves turning towards those epistemologies existing outside the modern/colonial world. This vision of life and society would require decolonial subjects, decolonial knowledge and decolonial institutions that are aware of the power differentials, the imperial languages and the categories of thought that have exploited and battered the visibility of the black body.


Concepts such as “national culture” that are central to the study of social organisation presume a sense of social cohesion that simply does not reflect reality. Insofar as national modes of identification essentialise Africa and the concept of culture, they are not decolonial, since they do not allow for an equal recognition of alternative pathways to social organisation beyond the cultural-unification project, which values difference at the expense of the oppressed.

Drawing on historical experience and forging epistemic and socio-political disobedience, Javier Sanjines highlights the case of Brazil, where nationalist unification projects proposed a unity based not on the creation of a new civilization but on the elimination of an old civilization—the Sertanejo culture—and celebrated this move as modern. The very notion of “camaraderie” within a nation and across a continent, as promoted by imperial institutions, has succeeded in producing a divide between strong and weak forms of citizenship in Latin America and in Africa. In the case of Africa, according to Fanon, we observe a permanent seesaw unity, which fades quicker and quicker into oblivion, and a heart-breaking return to chauvinism in its most bitter and detestable form. A reconceptualisation of the “nation” located at the limits of Western temporality and history is therefore urgently needed.

The challenge today is finding an approach that is guided by an inclusive and decolonial process and that will be effective in dismantling the false universality of Eurocentric epistemologies and practices. There is still disagreement regarding what a “postmodern” decolonial epistemology would look like. Multiculturality, interculturality, postmodernism, postcolonialism and decoloniality have all revealed the inequalities inherent in the power relations that shape the global economic and socio-political landscape. However, of paramount importance is the need to revisit and decolonise coloniality itself, to address the construction of difference according to normative ideas of progress, and to debunk the exclusionary histories championed by Eurocentric Western narratives.

Postmodernism, for one, does not provide a viable alternative to modernity. Trapped within the confines of Eurocentrism, and striving still for universality, this approach ends up unable, or unwilling, to disavow Western epistemologies in favour of others. Manuela Boatca and Sergio Costa put it succinctly: “[P]ostmodernity retains a process that emerges from within and transmodernity demands a need to include moments in history that have been disparaged and/or never incorporated into the European version.”

On the other hand, postcolonialism strives to enhance historical contexts expose strategies of exclusion, and recognise tradition as a necessary discourse of modernity. Postcolonial concerns centre on the reconfiguration of the economic, social and political relationships that colonialism triggered in former colonies and metropoles. Where, for instance, poststructuralism aims to deconstruct, to make things visible, postcolonialism aims to break down the hegemony of coloniality, with its unequal power relations, in the hope of a new interculturality. It aims to underscore the undesirability of colonial power in clearer terms than both poststructuralism and postmodernism. However, postcolonialism has been criticised for reproducing asymmetric power relations under the guise of descriptive and politically neutral categories. Postcolonialism is arguably premised on an analytic approach that reifies the “centrisms” produced within a Eurocentric framework, attributing a pioneering role to the Western European model and so reducing the diversity of approaches to modernity.

It is my own contention that a viable decolonial approach needs to have transmodernity at its core. Not in the sense of future modernities, with certain geographical entities positioned as needing to “catch up” to the cultural situation in postmodern Europe and the United States. Rather, as an intuitive, organic and authentic cultural project championed by those falsely considered savage, uncivilised, inferior and underdeveloped, now seeking to get beyond the exteriority of modernity. The future of the global society should be hybrid, democratic and versatile.

In what remains, I want to elucidate how the concept of decoloniality provides a point of departure towards a decolonial society. According to Mignolo, decoloniality asks the question, “What are the connections between your body, biographically and geohistorically in the colonial matrix of power?” In responding to this question, the decolonial “option” offers an alternative that is precisely an option rather than an imperative—an option to be embraced by those who find within it a way to actively engage in and advance projects of epistemic and subjective decolonisation, and build a communal future.

The first step in decoloniality is delinking from coloniality: searching not for alternative modernities but for alternatives to modernity. Alternatives to modernity will lie in the construction of transmodern epistemologies, categories and institutions rather than in postmodern global futures. In light of this decolonial option, then, there needs to be an opening up of a plurality of epistemologies, within which Africa’s own knowledge of being, of mind and of nature can be recognised. This plurality will need to be chosen over structures that still largely embody European cultural and value systems detached from African cultural and value systems. This plurality is not easy to adapt to; hence, it is not an appropriate building block that the state can use as a “model” for creating institutions of social organisation.

As alluded to earlier, the concept of the coloniality of being has significance for pan-African unity. Perhaps the two most well-known pan-Africanists, Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere, showed how difficult it is to reach consensus on the roadmap to African unity, politically and otherwise. The enforcement of static national and group identities remain a significant contributor to chauvinistic national attitudes. Meanwhile, the construction of a unified national identity and equal access to service delivery within the Eurocentric premise of citizenship are some of the contributors to the structural exclusion and selective citizenship evident in many nation-states today, South Africa among them.

In response to the structural issues surrounding “unwelcomed” migration, gate-keepers of the nation-state are lined up, and a physical and/or symbolic border is drawn that continues to determine who is entitled to which protected spaces, adversely fuelling exclusion and othering. The spatial entitlements and boundaries of belonging that exist within the discourse of nationality make the process of forging an African unity difficult.

What, then, would a decolonial interrogation of the nation-state as a modern Eurocentric project look like?

• A decolonial approach would take the path of problematising the concepts and products of modernity, back-dated to their inception in colonialism, rather than only critiquing their current manifestations and consequences (as the dominant hypotheses surrounding xenophobia are wont to do).

• It would seek to replace the status quo rather than merely reform it. It would question the very origin of the status quo and its intentions, bearing in mind modernity’s status as a dehumanising and oppressive project against people of colour, who are classified as “other”, backward, in need of civilization.

• It would be ever cognisant of the fact that a large-scale erosion of cultures and identities took place to satisfy the Eurocentric project of domination.

• National modes of identification cannot be decolonial if they do not allow for other, more authentic and organic forms of social organisation. To some extent, the decolonial interrogation I am outlining here might be considered postmodern, since it situates the legitimacy of social organisation within the confines of modernity’s very particular socio-political project.

• An inclusive, indigenous process should be developed, devoted to denouncing the labels and categories used by Western epistemology to fulfil a subjugatory agenda.

• Finally, but not exhaustively, as Fanon articulated, successful emancipatory resistance is possible for oppressed races, peoples, nations and classes—at whatever level of economic, psychological and historic disadvantage and devastation. The first step is denouncing the reification both of racial/nationalist incarnations of virtue and of the colonised “other” as the embodiment of evil.


There is a great deal of uncertainty and acrimony in the way we understand the world, but also in the way we understand each other, in our different environments and cultural contexts. Mainstream Euro-American scientific knowledge has contributed significantly to this crisis.

Modernity and its numerous projects should not escape unscathed, given its ongoing imposition of a single Eurocentric model for the development of “modern society”. My aim with this text was to formulate an argument against national chauvinism, against the agenda of the European nation-state model, with its elaborate attempt to dominate and subjugate its designated “other”. In the process, I also interrogated and problematised the irony of categorising an African on African soil a “foreigner”.


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Derin is a Master’s student in global studies at the University of Cape Town, fascinated with uncovering old historical narratives about the African continent and committed to examining the effects of institutional culture on students at historically white universities. She enjoys reading, cooking and dancing, and in general finding ways to truly experience life outside academia.