Does legal citizenship actually make one a South African?

Does legal citizenship actually make one a South African?
Some days ago a Congolese national who is a naturalised citizen of South Africa told me that his newly acquired South African citizenship did not make him feel “really” South African.

He told me that even though, technically, he is a South African citizen, South Africans perceive him as a “foreigner” due to his foreign origin. His surname, accent and inability to fluently speak an indigenous South African language made him automatically categorised as “other”.

Such daily encounters engendered in him a sense of alienation from the South African community.

The daily experience of my Congolese friend mirrors the realities of so many foreign nationals in the country.

Particularly black African nationals tend to be “othered” as outsiders whether they are refugees or naturalised citizens. During xenophobic attacks, naturalised South Africans of black African origin were identified as foreigners and were victimised.

There is a disjuncture between how citizenship is viewed socially and how it is legally defined. A legally recognised citizenship status does not translate into social acceptance here.

Being a “true” South African is equated with having South African blood and a notion of citizenship tends to exclude persons of foreign origin who now are new citizens.

The term “autochthony” describes a social phenomenon where nativity and indigeneity are used as social criteria to include or exclude individuals and groups from national or community belonging.

In South Africa, those who are seen as having “native” blood (imagined or actual) are accepted as belonging to a national community, while those of “foreign” origin are perceived as falling outside the community.

South Africa is not unique in this regard. In white-majority Western societies, national belonging is often equated with being white. Recently naturalised Americans of African descent in the US, for instance, do not feel “truly” American as they associate being American with being of white European origin.

This is also the case with immigrants of colour living in white majority European host countries.

The ideology of indigeneity surfaced during the recent xenophobic violence of September 2019 against “foreign” African nationals in Pretoria and Johannesburg. Some South Africans would stop individuals they suspected of being of foreign African origin and ask where they were from or if they could speak an indigenous South African language to establish their South Africanness.

Despite having South African citizenship, those who failed to speak a South African language were at risk of being attacked.

For Africans, possessing legal South African citizenship may entitle them to a plethora of rights and privileges, but it does not automatically guarantee them to live without fear during anti-foreigner violence in the country.

Their foreign origin is visibly marked on their bodies, their languages, accent and traditional dress, which expose them to be socially seen as “other”.

* Dr Tewolde is a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Johannesburg.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.