NATURING THE NATION:
aliens, apocalypse, and the postcolonial state
Jean and John L. Comaroff
University of Chicago/American Bar Foundation
for publication in Journal of Southern African Studies, 2001;
special edition in honor of the work of Shula Marks
This paper examines the predicament of the postcolonial nation-state through the prism
of environmental catastrophe: how is it that plant "invaders" can become an urgent
political issue, and what might this reveal of the shifting relations among citizenship,
community, and national sovereignty under neo-liberal conditions? Pursuing these
questions in relation to a case from the "new" South Africa, we posit three key features
of postcolonial polities in an era of laissez-faire: the refiguration of the subject-citizen,
the crisis of sovereign borders, and the depoliticization of politics. Under such
conditions, aliens – both plants and people – come to embody core contradictions of
boundedness and belonging; and alien-nature provides a language for voicing new forms
of discrimination amidst a culture of "post-racism" and civil rights.
M. Merten, ‘The Week the Cape Burned’, Mail & Guardian, 21-27 January 2000, p.6.
NATURING THE NATION:
aliens, apocalypse, and the postcolonial state
Jean and John L. Comaroff
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.6
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 –
S. Dubow and S. Marks, ‘Patriotism of Place and Race: Keith Hancock on South Africa’
(unpublished paper, London, 2000).
M. Merten, ‘A Chronology of Destruction’, Mail & Guardian, 21-27 January 2000, p.7; V.
Foxcroft, ‘Flames Past, Present – and Future?’, Cape Times, 3 February 2000, p.11; ‘Kaap Lek Sy Won-
de; Weskus Veg Met Hulp Uit Noorde’, Die Burger, 21 January 2000, p.1; ‘Bokkie se Trane’, Die
Burger, 22 January 2000, p.8.
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”. 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.
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
N. Joseph, ‘Man Arrested For Beating Up Young Fire Bug’, Cape Argus, 2 February 2000,
M. Davis, ‘Los Angeles after the Storm: The Dialectic of Ordinary Disaster’, Antipode, 27
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
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 road 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". 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
B.Jordan, ‘Ash City: Why the Fires Were So Bad’, Sunday Times, 23 January 2000, p.7.
Guy Preston, special advisor to Ronnie Kasrils, Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry; quoted
in J. Yeld, ‘Force Landowners to Clear Invading Alien Plants’, Sunday Argus, 22-23 January 2000, p.7.
Yeld, ‘Force Landowners’, p.7; L. de Villiers, Chair of Peninsula Mountain Forum, ‘Take
Decisive Steps to Avoid Future Fire Disaster’, letter to the Cape Times, 28 January 2000, p.11.
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"
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. 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. 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.
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
‘Ukuvuka the Biggest Ever’, editorial, Cape Times, 7 February 2000, p.10.
R. Cowling and D. Richardson, Fynbos: South Africa's Unique Floral Kingdom (Cape Town,
Fernwood Press, 1995), p.21, suggest that the name might reflect the fact that early Dutch settlers found
this species of Cape vegetation too slender to harvest as timber.
F. Kruger (compiler), A Description of the Fynbos Biome Project. A Report of the Committee
for Terrestrial Ecosystems, National Programme for Environmental Sciences. (Pretoria, Cooperative
Scientific Programmes, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, 1978); J. Day, W. Siegfried, G.
Louw, and M. Jarman, eds., Fynbos Ecology: A Preliminary Synthesis. South African National Scientific
Programmes, Report No.40. (Pretoria, Foundation for Research Development, Council for Scientific and
A. Hall, ‘Invasive Weeds’, in J. Day et al (eds.), Fynbos Ecology, p.134.
J. Yeld, ‘Wake Up Cape Town’, Cape Argus, 7 February 2000, p.1.
Richard Cowling, distinguished scholar of the Cape fynbos biome, cited in ‘The Peninsula's
Fynbos Will Flourish Again’, Sunday Argus, 29 January 2000, p.6.
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". 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), the sclerophyllous or small-leaved, evergreen shrubs and heath that
dominate the vegetation of the mountains and coastal forelands of the Cape. 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".
The blaze brought all this to a head. "Wake Up Cape Town", 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"
– had little effect on the public mood. A cartoonist, allowing a rare moment of irony to flicker amid mil-
lennial anxiety, drew a UFO hovering over Cape Town as the city sank into the globally-warmed sea, its
Chip, ‘They Seem to Have a Problem With Aliens’, Cape Argus, January 27 2000, p.23.
I. Powell and H. Hogan, ‘First Fires, Now Floods – Next Frogs?’, Mail & Guardian, 11-17
February 2000, p.9.
F. Macleod, ‘The Trees That Caused All the Trouble’, Mail & Guardian, 11-17 February
Most notably Guy Preston, the expert said to have linked alien vegetation to the Cape fires
(above, n.7); F. Macleod, ‘The Trees That Caused All the Trouble’, p.8 (see also below).
M. Burbidge, ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in the Civil Service’, Saturday Star, 12 February
R. Brand, ‘US-Style Bid to Rid SA of Illegal Aliens’, The Star, 14 February 2000, p.1.
mountain tops covered by foreign flora. Peering down, the occupants of the space ship declare: "They
seem to have a problem with aliens”. [INSERT PLATE HERE]
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?" 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. 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". 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. Within days, the South Africa public was
promised, again in banner newsprint, a "US-style bid to rid SA of illegal aliens".
What exactly was at stake in this mass-mediated chain of consciousness, this litany of alien-na-
M. Merten, ‘Blame it on the Weeds’, Mail & Guardian, 21-27 January 2000, p.7.
P. Geschiere and F. Nyamnjoh, ‘Capitalism and Autochthony: The Seesaw of Mobility and
Belonging’, in J.Comaroff and J.L. Comaroff (eds.), Millennial Capitalism and the Culture of Neoli-
beralism, Special Edition of Public Culture, 12, 2, (Spring 2000), pp.423 – 52.
tion? Why the propensity to "blame it on the weeds", as one journalist put it? 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. 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.
THE POSTCOLONIAL NATION-STATE IN PERSPECTIVE, RETROSPECTIVELY
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,
J. Crush, A. Jeeves, and D. Yudelman, South Africa's Labour Empire: A History of Migrancy
to the Gold Mines (Cape Town, David Philip, 1991).
M. Reitzes, ‘Alien Issues’, Indicator, 12,1 (1994), p.7.
B. Davidson, The Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State. (New York,
Times Books, 1992).
animal, and vegetable migrants across sovereign borders; but never before has the presence of aliens
occasioned the same sort of alarm as it seems to nowadays. 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, 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
J. Bayart, The State in Africa: Politics of the Belly (New York, Longman, 1993), p.x.
See e.g. J. Harbeson, D. Rothchild, and N. Chazan (eds.), Civil Society and the State in
Africa. (Boulder, Lynne Rienner, 1994).
British commonwealth, Greater France, the Black Atlantic – was regarded as a routine part of the bureau-
cratic 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, 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", 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
See e.g. J. Roitman, ‘The Garison-Entrepôt’, Cahiers d'Etudes africaines, 150-152,
XXXVIII, 2-4 (1998), pp.297-329; D. Korten, When Corporations Rule the World (East Hartford CT,
Kumarian Press, 1996).
J.L. Comaroff and J. Comaroff (eds.), Civil Society and the Political Imagination in Africa:
Critical Perspectives (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1999); J. Comaroff and J.L. Comaroff,
‘Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming’, in J. Comaroff and J.L. Comaroff (eds.),
Millennial Capitalism and the Culture of Neoliberalism, Special Edition of Public Culture, 12, 2 (Spring
2000):291 – 343.
See e.g. E. Worby, ‘Tyranny, Parody, and Ethnic Polarity: Ritual Engagements with the State
in Northwestern Zambia’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 24, 3, (1998), pp.560 – 78.
corporations and associations, into nongovernmental organizations, into syndicated crime, into shadowy,
privatized parastatal cabals. Which may, in part, explain why there has been a strong counterva iling
stress on the reconstruction of civil society since 1989. We have argued in another context 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, its power ever more dispersed, its legitimacy tested by debt, disease, and poverty, its executive
Note, in this respect, Appadurai's observation, now a decade old, that the hyphen linking the
nation-state is less an icon of conjunction than an index of disjunction; A. Appadurai, ‘Disjuncture and
Difference in the Global Cultural Economy’, Public Culture, 2 (1990), p.14.
A. Mbembe, ‘Provisional Notes on the Postcolony’, Africa, 62, 1 (1992), p.3.
Worby, ‘Tyranny, Parody, and Ethnic Polarity’, pp.560, 562; after Mbembe, ‘Provisional
Notes on the Postcolony’, p.3f.
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. In the circumstances, offers
Mbembe, "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.
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
Comaroff and Comaroff, ‘Millennial Capitalism’.
B. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism
(London, Verso, 1983).
L. Berlant, The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia and Everyday Life (Chica-
go, University of Chicago Press, 1991).
See e.g. S. Hegeman, ‘Shopping for Identities: A Nation of Nations and the Weak Ethnicity
of Objects’, Public Culture, 3, 2 (1991), pp.71 – 92; R. Coombe, The Cultural Life of Intellectual
Properties: Authorship, Appropriation and the Law (Durham, Duke University Press, 1998).
impact of globalization. Elsewhere 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. 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" 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. 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 abstrac-
D. Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change
(Oxford, Blackwell, 1990), p.108.
tion 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 secta-
rian" concerns. One solution that has presented itself in the face of ever more assertive claims on socie-
ty 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 popu-
list 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-
See e.g. ‘Official Figures for Brain Drain Released’, The Star, 14 March 2000, p.2.
R. Kadalie, ‘Defy Barney's Thought Police’, Mail & Guardian, 18-24 February 2000, p.31.
E. Darian-Smith, Bridging Divides: The Channel Tunnel and English Legal Identity in the
New Europe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).
state hinges upon the contention that governments can no longer control the flow of currencies and com-
mercial 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 con-
stantly 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 stars –
while anguishing, xenophobically, over the inflow of millions of immigrants, makwerekwere, who, as we
shall see, frequently suffer gross violations of their human rights.
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; 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 sovereign-
J. Seabrook, ‘Racists and Hypocrites’, Mail & Guardian, 18-24 February 2000, p.22.
ties and atrophied national powers".
Our object, though, is not just to remark the heightened concern with borders and their transgres-
sion. 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
See e.g. N. Abu El-Haj, ‘Genetic Research and the Politics of Identity at the Turn of the
Millennium’ (upublished research proposal, Chicago, 2000)
X. Mangcu, ‘The Score So Far: Poverty Alleviation 0, Soccer World Cup 10', The Sunday
Independent, 12 March 2000, p.8.
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.
"Political choices", as Xolela Mangcu puts it for South Africa,
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 inte-
rest 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.
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
NATURING THE NATION
H. Radebe, ‘Time We Became a Bit More Neighbourly’, The Star, 16 March 2000, p.13.
J. Yeld, ‘The Peninsula's Fynbos Will Flourish Again’, Saturday Argus, 29-30 January 2000,
M. Fraser and L. McMahon, A Fynbos Year (Cape Town, David Philip, 1988), p.155.
...Ralph Waldo Emerson once commented on the impact of immigration: "A na-
tion, like a tree, does not thrive well till it is engraffed (sic) with a foreign stock".
Hopewell Radebe, The Star, 16 March 2000, p.13
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. 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" cultivars
– Cape Flora have simultaneously become the focus of ever greater conservationist concern. Even "pas-
W. Bond, ‘What Important Questions Remain Unanswered in the Fynbos Biome’, in C. Ma-
rais and D. Richardson (eds.), Monitoring Requirements for Fynbos Management, A Collaborative
Report of the Fynbos Forum Group, Foundation for Research Development Programme Report Series, 11
(December 1993), pp.13-17.
D. Richardson and R. Cowling, ‘Why is Mountain Fynbos Invasible and Which Species In-
vade?’, in B. Van Wilgen, D. Richardson, F. Kruger and H. van Hensbergen (eds), Fire in South African
Mountain Fynbos, Ecological Studies, Vol. 93 (Berlin, Springer-Verlag, 1992), pp.161-181; P. Manders,
and D. Richardson, ‘Colonization of Cape Fynbos Communities by Forest Species’, Forest Ecology and
Management, 48 (1992), pp.277 – 293.
See e.g. C. Stirton (ed.), Plant Invaders: Beautiful But Dangerous (Cape Town, Department
of Nature and Environmental Conservation, 1978), p.8.
W. Harvey, Flora Capensis: Being a Systematic Description of the Plants of the Cape Colo-
ny, Caffraria and Port Natal (Dublin, Hodgess, Smith & Co, 1859-65).
H. Bolus, ‘Sketch of the Flora of South Africa’, in J. Noble (ed.), The Official Handbook of
the Cape of Good Hope (Cape Town, The Columbian and Indian Exhibition Committee, 1886), pp.286 –
Fraser and McMahon, A FynbosYear, p.119.
M. Levyns, ‘The Flora of the Cape Mountains’, Journal of the Mountain Club of South
Africa, 39 (1936), pp.16 – 20; R. Adamson, ‘The Cape as an Ancient African Flora’, The Advancement of
Science, XV, 58 (1958), pp.118-127.
J.Acocks, Veld Types of South Africa (Botanical Survey of South Africa, Memoir 28, 1953),
sion". 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, whose
significance in environmentalist discourse has overtaken that of human beings.
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" or "Cape Flora", this
vegetation was "officially christened" as the "Cape Floral Kingdom" in the early twentieth century, and
was known as such for decades. Fynbos does appear in Acocks' Veld Types of South Africa in 1953, but
only as the Afrikaans translation for "Coastal Macchia". Sometimes used colloquially used at times to
This was confirmed by botanists working on the Fynbos Biome, although "fynbos" seems
first to have appeared in a publication in 1916 (Dave Richardson, personal communication). Regular ac-
ademic usage begins in the early 1970s. The term appears on a list of Summer School lectures at the
University of Cape Town in 1972, for example, and in F. Kruger, ‘Ecology and Management of Cape
Fynbos: Towards Conservation of a Unique Biome Type’, paper read at the South African Wild Life
Management Association's Second International Symposium (Pretoria, 1977). We certainly do not recall
it being in circulation while we were growing up in the Cape.
L. Munnik, ‘Foreword’, in C. Stirton (ed.), Plant Invaders: Beautiful But Dangerous (Cape
Town, Department of Nature and Environmental Conservation, 1978), p.7.
Kruger, ‘Ecology and Management of Cape Fynbos’.
Cultures and ecologies are often explicitly linked in this process. Some conservationists, like
Fakir, in fact, argue that "conservation of biodiversity must also concern itself with the preservation of
indigenous cultures..."; M. Fakir, ‘Biodiversity and Biotechnology in South Africa: Some Issues for the
Development of Future Policy’, (Land and Agriculture Policy Centre, Working Paper 3, University of the
Witwatersrand, 1994), p.4.
R. Adamson, ‘Vegetation of the South-West Region’, in The Botanical Features of the South-
Western Cape Province (Cape Town, The Specialty Press of South Africa. 1929), pp.15-39.
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. 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" – and at which botanists began to argue that it merited conservation as a "unique biome
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. Before then, Cape
Flora seem to have been resilient. As recently as 1953, an authority on the subject actually described
Acocks, Veld Types of South Africa, pp.14, 17.
Cowling and Richardson, Fynbos, p.21.
W. Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New
York, Hill & Wang, 1983), p10.
P. Manders, D. Richardson, and P. Masson, P.H. ‘Is Fynbos a Stage in Succession to Forest?
Analysis of the Perceived Ecological Distinction Between Two Communities’, in B.Van Wilgen, D. Ri-
chardson, F. Kruger and H. van Hensbergen (eds), Fire in South African Mountain Fynbos, Ecological
Studies, Vol. 93 (Berlin, Springer-Verlag, 1992), pp.81-107; see also M. Gandar and S. Forster, ‘Impact
of Commercial Afforestation on Rural Areas of South Africa’ (Land and Agriculture Policy Centre,
Policy Paper 14, University of the Witwatersrand, 1994), p.19.
Cronon, Changes in the Land, p.10.
fynbos as an invader whose expansion threatened the mixed grassveld of the southwestern Cape. 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, 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"; 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". 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".
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
Ronnie Kasrils as quoted in J. Yeld, ‘Invasive Plants are Costing SA Dearly’, The Star, 24
February 2000, p.9.
N. Wace, ‘Naturalized Plants in the Australian Landscape’, in R. Heathcote (ed.) for the In-
ternational Geographical Congress 1988, The Australian Experience (Melbourne, Longman Chesire,
1988), pp.139-150; G. Carr, J. Robin, and R. Robinson, ‘Environmental Weed Invasion of Natural Eco-
systems: Australia's Greatest Conservation Problem’, abstract in R. Groves and J. Burden (eds.), Ecology
of Biological Invasions: an Australian Perspective (Canberra, Australian Academy of Science, 1986),
B. Jordan, ‘Ash City’, p.7.
M. Merten, ‘Blame it on the Weeds’, p.7.
In recent Australian writing on the topic, for example, processes of naturalization are given
greater prominence, thus acknowledging that (a) yesterday's exotics can become today's natives; that,
therefore, (b) separating naturalized species from autochthons is at best an imprecise process; see e.g.
Wace, ‘Naturalized Plants in the Australian Landscape’, p.139 (see also below).
and Forestry at a high level symposium on invasive species, held in Cape Town after the blaze. 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; 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, the "chief nasties" being wattles (including the infamous rooikrans), pines,
bluegum, and hakea – this last, to close the ironic circle, a "Protea-type shrub". There are, it is true,
some telling contrasts between the other Western cases and the South African preoccupation with alien-
nature. 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
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
Fraser and McMahon, A FynbosYear, p.147.
M. Cody, M. and H. Mooney, ‘Convergence Versus Non Convergence in Mediterranean-
Climate Ecosystems’, Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 9 (1978), pp.265 – 321.
Hall, ‘Invasive Weeds’, in Fynbos Ecology, p.134.
Yeld, ‘Force Landowners’, p.7.
See Anonymous, The Green Cancers in South Africa (no publisher given, 1959).
mountain slopes in large numbers to cater for the timber demands of the settlers. 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. 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. 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.
What happened in the intervening hundred years? How did desirable imports become invasive
aliens, “pests”, “colonizers”, even “green cancers”? 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
Hall, ‘Invasive Weeds’, in Fynbos Ecology, p.135;I. Macdonald, M. Jarman, and P. Bees-
ton (eds.), Management of Invasive Alien Plants in the Fynbos Biome. South African National Scientific
Programmes, Report No. 111 (Pretoria, Foundation for Research Development, Council for Scientific
and Industrial Research, 1985).
Hall, ‘Invasive Weeds’, in Fynbos Ecology, pp.135,139.
Hall, ‘Invasive Weeds’, in Fynbos Ecology, pp.1 p.151; see also Macdonald et al (eds.),
Management of Invasive Alien Plants.
Hall, ‘Invasive Weeds’, in Fynbos Ecology, pp.140.
Day et al (eds.), Fynbos Ecology; Fraser and McMahon, A FynbosYear; R. Cowling, D. Le
Maitre, B. McKenzie, R. Prys-Jones, and B. van Wilgen (eds.), Disturbance and the Dynamics of Fynbos
Biome Communities, A Report of the Committee for Terrestrial Ecosystems. South African National
early 1937. 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, 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. 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". 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.
Scientific Programmes, Report No.135 (Pretoria, Foundation for Research Development, Council for
Scientific and Industrial Research, 1987).
R. Marloth, ‘Notes on the Question of Veld-Burning’, South African Journal of Science, 21
(1924), pp.342 – 345; Adamson, ‘The Cape as an Ancient African Flora’.
A law passed at the Cape in 1687 imposed a "severe scourging" for unauthorized veld burn-
ing; second offenders merited the death penalty; F. Kruger, ‘Fire’, in Day et al (eds.), Fynbos Ecology,
Van Wilgen et al (eds), Fire in South African Mountain Fynbos; Kruger, ‘Fire’.
Fraser and McMahon, A FynbosYear, p.140.
Kruger, ‘Fire’, p.44; T. van Rensberg, An Introduction to Fynbos (Pretoria: Department of
Environment Affairs, Bulletin 61, 1987), p.41.
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; 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. 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. Thus, while the media almost invariably labels these fires "devastating", expert opinion
acknowledges that the conservation of species diversity is "at least partly dependent" on burning. But
van Rensberg, An Introduction to Fynbos , p.41.
See M. Feris, ‘Scientists Pour Cold Water on Global-Warming Claim’, The Star, 17 February
‘Totaalplan Teen Brande’, Die Burger, 21 January 2000, p.8; ‘Regering en Dienste Moet Be-
ter Koördineer – Minister’, Die Burger, 22 January 2000, p.3; ‘Bokkie se Trane’, Die Burger, 22 January
these caveats were muted by the popular debate that raged after the millennial conflagration in Cape
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, 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. 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; 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.
No wonder, then, that they were quick to ask early hack groups what uses were envisaged for
the felled trees. Efforts have since been made under the Working for Water program (see below) to deve-
lop secondary industries using alien wood (http://www-dwaf.pwv.gov.za/idwaf/Projects/WFW/Seconda-
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-
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. 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
In the national campaign to extirpate invasive plants, burning alien wood for domestic fuel
has been suggested as a patriotic duty; see ‘Hack Day 2000’, special supplement to mark Water Week,
The Star, 20 March 2000.
B. Jordan, ‘Ash City’, p.7.
B. van Wyk and N. Gericke, People's Plants: A Guide to Useful Plants of South Africa. (Pre-
toria, Briza, 2000), p.284.
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.
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!" 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. 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
G. Preston, ‘Loving the Alien’, letter to the Mail and Guardian, 18-24 February 2000, p.29.
See e.g. the efforts of Richard Cowling to insist that "fire in fynbos is normal"; Yeld, ‘The
Peninsula's Fynbos Will Flourish Again’, p.6.
It was replaced by the Aliens Control Act 96 of 1991 and subsequent amendments.
See Hall, ‘Invasive Weeds’, p.138. Government support at this juncture came mainly from the
Department of Agriculture Technical Services via its Plant Protection Research Institute.
needed jobs and yielded foreign currency. 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.
How has this ideological inflation occurred? To what anxieties, interests, emotions does it res-
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, 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. Perhaps the most telling evidence of this was
A. Weiss, ‘Alien Plants Plea by Asmal Rejected: Dispute Over Water Supply’, Cape Argus, 3
July 1997, p.4.
‘Asmal Defends Pay for Rain Plan’, Cape Argus, 5 May 1997, p.22.
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; 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. 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.
But, while the eradication plan was made to "tread water" for a year or two, public anxiety about invasive
Ukuvuka, Xhosa, "to wake up"; as we have seen, the image of the alarm call was ubiquitous
in this discourse. See B. West, ‘”Firestop” Launched to Save Mountains’, Cape Times, 7 February 2000,
p.1; J. Yeld, ‘Four Fire-Hit Hotspots Get Top Priority in R3,6m Rescue Effort’, Cape Argus, 21 February
J. Soal, ‘Working for Water Has Deal with Forestry on Alien Plants’, Cape Times, 22
February 2000, p.3.
de Villiers, ‘Take Decisive Steps’, p.11.
Yeld, ‘Wake Up Cape Town’, p.1-2.
Dr. B. McKenzie quoted in ‘Many Lessons to be Learnt from Fires, Floods’, The Star, 15
February 2000, p.9.
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. 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. With popular feeling ever more sharply fo-
cused on attacking the "scourge", public commentators seemed intent on coaxing "a spirit of communi-
ty" from the ashes. A newly elected Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry put it succinctly:
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. 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 rec-
See ‘Hack Day 2000', special supplement for Water Week, The Star, 20 March 2000.
Address to International Symposium on Best Management Practices for Preventing and Con-
trolling Invasive Alien Species, Kirstenbosch (Cape Town), 22-24 February 2000 (proceedings forthcom-
ing); see also Yeld, ‘Invasive Plants are Costing SA Dearly’, p.9.
M. Merten, ‘Eradicating Invasive Aliens’, Mail & Guardian, 3-9 March 2000, p.33.
Message from President Mbeki, read by Valli Moosa, Minister for Environmental Affairs
and Tourism, at the International Symposium on Best Management Practices for Preventing and Controll-
ing Invasive Alien Species, Kirstenbosch, 22-24 February 2000; see also K. Bliksem, ‘Only the Truly
Patriotic can be Trusted to Smell the Roses, and Weed Them Out’, Sunday Independent, 22 February
ruits to voluntary hack groups.
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". Global trade and
tourism, it was noted, had created a class of "unwanted international travelers" like foreign flora and dis-
ease-bearing insects. 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”.
FOREIGN OBJECTS: THE POLITICS OF ESTRANGEMENT IN THE POSTCOLONY
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
Bliksem, ‘Only the Truly Patriotic Can be Trusted to Smell the Roses’, p.8.
E. Moll and G. Moll, Common Trees of South Africa (Cape Town, Struik, 1994), p.49.
A controversial investigation of racism in the mainstream press, both overt and “subliminal”,
was being conducted by the Human Rights Commission at the time; see e.g. E. Rapiti, ‘Journalists Must
Do Their Jobs Without Interference’, letter to the Mail & Guardian, 10-16 March 2000, p.28.
C. Lazar, ‘Forget Alien Plants, What About Guns?’, The Star, 7 March 2000, p.8; for a reply
on behalf of the Working for Water Program, see B. van Wilgen, letter to The Star, 14 March 2000, p.9.
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:
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". 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. 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. But it was a wry letter to the Mail & Guardian,
M. Aken'Ova, ‘Loving the Alien’, Mail & Guardian, 18-24 February 2000, p.29.
Radebe, ‘Time We Became a Bit More Neighbourly’, p.13.
M. Sinclair, ‘Unwilling Aliens: Forced Migrants in the New South Africa’, Indicator, 13, 3
(1996), pp.14 – 18; Reitzes, ‘Alien Issues’.
perhaps South Africa's most distinguished weekly, that made the political subtext most brutally plain.
It is alien-bashing time again. As an alien...I am particularly prickly about criticisms of aliens
even if they are plants ...Alien plants cannot of course respond to these accusations. But before
the Department of Home Affairs is dragooned into investigating the residence permits of these
plants I, as a concerned fellow alien, wish to remind one and all that plants such as
maize...soybean, sunflower...originated outside of the continent of Africa. In any case, did the
fire-and-flood-causing alien plants cross the borders and establish plantations ...by themselves?
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"
who 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.
H. Radebe, ‘"Persecuted For an Incorrect Facial Structure’, The Star, 16 March 2000, p.10;
L. Madywabe, ‘My Four Hours as an Illegal Immigrant’, Mail & Guardian, 3-9 March 2000, p.16.
Madywabe, ‘My Four Hours as an Illegal Immigrant’, p.16.
These agreements laid down terms of contract and reimbursement, and decreed that foreign
workers could not join unions; Reitzes, ‘Alien Issues’, p.8.
See the findings of the South African Migration Project, summarized in C. Carter and F.
Haffajee, ‘Immigrants are Creating Work – Not Taking Your Jobs’, Mail & Guardian, 11-17 September
1998, p.3; also J. Matisonn, ‘Aliens Have Many Years' Respite in SA’, The Sunday Independent, 19
March 2000, p.3.
See J.Comaroff and J.L. Comaroff, ‘Alien-nation: Zombies, Immigrants, and Millennial
Capitalism’, Codesria Bulletin, 3/4 (1999), pp.17 – 28.
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. Once singled out, "illegals" are seldom differentiated
from bona fide immigrants or refugees. 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, South Africa has become the des-
tination of choice for unprecedented numbers of people from troubled countries to the north; estimates
vary from two to eight million. This influx has occurred amidst transformations in the domestic econo-
my that have significantly altered relations of labor to capital. Not only has drastic downsizing,
euphemized as "jobless growth", cost some 500,000 jobs in the past five years, most of them held by
See P. Salopek, ‘Mandela Stresses Success, Struggle’, Chicago Tribune, 6 February 1999,
H. Adam, F. van Zyl Slabbert, and K. Moodley, Comrades in Business: Post-Liberation
Politics in South Africa (Cape Town, Tafelberg, 1998), p.209.
Reitzes, ‘Alien Issues’, p.8.
It is because most job losses have occurred at the lower-paid end of the labor market – where
welfare services are also most stressed – that anti-alien sentiment is directed overwhelmingly toward
Africans. Asian, European, and other Western immigrants, perceived to be richer and better educated, are
more welcome and a policy encouraging skilled immigration has recently been announced. See Radebe,
‘Time We Became a Bit More Neighbourly’, p.13; K. Magardie, ‘Skilled Immigration to be Encouraged’,
Mail & Guardian, 11-16 March 2000, p.37.
For example, the African Chamber of Hawkers and Informal Business claims that illegal im-
migrants imperil the commerce of their members, the South African Congress of Trade Unions has threa-
tened to strike over the hiring of non-unionized aliens, and the Inkatha Freedom Party has warned that it
will take "physical action" if the state fails to "take drastic steps"; see Reitzes, ‘Alien Issues’, p.8. The
press, moreover, has been repeatedly charged with encouraging xenophobia; see e.g. P. Dube, ‘Media Be-
rated for Stoking Xenophobia’, The Sunday Independent, 27 February 2000, p.3.
‘Jobless Mob Goes on Death Rampage’, Cape Argus, 4 September 1998, p.9.
blacks; even more noteworthy, over 80% of employers now opt for flexible, "non-standard" labor,
much of it done by lowly paid, non-unionized "illegals", whom farmers and industrialists see as essential
to their survival in competitive markets. 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, who has
come to embody the threat to work and welfare, presents itself as a persuasive mode of confronting
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. 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. A few months later came reports of a gang of hoodlums in Johannesburg dedicated
T. Amupadhi, ‘African Foreigners Terrorized’, Mail & Guardian, 18-23 December 1998,
Sinclair, ‘Unwilling Aliens’, p.16. Our observations in the North West Province confirm
this. A letter to the Mail (Mafikeng) from a “concerned villager", for instance, reported on two "illegal
aliens" running businesses on the outskirts of the town, and accused them of "robbing hard working
South African citizens"; ‘Illegal Aliens – Where's the Justice?’, The Mail, 23 July 1999, p.4.
This campaign is a joint initiative of the Human Rights Commission, the National Consorti-
um on Refugee Affairs, and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees; M. Kebede, ‘Don’t Let
this be a Curse’, Cape Argus, 12 January 2001, p.11. An exhibition entitled Kwere Kwere: Journeys into
Strangeness, held at the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town in March-April 2000, was supported by the
Arts and Culture Trust of the President and the National Arts Council of South Africa.
to the "systematic elimination" of aliens. Immigrants and their property have regularly been attacked
by local communities, forced into "ghettos", criminalized and scapegoated. 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-
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
‘Brothel Raided’, Pretoria News, 3 March 2000, p.1; P. Molwedi, ‘Brothel Owner Granted
Bail of R10 000', The Star, 7 March 2000, p.2.
E. Maluleke, ‘Bitter Informants Flush Out Successful, but Alien Celebs’, City Press, 13
February 2000, p.3.
M. Tsedu, ‘Illegals Deserve Better Than This’, The Star, 20 March 2000, p.12; Radebe,
‘Time We Became a Bit More Neighbourly’, p.13.
‘121 Illegal Immigrants Held in Swoop East of City’, Pretoria News, 3 March 2000, p.3;
‘Police Raid Sex Club’, Sunday Times, 19 March 2000, p.4.
Madywabe, ‘My Four Hours as an Illegal Immigrant’, p.16; L. Mitchelson, ‘Anti-Crime
Blitz Should be Extended to All Suburbs’, letter to The Star, 17 March 2000, p.7.
Reports of violence at the center, owned by a consortium that includes members of the
"struggle elite”, are not new. In this case, the Cameroonian embassy lodged a formal protest to the South
African government; C. Banda and G. Clifford, ‘Cameroon to Lodge Protest Over Repatriation Center
Beating', The Star, 17 March 2000, p.1. See also Tsedu, ‘Illegals Deserve Better Than This’, p.12.
See ‘We Should See Human Rights Body as Our Ally’, special comment by the editor, The
Sunday Independent, 19 March 2000, p.1. The Aliens Control Acts of 1991 has garnered its share of criti-
cism, and government officials have acknowledged that its application is "arbitrary and subjective"; see
of trafficking in undocumented sexworkers. Onslaughts on "illegals" in show business, the media, and
the music industry followed. 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". Senior police in Pretoria followed suit. Panic ensued as
some 14,000 people were searched, over 1,000 arrested and, despite their protests, "honest, taxpaying
citizens" were humiliated in the streets and in taxis. 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.
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. Meanwhile, suspicion started to surface, just as it
Sinclair ‘Unwilling Aliens’, p.15, Matisson, ‘Aliens Have Many Years' Respite in SA’, p.3.
Mitchelson, ‘Anti-Crime Blitz Should be Extended to All Suburbs’, p.7.
S. Friedman, ‘Action With Too Little Discussion’, Mail & Guardian, 24-30 March 2000,
Geschiere and Nyamnjoh, ‘Capitalism and Autochthony’, p.423 – 425.
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. The
answer seems plain, at least to Steven Friedman, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies in
Johannesburg. 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 Scien-
ces 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.
ENDS AND MEANINGS
Geschiere and Nyamnjoh 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 an-
tinomies 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 comforta-
ble 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 natura-
lization 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 neces-
sity 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-
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 econo-
my – 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.
Acknowledgements. We accumulated several debts in writing the present paper. The first is to our son,
Joshua Comaroff, an architect whose specialist knowledge of landscape has drawn us into many dis-
cussions on the topic; he was with us in Cape Town during the events described here, and participated in
the formulation of our analysis of them. Najwa Hendrickse, of the National Library of South Africa,
helped us in our documentary work, going far beyond the call of duty in locating obscure texts. James
Drummond, a geographer at University of the North West, alerted us to many relevant references and to
crucial information, of which he is a generous, never-ending source. David Bunn and Steven Robins
(University of the Western Cape), as always, were critical interlocutors: our ongoing conversation with
them informs most of what we do in South Africa. Finally, Maureen Anderson, our patient, creative Re-
search Assistant at the University of Chicago, put up with our usual stream of difficult questions and
unusual requests. To all of them, our warm thanks. An earlier, longer, and somewhat amended version of
this essay has been published in Israel in Hagar: International Social Sciences Review, 1,1 (2000), pp.7-