The folly of focusing on Dr Havard's origins
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It’s the sort of thing that South African politics seems hardwired for. A new Member of Parliament is appointed, and in short order social media erupts with denunciations.
This is par for the course for a country as cynical as South Africa has become. But in a fashion that resonates with some of the worst parts of its political culture, the focus was unrelentingly on identity.
The appointment of a new MP would ordinarily hardly merit more than a passing mention. The new MP is Dr Xiaomei Havard. The controversy that she has attracted is direct and primal. She is Chinese.
That is, she is an immigrant from China. From what is available publicly – and it’s not much – she was born and raised in China, graduated from “a Chinese university”, came to South Africa to study, and married a “South African man”.
Her Twitter account – sparsely used – declares that she is “Co-President of South Africa-China Famous Female Business Council; Honourable President of Africa Federation of Chinese Women in Commerce & Industry”.
She is a South African citizen and says that she no longer holds Chinese citizenship.
This made little impact on the keypad warriors who went on the attack. Hashtags such as #NoChineseInSAParliament and #SARejectsXiaomeiHavard poured scorn on her appointment. Said Humble Leader: “This feels so disrespectful that the ANC replaces the late Jackson Mthembu with a Chinese businesswoman??? Enough is enough!!! ANC must be removed!!!”
Vuyo Zungula MP engaged in tit-for-tat-ism with China: “If a black person born in China can never be a member of the Chinese Parliament … Why does SA allow a Chinese-born person to be a Member of the SA Parliament, and make laws for South Africans?”
Segopotje Nkadimeng sniffed: “ANC has appointed Chinese national as an MP to replace the late Jackson Mthembu.”
Bound up here are assumptions and prejudices about Dr Havard based entirely on her origins. They reflect a sense of identity founded on race and appearance, a we-were-here-first, closed-door view of what it means to be South African, or perhaps better said, truly South African.
This is not surprising, since such thinking runs deep in South Africa. Xenophobia, after all, is a default outlet for the country’s frustrations and pathologies.
Sadly, this is reproduced in the rhetoric of some political leaders; casting about for racially or ethnically defined scapegoats is a widespread and dishonourable part of our political culture.
The notion of foreign shopkeepers staging a “subtle takeover” of the townships (as former minister Nomvula Mokonyane put it) is frequently invoked trope.
The Chinese in South Africa have come in for their own stigmatisation. When Chinese people were accepted as a beneficiary group for empowerment policy, labour minister Membathisi Mdlalana lambasted them for speaking Chinese at work, and implied that they mistreated their employees (on racial grounds, evidently): “I hope that they would make sure that they implement and comply with the Labour Relations Act and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act much, much better now that they have decided to classify themselves as coloureds as in the past … One would not expect a coloured person to ill-treat other coloureds, or black people to ill-treat blacks.”
Yet this is a dangerous path to take, as the occasional pogroms against foreigners (should) remind us. This is a prime tragedy for a society with such divisions as South Africa has, as hatred expressed towards any one group invariably legitimises that expressed against others.
A different and altogether better way to understand belonging is through a civic notion. It sees citizenship as the link between the state and the individual. It should be understood as something beyond mere “nationality", but as a set of rights that people can call upon and responsibilities that they assume.
Whether acquired through birth, through descent or through naturalisation (as is the case with Dr Havard), citizenship is the essential qualifier to participate politically as a public representative in South Africa. This is good and right.
It is a matter of civic virtue, not ascriptive belonging. George Washington put it poignantly in a letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, when he said that their place in the newly formed United States was not dependent on their faith, but “only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support”. Seen from this perspective, the only relevant question is whether Dr Havard has lived up to that compact.
And in this respect, the affair around Dr Havard comes with a twist. A piece on News24 from 2019 notes something that has been almost entirely ignored: that she was apparently one of a number of ANC candidates flagged as problematic by the party’s integrity committee. Why? We don’t know. This matter has not been examined publicly as far as I can see. For all we know, she may be wholly uncompromised.
But it is breathtaking that a country as ravaged by corruption and the abuse of office as South Africa should effectively have failed to notice and interrogate this matter.
It speaks audibly about the failures of our public debate; and even more so that a suggestion of untoward behaviour was ignored while the wholly irrelevant issue of her origins and heritage could come to elicit such excitement.
This is a symptom – perhaps a hyperbolic one – of a society whose sense of political priorities is so often almost surreally distorted. Yet it is hardly surprising. South Africa’s political and intellectual elites evince an obsession with identitarianism over pragmatism – in defiance, incidentally, of what research into mass opinion shows.
Much of South African law (not least empowerment and employment legislation) mandates the division and categorisation of its people, and intellectual modes such as Critical Race Theory have given doing so an aura of moral erudition.
However Dr Havard’s tenure in Parliament turns out, the currents driving it will continue to torment South Africa.
* Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations, a liberal think tank that promotes political and economic freedom.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.