Debate | Natives and Forced Immigrants: Is There a Difference?

An answer to Professor Nandita Sharma's review of my book, 'Neither Settler nor Native – The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities'.

I seek to address here a set of questions raised by Professor Nandita Sharma in her recent recent review of my book (Neither Settler Nor Native) in The Wire. What is the difference, historically and politically, between natives and immigrants, particularly forced immigrants (slaves, indentured servants)? Why draw a distinction between two oppressed groups? 

Professor Sharma begins by questioning the validity of two distinctions, land and labour, and colonialism and racism. To distinguish between land and labour in the case of North America, she argues, is to invite a double erasure. The first is that of the “long and brutal history of exploitation of Indians”. The second is that of the history of land appropriation of those enslaved. 

I approach the above distinctions more analytically than morally, with an eye on its political implications.

Land and Labour

Labour is mobile, land is not. Colonisation is the conquest of land. Control over labour may or may not follow. 

Settler colonies have learnt through experience to separate those whose land they appropriated from those they coerced into cheap labour. After an early phase that focused on expropriating the labour of Indians, the US took a conscious decision to displace Indian with African labour. Eventually, it decided to keep Indians on a drip and on constant watch, in federally subsidised and supervised reservations. 

Mahmood Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native – The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities, Harvard University Press (November 2020)

Israel followed this example, and deliberately replaced Palestinian labour with that of migrants from elsewhere. 

What eventually turned the tables on whites in South Africa was that natives remained the source of both the land settlers appropriated and the labour they pressed into service. When natives withdrew their labour, the hour of reckoning drew near for the apartheid regime.

Land appropriation

The second erasure that Professor Sharma warns against is that of the history of land appropriation of those enslaved, also in North America. 

Professor Sharma writes: “Can anyone whose labour is made exploitable, not always already be expropriated from the land?… Enslaved Africans were expropriated from the land too. They were forcibly taken from their societies and put to work as enslaved labour by the same colonial state.” (emphasis mine)

Were enslaved Africans also expropriated from the land ‘by the same colonial state’? On the face of it, this seems a tall claim, untenable in light of the historical research so far. Except for the Portuguese whose armies penetrated inner parts of the Kongo kingdom, elsewhere in Africa Europeans were confined to the shoreline. There, they bought captives of wars and transported them to the Americas. African lands had yet to be colonised.

Professor Sharma asserts that Indians were not “the only colonised people in the Americas…” 

What do we mean by colonised, and by natives – whose land is appropriated or colonised? 

Are we to understand that African slaves were also natives of the Americas? And that European indentured servants brought to North America (before the large-scale import of Africans beginning the 17th century) should also be considered natives of the land, also colonised?

And similarly, in South Africa, should we also consider Indian indentured labour in Natal and Malay slaves on the Cape, natives, also colonised?

There is an important theoretical issue here: are all forms of oppression to be lumped together as the same, as so many different instances of ‘colonisation’? Or, is colonisation specifically the conquest of land? My intention is not to suggest a hierarchy in forms of oppression, some sort of a reversal of the racial civilisational hierarchy practiced by colonisers. My point, however, is that to recognise a difference in forms of subjugation matters politically, and thus analytically. The dichotomy between land and labour is important both conceptually and politically.

Rethink colonisation, not just decolonisation

“Surely to rethink what we mean by decolonisation…also means rethinking what we mean by colonisation,” writes Professor Sharma.

I could not agree more. At the heart of my project is precisely this rethinking, especially in its political sense. I insist we think of conquest of territory as merely the first step in the colonisation of a territory. Conquest is made durable by a second step which politicises particular cultural and historical identities by making them the subject of legal boundary-making.

To give a more concrete idea of how the (settler) colonial state remade internal boundaries, consider the population census in apartheid South Africa. The United States distinguished itself both territorially and politically from Indian polities which it restructured as so many ‘customary’ regimes. In contrast, it took time for South Africa to make the separation between different physical spaces, the ‘white’ Republic as settler territory and Bantustans as so many ‘native’ reserves. As a result, this spatial division never became durable. Yet, ever since the independence of the settler colony in 1910, the mode of governance inside South Africa was based on this same conceptual distinction. The surest way to grasp this is to look at the census.

Children of Ekuvukene, which is a “resettlement” village in Kwazulu “homeland”, Natal. Millions of black South Africans have been forcibly resettled in such villages called black “homelands” since 1948, the largest force movement of people in peacetime history. Photo: United Nations (taken in 1982)/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The apartheid census politicised a series of distinctions. The census began with a primary distinction between natives and immigrants – the former said to be indigenous and the latter not indigenous. 

The census then moved to a second set of distinctions further subdividing both immigrants and natives. Immigrants were classified into so many races, and natives into so many tribes. This distinction came to be at the heart of apartheid governance of races and tribes.

Races were governed under civil law. Distinctions internal to civil law privileged master races (white settlers) at the expense of subject races (Indians and Coloureds). Subject races included Malay slaves in Cape plantations and Indian indentured labourers in the sugar plantations of Natal. This was the basis of the regime of legalised race discrimination, with each race positioned on a hierarchical civilisational ladder. 

In contrast, the distinction between tribes was horizontal rather than vertical. Each ‘tribe’ was said to be distinguished by its own customary law. In each instance, ‘customary’ law enforced customary rights for members of the indigenous tribe and at the same time denied these same rights to members of neighbouring tribes who were considered trespassing non-indigenous persons because they had crossed the Homeland boundary to make an alternative residence. This is how settler law endlessly sought to fragment the native population, both between tribes and within homelands. 

Also read: Remains of 215 Children Found at Former Indigenous School Site in Canada

A separation of tribes into so many homelands, with each governed through its own customary law, had a further political message: that each ‘tribe’ would have its own separate and distinct political future. This was not so with the migrant population of ‘races’ governed under a single umbrella law. Notwithstanding internal distinctions between master and subject races, there was a clear implication that all governed under civil law could look to a common political future. Colonial rule turned on the legal divide between civil and customary law.

We can identify the civil regime with a ‘one state’ solution, and customary regimes with a ‘two state’ solution. Each led to a distinct outcome. The ‘one state’ regime made possible the development of alliances between different oppressed groups; over time, it led to the formal and juridical emancipation of slaves. The struggle for emancipation continued, through ups and downs; the alliance-building strategy led to the Civil Rights movement and now to a mobilisation under the banner ‘Black Lives Matter’. In contrast, the ‘two state’ regime effectively isolated natives in different tribal encampments, each cut off from the other; the imposed isolation foreclosed the possibility of building broad alliances.

black lives matter

A demonstrator holds up a “Black Lives Matter” sign in New York on September 6, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Brendan McDermid

The above structure of governance describes the grid that settlers designed to govern natives and subject races. It also clarifies the structural difference in how these two groups related to the apartheid state. 

No matter the master’s effort to freeze each group in its place, transgressions did happen, both at individual and group levels. Individuals could and did move between spaces. In the US, some natives did become slave-owners and some slaves did join Indian-hunting parties; at the same time, runaway slaves did find refuge in Indian communities / reservations.

The middle ground between settlers and natives was populated mainly by migrants, forced and voluntary. History shows that those in the middle ground took different and even contradictory routes. 

In the US, as former slaves crafted different futures, they came up with two major alternatives. The first rallied behind the ‘back to Africa’ movement. Championed by Marcus Garvey, this movement at times colluded with slave-owners who had their own interest in getting former slaves to return to Africa, often to establish settler colonies of their own (as in Liberia and Sierra Leone). Like Zionist Jews returning to Palestine, former slaves too returned home to Africa, but this time as settlers, as oppressors of natives who had never left and who they now branded as uncivilised.

W.E.B. Du Bois. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The other route was championed by W.E.B. Du Bois, who called on former slaves to stay at home and struggle for equal citizenship rights. So long as the resulting movement did not challenge the settler character of the American state, equal citizenship had its limits: equal rights for all settlers. The contrast in the different roads taken by former slaves and reservation-based natives, including in their respective outcomes, should be instructive for all of us.

In South Africa, where natives remained a majority – unlike in the US where they gradually became a shrinking minority – the alliance between ‘natives’ and ‘subject races’ (Indians and Coloureds) was the result of a long and protracted contention between two different political tendencies. One side reached out for an alliance with settlers, while the other called for allying with natives. The balance did not tip until the formation of the Black Consciousness Movement under Steve Biko.

In Israel, the middle ground included the Mizrahim (Arab Jews), who were subjected to a vicious civilising campaign by Ashkanazi (east European) Jews demanding they shed their ‘uncivilised’ Arab culture, including language, and refashion their identity exclusively around their religion, Judaism. The Mizrahim comprise the majority of Jews in Israel today. They have turned into the front paw of religious Zionism in the expanding settlements. 

Societies without states?

Professor Sharma concludes by asking us to consider building societies without states – without taxation, conscription, monuments, development projects, etc.

I am given to a less utopian consideration. What should we aim at: to liberate the state from the nation or the nation from the state? To extend the rule of law beyond citizens to all residents or altogether to do away with rule of law, in the hope of abolishing the state but at the same time running the risk of fortifying a democracy which leaves minorities at the mercy of the majority? As a first step, my preference is to extend the rule of law to all residents of the territory – not only citizens but also migrants.

This would be to remain true to the ANC’s call in its 1955 Freedom Charter, summed up in one ringing phrase, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it”, and not just to its citizens (whose complexion may change with the political regime of the day), that has continued to reverberate and inspire the ongoing process of political change over decades.

Summing up

What is wrong with universalising and generalising the category ‘indigenous’ beyond the specific settler-colonial context that gave birth and meaning to it?

I do not regard settler colonialism as a metaphor for unjust appropriation and indigeneity as the bedrock value it destroys. 

Nor is my project to define and celebrate the native. I seek not to celebrate the project of colonial classification by turning native into a metaphor to define historical experiences that need to be morally condemned so its victims may be morally restored and celebrated. Rather, I seek a way out of the project of colonial classification.

For Professor Sharma, displacement of the indigenous, the native, is not only the primary dispossession but also a never-ending one, indeed a metaphor which can incorporate all other forms of dispossession.

In seeking to expand and virtualise the notion of the native, Professor Sharma ends up reifying it so as to incorporate those (or some of those) whose migration was in some sense ‘forced’ into the category ‘native’. I aim to achieve the reverse: to historicise the concept of native as the colonial form of rule as a step to decolonizing our conception of the democratic state.

Reform of the political community is a first step, one that allows us to go beyond the question of settler and native, of who came first. But it does not address the hard question of historical injustice.

To put it differently, it addresses the question of perpetrators, but not of beneficiaries. Indeed, without addressing the question of historical injustice, whose consequences define the limitations in which present generations live, there will be no ‘sublating’ the past, no durable ‘reconciliation’.

This hard question is what we now know as social justice or reparations and which we need to address on the morrow of political reform.

Mahmood Mamdani is the Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia University, and executive director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), Kampala, Uganda.