It made for a good yearbook quote once upon a time. How original and fantastic to both think of quoting and actually be able to quote such an iconic line from Mean Girls! Having studied citizenship and its many contradictions over the past year in the 1B option paper, the line’s fantastic originality has somewhat faded. It now reads rather tritely.
My dual citizenship is something of a wonder to most people when they first meet me, though whether this has more to do with the ease of making small talk about it or my very obvious lack of a South African accent I’m yet to ascertain. Either way, particularly for those for whom defining themselves by one passport is unavoidable, it’s something of apparent marvel to have lived in and in many senses belong to more than one place. “So, would you say you feel more British now?” some ask. “That’s the South African in you!” others remark, explaining away some very un-British turn of phrase or pronunciation. “Nonsense! You’re South African!” a relative implores as I refer to the UK as ‘back home’.
I’m not really aware of my citizenship, thus defined, when it isn’t brought into such a position of alterity. Would it really be of such interest and keen chase for small talk to a fellow Brit if I was, like them, British born and raised? Ultimately, the commonality lacks the same allure. In a similar vein, I found myself feeling most British, most keenly, whilst abroad in South Africa a few weeks ago. Walking through the airport upon arrival in Johannesburg I realised I could either go through passport control as a South African citizen in the domestic queue or, as I did, a British citizen in the international arrivals queue. The red tone of my passport and thick overcast of my British accent marked me rather self-consciously as Other to the sea of emerald passports and lilting rainbows of accents. It seemed that whilst my citizenship zigged in the UK, here it zagged.
What makes me a citizen? I was born in South Africa and took my first steps there. I had a home in a small cul-de-sac in Johannesburg, went to a local school where my biggest daily concern was how many ice pops I could afford in the tuck shop, and spent summers dotted around the Eastern Cape. I have a passport and the right to vote in elections. I moved to the UK when I was 6. I’ve grown up in the UK and the UK is what I know and where I see myself. By right of my father’s birthplace, I’ve also had my British passport from birth. There’s no neat temporal disjunction to map onto my spatial dislocation between the two nations: I’ve always had the contradiction of belonging. What does that make me? I’m hard pressed to choose definitively between the two, but if necessary I call myself British. With the added afterthought of “but originally South African!” Could citizenship be more a thing of feeling, of practice and being, something de facto, rather than something purely granted legally by the powers that be, something de jure? What is citizenship?
I always liked Professor Susan Smith’s open-ended definition of citizenship given in The Dictionary of Human Geography best, not least granted its ease of application to any question the examiners might have posed in the exam (take note, incoming second years). Smith defines citizenship as ‘a concept, rather than a theory, which formalises the conditions for full participation in a community’. Something lived, rather than purely theorised; one of many forms of belonging, as Dr Alison Mountz would put it; and, crucially, defined as much by what it is as by what it is not, so extends Professor Alison Staeheli. They all intimate that at the very heart of citizenship lies the contradiction of alterity; that you are as much a citizen because of what you are, as what you are not. Formally, this alterity has varied by regime and time: you were a citizen in Nazi Germany because you weren’t a Jew; you were a citizen in apartheid South Africa because you weren’t coloured; you were a citizen in 19th century America because you weren’t a slave, etc. In South Africa, I felt British because I so clearly was not South African: in accent, manner, understanding. But in practice, these boundaries are constantly negotiated, disrupted and appropriated. If you take the citizenship option you’ll (soon) be familiar with the seminal work of James Holston in his study of insurgent forms of citizenship in the urban peripheries of São Paulo, Brazil; to give a base overview, where formal citizenship is granted by property ownership, new forms of fabricated citizenship have emerged in urban peripheries where the auto-construction of property allows individuals to performatively appropriate the norms of property-based citizenship. Countless other examples exist, from the quasi-societies constructed by deaf citizens to appropriate space in oral citizenship explored by Gill Valentine and Tracey Skelton, to the solidarities fostered by global LGBTQ+ movements in deconstructing straight citizenship explored by David Bell. I performed my South African citizenship when I could join in on jokes about the pitiful British attempt at barbequing, or admire the beauty of the country of Our birth.
I know so many people who quantify their identity into fractions and have always found it fascinating how ancestry is claimed to substantiate citizenship. ¼ French; 2/3rds German; ¾ Russian, etc. Beyond the academic explorations, intellectual interest and indeed noughties pop culture references, citizenship is something constantly negotiated in everyday life in ways far more complex, significant and pressing than the contradictions of my dual citizenship. The Othering at its core makes it all the more important to engage with as we see the coterminous shrinking of the world and expansion of explicit xenophobia; noting the suppositions behind questioning whether one can be white and from Africa, so we should remain critically aware of delineating claims made rather normatively in political discourse about identity and belonging.
By Chloe Rixon