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  • When in Rome:claiming the right to define neighbourhood character in South Africa's suburbs
  • Richard Ballard (bio)

To own a hut in a village, it is not enough to have bought it with hard cash. One must know all the neighbours, their parents and grandparents, the surrounding farms, the beeches and oak of the forest; one must know how to work, fish, hunt; one must have made notches in the trees in childhood and have found them enlarged in ripe old age.

(Sartre 1965: 83)


In their 1965 work, The Established and the Outsiders, Elias and Scotson examined a small town in the north of England where established residents claimed certain rights on the grounds that they had been living there for a longer period of time than a group of newcomers (Mennell 1992:118). Established residents regularly deployed the fact that they had been there for three generations to contrast themselves with the new residents of an estate who had moved there during the Second World War. They also considered themselves to be more civilised than the newcomers, or outsiders, who were read as a threat to the identity of the established village. The outsiders were represented as 'rough, uncouth, dirty, delinquent - in short, "uncivilized"' (Mennell 1992:119).

The notion that 'we got here first' seems an elementary and justifiable basis for claiming the right to determine one's environment. However, the normative power of this idea should not deter us from giving it a second look. Our world is filled with examples of communities that express disapproval and fear of newcomers. At various scales, ranging from rants in the local newspaper lamenting the arrival of vagrants in the neighbourhood, to national concerns about illegal immigrants, a common reactionary theme [End Page 64] emerges in which the established group attempts to maintain the status quo against what are seen as the disruptive effects of newcomers. While the territorial defence of place can be manifested in as literal a form as digging trenches to keep out informal settlers (Ballard 2004a), it is also waged in the realm of meaning or the idea of what our place is all about.

The discourse of establishedness sits at the interface between place, identity and power. It is a claim to being native or indigenous to a place. Thus people who believe they are natives to Europe frequently make use of this establishedness to repel or constrain immigrants from other regions. As a result, European senses of cultural, economic or even racial superiority need not be explicitly invoked although they are surely the foundation for this treatment of immigrants. As in the Elias and Scotson study, uses of the seemingly justifiable 'we got here first' claim need to be contextualised within wider understandings of social differences and senses of place.

This paper draws on the work of cultural theorists interested in the identity politics of place, to examine the sense of being 'native' that has allowed white South Africans strongly to defend their suburban turf in the wake of post-apartheid change. While we might not be too surprised to find Europeans defending their turf in Europe on the grounds that they 'got there first', it is somewhat paradoxical to find descendents of Europeans outside of Europe doing the same. Initially this appears counter-intuitive. Scholars have noted that settlers are intrinsically 'without ethnic homes' (Mamdani 1998:5), and that settler identities are fundamentally distinct from native or indigenous identities as they tend to base their superiority on western origins (Blaut 1993, Mamdani 2001, Pearson 2001, Rattansi 1994). While being native to a European country would be a proud claim, to think of oneself as native or indigenous to the colonised territory is perhaps unexpected.

In certain colonial contexts, however, over time post settler identities supplanted settler identities and a sense of nationalism was attached to the adopted country. This depended, to a large degree, on a sufficient engineering of the new home to match the western, modern and civilised expectations settlers brought with them. Furthermore, successful claims to establishedness entailed displacing the original inhabitants of the land and placing themselves as first at the scene. This powerful trick of figuratively 'planting...


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