The Primal Origins of Belonging

Image courtesy of the Sunday Times 2015-Zapiro

To fully consider the implications of the things that divide us, we must consider those that unite us. Communities thrive on a sense of oneness, belonging and a shared future. As much as we might have internal differences, a nations’ survival is determined by how the group fares in comparison to its’ competitors in the region. The psychology of engaging in a community rests primarily on the sense of security found in identifying with a group. The membership to the group enables a form of acceptance, which is enhanced by the sense of influence one can exert on, and in turn be influenced by the group. The more things the group can share the better the internal psyche, hence the success of national sports teams and the sense of unity they are able to create. A shared history, particularly one that necessitated interdependence, for example drought, war or economic crisis binds individuals into the body that is the group. For if we have come through something together, we can go on to face the future together. These are all very basic tenants of social engagement. But as we get stronger as a unit, it becomes easier to identify differences in the outsider.

No community has ever liked a wandering traveller, people that come from parts unknown come with their own value sets and rules of engagement. I have seen this in myself, as a foreigner attempting to naturalise, there were things about South African society I found glaringly different and difficult to rationalise. The people are more assertive, driven and street smart. They are also defined very strongly by race groups, judgemental and a little myopic. Some of these traits are typical of people that have collectively formed a successful group culture to have exerted regional dominance and that have not had to migrate too far in search of resources. These are shifts in mind-sets one must adjust to, partly to survive and secondly to find acceptance in the new community. It is a long process to restructure one’s value sets and to begin to adopt behavioural traits in keeping with the visited community. It takes years to integrate and understand the small nuances between people that locals take for granted. It is almost as though people of the same group relate on a meta-level of communication that has been established through centuries and generations of co-existence and inter dependence.

There is also suspicion in someone untethered to their own community and with good reason too, as they can afford to be less accountable. We are quick to say, “I can do whatever I want, nobody knows me.” What we really mean is that our actions have less consequence in settings where we are not so tightly bound by our community. There is no obligation to behave when there is no one of significance watching.

Let us consider it in the context of protecting the group and how even in these globalised times our primal instincts fiercely surface. The only thing we are responding to, is threat. When times are good, trade flourishes, international relations are at the forefront of human interaction and the gains to be made are immense. When times are tough however, we retract deeper into our groups. We are extremely territorial and it makes sense to be, as stronger groups mean more food or resource for the group and a better chance of survival. South Africa, and the entire world, is under strain from the ever increasing number of immigrants. I see it first hand in the public hospitals I’ve worked in where at least 30% of our case load is foreign. And still having more babies.

The more people using the system available for a discrete amount of citizens, the less there is per capita. Each individual begins to feel the strain and begins to feel marginalised by their rapidly dwindling access to resources. There are few things that evoke undesirable behaviour in people, the threat on ones’ livelihood cuts very close to the bone.

Xenophobia is defined by the South African Human Rights Commission as “the deep dislike of non-nationals by nationals of a recipient state.” Implicit in that, is the profiling of people and consequent negative judgment. It is also not a new problem, it predates 2008, when the nation was burning with multiple spates of violent attacks. As early as the 1980’s South Africa has received large numbers of refugees, at the time particularly from Mozambique which showed the beginnings of disgruntlement. This was however overshadowed by the violence of apartheid and the transition that little attention was paid to it. Further incidents of xenophobic violence, were documented in 1994, 2000, 2008, 2013 and even as recent as 2015.

(See a comprehensive list of recorded incidents at )

The multitude of reasons are almost immaterial, we cannot deny the glaring fact that in a world of finite resources and limited space continued threats to survival will garner the reaffirmation of “sameness” and the exclusion of the “other.” It makes us feel better about ourselves to belong to something because it is inherently safer and therefore the more we cement the us, the more brutally we can justify the treatment of them. We tend to associate this behaviour with the poor and uneducated, but it so happens that it is to them that the threat is imminent. It is rarer in the middle class for there to be a resentment of foreigners as the contestation for resource is not as pronounced.

The migration of humans is also something unstoppable, the European migrant crisis is a culmination of the state of desperation reached by countless communities. The scale of the problem is massive, with the estimated number of forcibly displaced people at the end of 2014, at 60 million worldwide. We aren’t alone in our handling of the situation, rising tensions between Europeans and migrant populations reflect how we revert to self-preservation. The perfect example of the backlash is in how successfully Donald Trump has managed to appeal to a significant number of the American population. As radical as it seems, he voices their deepest desires of security. And despite the human nature at play here, the call to rise above intolerance is a difficult one to heed. All it may be good for, is a future campaigning point as a reason to go to war and justify our mistreatment of “them.” Neither of which are outcomes that solve the problem nor address the apparent impossibility of sharing this world.