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Creating a new South Africa identity

By William Gumede
Posted on Friday, 30 April 2010 16:24

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Building an inclusive South African-ness rests on recognising diversity as part of a broader commitment to a collective identity, argues William Gumede. Debates around ‘African-ness’ are misguided, he says. The country’s true identity should be built on equality, the distribution of opportunities and an inclusive approach to nation-building.

The raging debate over what makes one South African, which currently focuses on whether a person is African enough, is simply the wrong debate.

Can we ever cobble together a common South African-ness?

To start with, diverse developing countries such as South Africa with such a politically-divided past obviously cannot find a solution in a nationalism based on a shared culture, language or ethnicity. Neither can it rest on common citizenship or living in a shared space alone – often assumed in Western models of nationhood.

South Africa’s bitter history of more than 350 years of colonialism and apartheid – with its accompanied ethnic divisions, conflict and state-sponsored economic inequalities – makes the challenge of cobbling together a new South African-ness from our divided past so much harder, yet so much more urgent.

We must start from the premise that there cannot be one single definition of who is a South African. The obvious, basic building block is identifying oneself as South African.

The ethnic, language and regional diversity bequeathed by both colonialism and apartheid must mean that modern South African-ness cannot be but a ‘layered’, plural and inclusive one.

Former President Nelson Mandela’s 1962 statement in the dock during his political trial for inciting resistance against the apartheid government neatly put it that South African-ness cannot be defined in relation to a majority community. At the same time there cannot be one sole defining culture that indicates South African-ness.

The fact that we are so ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse should then be a central plank of a unique South African identity. South Africa’s democracy is based on a compromise between diverse political groups and acceptance of our differences. The fact that South Africa has a multiple identity should be the basis of its shared South African-ness. South Africa is a melting pot of people with their roots in Africa, the East and also the West.

Colonial and apartheid governments have insisted that South Africa is a society of ‘self-enforced’ communities, always potentially – and in the absence of the [colonial or apartheid] state, actually – in gruesome conflict with one another.

Yet more than 350 years of colonialism and apartheid have meant that South African cultures are not ‘gated communities’ with fixed borders, but more often the site of considerable overlap, beyond just the occasional shared word or value. This means that South African-ness is one of ‘interconnected differences’.

The challenge for South Africa then is how to build a common sense of South African-ness on the basis of our interconnected differences. What makes our situation different is that creating a new South African-ness will have to be based on politics. And because of this, South African-ness will always have to be continuously persuaded for; it is not going to be one that will be enacted by decree or good intentions alone. This is both a weakness and a strength.

What then is the basis of our common political identity? South Africa’s founding myth – based on politics – is the fact that the country managed, out of the ashes of a civil war, to peacefully construct a democratic dispensation based on a new democratic constitution, anchored in South Africa’s ethnic diversity and a new set of democratic values, rules and political culture.

The founding document of our political settlement is our constitution.

A common South African-ness will have to be weaved around the idea of an inclusive democracy. Included in this is solidarity for the vulnerable that must cut across the racial and political divide; this means that social justice must underpin governing.

Altogether these would be the basis for common interests and a ‘national consensus’ across the ethnic, political and colour divide. Our common ambition should be to mould a new democratic identity for South Africa. We must put the emphasis on now and the future, rather than remain trapped in the bitterness of the past.

Because South African-ness is a political construct, there are some obvious pitfalls.

For one, leadership style matters very much. There is going to be a premium on South Africa’s political leaders to govern at all times for every South African, not one political party, faction or ethnic group.

A case in point is the fact that President Nelson Mandela, like India’s Mohandas Gandhi, consciously tried to evoke through his own personality a symbol of all-South African patriotism around which all South Africans could rally, no matter their colour, ethnicity or political allegiance.

Leaders must follow the rules applicable to everyone else. Flagrant ignorance of the new democratic laws by post-apartheid leaders won’t do.

Since democracy and the new constitution are at the heart of South Africa’s new identity, undermining both cannot but undermine the formation of a new South African-ness. Yet increasingly the constitution has often been treated not as a founding document by some political leaders.

President Jacob Zuma for example some time ago warned that African National Congress (ANC) MPs should serve the ANC before the constitution. That is not right.

Democratic institutions, such as the courts, the media and civil society are critical watchdogs to ensure the values of democracy that are important for nation-building are lived out in everyday routines.

Furthermore, a new democratic South African identity necessitates widespread public trust in the democratic system and institutions.

Because a democratic state is so central in building a new common South African-ness, the legitimacy of the state will hinge on whether it delivers. For example, public corruption that appears to go without punishment, or with selective punishment (the perception that if the person is closely connected to the right faction of the ANC, then wrongdoing is often not punished or is just given a slap on the wrist), also undermines the legitimacy and credibility of government.

A combination of a lack of delivery, a seemingly indifferent state and the perception that only a few blacks connected to the top ANC leadership and whites, by virtue of education and pre-1994 policies, benefit economically from the democracy, will erode the legitimacy of the state and undermines any nation-building efforts.

A common prerequisite for developing a common South Africa is allowing the space for differing opinions. Absolute loyalty must not be to a party, leader or tribe, but to the constitution.

Another prerequisite is for the vast talents of all South Africans, not only those of the same colour, party or faction, to be used. If it is the opposite, it will undermine nation-building, as it excludes those deliberately marginalised, whether black or white.

Opportunistically using the race for self-enrichment or to cover up wrong-doing undermines the building of a common South African identity. So it is with retreating into ‘nativism’ – wanting to seek an exclusive definition of South African-ness or who is an African – which overrides the constitution’s core definition, which argues for multiple identities, diversity and inclusivity as the pillars of South African-ness.

A common South African identity and the future will have to be built as a mosaic of the best elements of our diverse pasts and present, histories and cultures. This does not mean that we must commit identity or cultural suicide. You can still be Afrikaner, Zulu or Indian as part of broader South African identity. However, there should not be one way of practising Afrikaner-ness or Zulu-ness; others may practice their identity differently, and others may even opt out of wanting to be viewed as Afrikaner or Zulu, even if they are born within those cultures – and they must be respected for that. But most importantly, we must practice an Afrikaner-ness or Zulu-ness in such a way that it does not conflict with the democratic values set out in the constitution: human dignity and respect and empathy for others.

Race, and the continued legacy of apartheid inequalities where most blacks are poor and whites better off, is one of the fault lines of the country’s efforts to build a common South African-ness. So at the heart of any economic development must be policies that genuinely uplift not only the poor, but the widest number of people at the same time – rather than a small elite, whether white or black or both. If the poor black majority is left out of prosperity, a common South African-ness will remain a fading dream. White and black hardliners will then continue to have fertile ground to manipulate black resentment and white anxieties to push for narrow definitions of South African-ness that exclude others.

This article was originally published by City Press on 24 April 2010 and republished by Pambazuka News.

William Gumede is the co-editor, with Leslie Dikeni, of the recently released The Poverty of Ideas.

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