Process, The na­tion: A not an event

A co­he­sive so­ci­ety doesn’t sim­ply hap­pen overnight, writes Gail Smith

CityPress - - Voices -

T‘All of us, all South Africans, are called upon to be builders and heal­ers. The ob­jec­tives of equal­ity, non­ra­cial­ism and non­sex­ism con­sti­tute the very essence of the new so­ci­ety we seek to build. We can nei­ther heal nor build if the rich see the poor as hordes or ir­ri­tants, or the poor sit back and wait for char­ity.”

These words by Nel­son Man­dela speak to many of the on­go­ing chal­lenges that con­tinue to thwart the process of na­tion for­ma­tion in South Africa 18 years since Madiba’s ad­dress at the open­ing of Par­lia­ment in Fe­bru­ary 1996.

They speak not only to the schism that ex­ists be­tween the “haves” and “have-nots”, but to the fact that na­tion for­ma­tion re­mains the re­spon­si­bil­ity of all South Africans and is an on­go­ing process, not a des­ti­na­tion.

That our coun­try re­mains on a tra­jec­tory to­wards so­cial co­he­sion, that our na­tion is still in the process of be­ing formed, are not nec­es­sar­ily rea­sons for pes­simism.

A cen­tral tenet of a re­cently re­leased re­port by the Ma­pun­gubwe In­sti­tute for Strate­gic Re­flec­tion (Mis­tra) – which seeks to “as­sess the ex­tent to which South Africa sat­is­fies the the­o­ret­i­cal pre­req­ui­sites to be a na­tion” – lies in the nam­ing of the re­search project, Na­tion For­ma­tion and So­cial Co­he­sion: An En­quiry into the Hopes and As­pi­ra­tions of South Africans.

The choice of na­tion “for­ma­tion” in­stead of na­tion “build­ing” is de­lib­er­ate. It im­plic­itly recog­nises that the process of form­ing a co­he­sive na­tion is “on­go­ing, grad­ual and per­haps never fi­nalised”.

Among the key find­ings of Mis­tra’s re­search into the prospects for the coun­try’s fu­ture, which also ex­plores many com­plex­i­ties that char­ac­terise the chal­lenge of na­tion for­ma­tion that find acute ex­pres­sion in South Africa, is one that will come as no sur­prise to most South Africans. It con­firms the per­sis­tence of the his­tor­i­cal pat­terns of ex­clu­sion of the ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion.

The re­port does not seek to gloss over the fis­sures and fault lines of our fledg­ling democ­racy. It seeks to probe some of the key is­sues con­sti­tut­ing na­tional iden­tity, aside from ge­o­graph­i­cal ac­ci­dents of birth, in­her­ited eco­nomic po­si­tion­ing, lan­guage, her­itage and legacy.

This en­quiry into the process of na­tion for­ma­tion in post-colo­nial and post-apartheid South Africa recog­nises at the out­set that fa­mil­iar or­tho­dox­ies of “na­tion­hood” are in­ad­e­quate for the speci­fici­ties of an en­quiry of this sort at this time and in this place. It recog­nises that the­o­ries of na­tions, states and na­tion­al­i­ties have to be com­bined with a deeper en­gage­ment with the lived ex­pe­ri­ences of Joe Pub­lic. That na­tion for­ma­tion can­not be a process im­posed from the top. That agency – from the state to civil so­ci­ety to in­di­vid­ual cit­i­zens – is es­sen­tial.

That “we can nei­ther heal nor build if the rich see the poor as hordes or ir­ri­tants or the poor sit back and wait for char­ity”.

The scope of the project recog­nises that the process of na­tion for­ma­tion did not be­gin in 1994, but well be­fore.

It en­deav­ours to es­tab­lish how di­verse com­mu­ni­ties en­gage one another and how they re­late to the state and to in­sti­tu­tions of au­thor­ity. It also ex­am­ines how these in­sti­tu­tions ad­vance or hin­der the process of na­tion for­ma­tion and so­cial co­he­sion. In seek­ing to un­der­stand if there has been a re­treat from the lib­er­at­ing ideas that pro­pelled the strug­gle for lib­er­a­tion, it recog­nises the de­spair still widely felt in our young democ­racy and the hopes and as­pi­ra­tions that flour­ish nonethe­less.

It ex­plores the var­i­ous man­i­fes­ta­tions of “oth­er­ing” that oc­cur along racial, eth­nic, cul­tural, re­li­gious, so­cial, eco­nomic and spa­tial lines, as well as ex­am­ples of civic­mind­ed­ness and ca­ma­raderie found in Hout Bay and Them­be­lihle, among other sites, where one re­spon­dent speaks of “some In­di­ans [be­ing] blacker than my­self”.

In pur­suit of a com­mon vi­sion of what con­sti­tutes “us”, we can­not shy away from the myr­iad ways in which “we” de­monise “them”. And, as such, im­mi­grants and “our” toxic at­ti­tude to­wards “them”, as well as “their” role in “our” na­tion, con­sti­tute a key thrust of the re­search tra­jec­tory. As does the recog­ni­tion that race re­la­tions have many di­men­sions, in­clud­ing an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the con­tri­bu­tions in the strug­gle against apartheid, in­ter­mar­riage and com­mon cour­te­sies.

The fact that our his­tory and eco­nomic po­si­tion­ing on the con­ti­nent – with the at­ten­dant pull fac­tors – ren­der a mono­lithic cul­tural model in­ap­pro­pri­ate.

While re­main­ing cog­nisant of the so­cial, po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic im­ped­i­ments, the re­port at­tempts to dis­tin­guish be­tween the neg­a­tiv­ity of the na­tional mood at given moments and the pro­tracted process that is in­te­gral to at­tain­ing na­tion for­ma­tion and so­cial co­he­sion.

It seeks to pro­vide some nu­anced an­swers to the ques­tion: Given the race-ob­sessed eth­nic engi­neer­ing of the past, the cau­tious tran­si­tion to democ­racy, the myr­iad man­i­fes­ta­tions of cor­rup­tion in pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tors and the dog-eat-dog mind-set of self­ad­vance­ment, how at­tain­able is “this very essence of a new so­ci­ety” that was en­vis­aged by Madiba in 1996? Smith is head of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Mis­tra. The

re­search re­port was re­leased on Thurs­day

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