Is our search for so­cial co­he­sion an IL­LU­SION?

Ques­tions whether so­cial dis­so­nance has taken over and if a common po­lit­i­cal cit­i­zen­ship is far-fetched in South Africa

CityPress - - Voices - Pro­fes­sor Gumede is head of Unisa’s Thabo Mbeki African Lead­er­ship In­sti­tute

As South Africa cel­e­brates 20 years of democ­racy, it is per­haps an op­por­tune time to re­visit the “na­tional ques­tion”, which refers to the ap­pro­pri­ate bal­ance of power and in­flu­ence among the four racial groups in South Africa needed to achieve non­ra­cial­ism. In his 2007 book, Do South Africans Ex­ist?, Ivor Chip­kin provoca­tively asks if South Africans ex­ist. The Ma­pun­gubwe In­sti­tute of Strate­gic Re­flec­tion also deals with per­ti­nent is­sues in its re­cent re­port on “na­tion for­ma­tion and so­cial co­he­sion”.

Chip­kin con­cluded that “if South Africans were not a na­tion, they were, nonethe­less, al­ready some kind of peo­ple. The is­sue is there­fore: Who [is] el­i­gi­ble for cit­i­zen­ship and who [is] not? At stake [are] the lim­its of the po­lit­i­cal com­mu­nity.”

It might very well be that Chip­kin in­evitably reaches this con­clu­sion be­cause his def­i­ni­tion of a “na­tion” de­cid­edly and con­ve­niently ig­nores the im­por­tance of cul­tural arte­facts in the make-up of any “na­tion”.

Chip­kin de­fines a na­tion as “a po­lit­i­cal com­mu­nity whose form is given in relation to the pur­suit of democ­racy and free­dom”.

Writ­ing in the con­text of a “French na­tion”, Joseph Re­nan ar­gued “the essence of a na­tion is that in­di­vid­u­als must have many things in common and must also have for­got­ten many things”.

Dis­cussing the French Revo­lu­tion, Eric Hob­s­bawm ar­gues France “pro­vided the first great ex­am­ple of the con­cept and the vo­cab­u­lary of na­tion­al­ism”. Also, Bene­dict An­der­son, who has put the the­o­ri­sa­tion about no­tions of na­tion, na­tion­al­ism and na­tional iden­tity back on the agenda, de­fines a na­tion as “an imag­ined po­lit­i­cal com­mu­nity – and imag­ined as both in­her­ently limited and sov­er­eign ... the na­tion is al­ways con­ceived as a deep, hor­i­zon­tal com­rade­ship”.

Lan­guage, cul­ture and sim­i­lar fac­tors are crit­i­cal in the imag­i­na­tion of a po­lit­i­cal com­mu­nity as com­ple­men­tary ef­forts in na­tion-build­ing. In­deed, cul­ture evolves.

Lan­guage, as an as­pect of cul­ture and a defin­ing vec­tor in power re­la­tions, can­not be over­looked in a nar­ra­tive aimed at imag­in­ing a “na­tion”.

It would make sense to think of a na­tion as in­volv­ing “arte-facts” and “men­tal-facts”.

So it’s prob­lem­atic to think of a “na­tion” sim­ply as a peo­ple pur­su­ing democ­racy and free­dom, es­pe­cially in the con­text of South Africa and its po­lit­i­cal his­tory. It is also im­por­tant to ac­knowl­edge that “na­tions” might have ex­isted long ago, par­tic­u­larly in Africa, be­fore “print-cap­i­tal­ism”, to use An­der­son’s nomen­cla­ture.

I also want to ar­gue that most lit­er­a­ture, es­pe­cially by so-called lead­ing schol­ars, on na­tion­al­ism is prob­lem­atic in ig­nor­ing the African ex­pe­ri­ence. Could it be that Shaka kaSen­zan­gakhona, for ex­am­ple, was a na­tion­al­ist in pur­suit of an “African na­tion”, as Her­bert Vi­lakazi has ar­gued. Also, we must not de­ceive our­selves into con­flat­ing cit­i­zen­ship and be­long­ing to mean­ing an ex­is­tence of a “na­tion”.

Putting aside the im­por­tant ge­neal­ogy and his­to­ri­og­ra­phy, I think South Africa has to re­flect deeply on whether there is a “na­tion” emerg­ing or as­pects of a “na­tion” iden­ti­fi­able as we cel­e­brate 20 years of democ­racy. Na­tion-build­ing, not state-build­ing, can be viewed as the strength­en­ing of unity, co­her­ence, func­tion­al­ity and pride in a na­tion state.

For post-apartheid South Africa, it would be more mean­ing­ful to see a na­tion as a com­mu­nity that shares a lot in common, re­spects its re­pul­sive po­lit­i­cal his­tory – through proac­tive sys­tem­atic resti­tu­tion­ary, rec­on­cil­ia­tory and re­struc­tur­ing mea­sures – and an eq­ui­table shar­ing of re­sources.

As it stands, “democ­racy”, es­pe­cially lib­eral democ­racy, is not enough. The cur­rent or­der per­pet­u­ates the in­jus­tices of the past.

Thus, the na­tion-build­ing project ap­pears to be fall­ing apart in South Africa. It is de­bat­able if South Africans share a lot in common as those crit­i­cal as­pects of na­tion-build­ing such as com­mon­al­ity of val­ues, cul­ture and lan­guage, and shared psy­cho­log­i­cal and emo­tional affin­ity are con­spic­u­ously miss­ing among the var­i­ous groups that in­habit the coun­try.

Our re­pul­sive po­lit­i­cal his­tory and the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of apartheid colo­nial­ism make it dif­fi­cult to build a “South African na­tion”.

Wealth and re­sources are pre­dom­i­nantly owned by whites, while the majority of Africans bear the brunt of in­nu­mer­able so­cioe­co­nomic hard­ships. This is not an ar­gu­ment against non­ra­cial­ism and by no means im­plies that whites do not be­long in South Africa.

In one of his mem­o­rable es­says writ­ten in the early 1960s ti­tled Whose is South Africa? Al­bert Luthuli ar­gues that “the Act of [South African] Union [of 1910] vir­tu­ally handed the whole of South Africa over to a mi­nor­ity of whites – lock, stock and bar­rel … from 1910 to now, the whites have car­ried out sys­tem­atic and re­lent­less mop­ping-up op­er­a­tions. To­day, their own­er­ship is as com­plete as it ever will be”.

As Luthuli put it about 50 years ago, own­er­ship by whites is as com­plete as it ever would be – white priv­i­lege re­mains very pro­nounced.

Sa­belo Ndlovu-Gat­sheni writes: “South Africa is a typ­i­cal ex­am­ple where a move­ment of black peo­ple that started with a lib­er­a­tory agenda was by the mid-1950s grav­i­tat­ing to­wards an eman­ci­pa­tory project hav­ing been hi­jacked by both white and black lib­er­als.”

It is there­fore not an ex­ag­ger­a­tion nor hy­per­bole to ar­gue that South Africa ap­pears to be drift­ing fur­ther away from be­ing a “na­tion”.

The suc­ces­sive post-apartheid ad­min­is­tra­tions seem to have mainly been pre­oc­cu­pied with state-build­ing, not na­tion-build­ing, although some at­tempts at imag­in­ing a new “na­tion” have been pur­sued.

The chal­lenge with na­tion-build­ing and/or so­cial co­he­sion ini­tia­tives so far is that they ap­pear to over­look the his­tor­i­cal in­jus­tice of apartheid colo­nial­ism as the fun­da­men­tal con­straint to the mak­ing of a post-apartheid South African “na­tion”. The idea of a post-apartheid South African “na­tion” re­mains elu­sive, to say the least, es­pe­cially given the cur­rent gov­ern­ment does not seem to have its act to­gether. Whites would do South Africa and them­selves good to heed the ad­vice of Afrikaans aca­demic and writer Sampie Ter­re­blanche and take the ini­tia­tive not to be taught, but to ac­knowl­edge their his­tor­i­cal role in the de­struc­tion of African civil­i­sa­tions and na­tion­build­ing.

I will not be sur­prised if Wits Univer­sity pro­fes­sor Daryl Glaser and other like-minded schol­ars (and politi­cians shar­ing sim­i­lar views) will view my take as “racial-na­tion­al­is­tic ex­cesses”.

As Glaser ar­gues in a 2011 ar­ti­cle: “Whites should be ed­u­cated about past in­iq­ui­ties and en­cour­aged to see that the bet­ter-off among them (even those born post-apartheid) have in­curred obli­ga­tions to the coun­try’s black poor as a re­sult of th­ese.”

It seems highly un­likely we can have the cel­e­brated French Revo­lu­tion. But I won­der if a South African-spe­cific cul­tural revo­lu­tion is far-fetched. We can­not change the po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion we em­braced, which might have been ideal un­der the cir­cum­stances then, but we can change our des­tiny.

We all, as the Con­sti­tu­tion says, be­long here and we ig­nore the na­tional ques­tion at our peril, in­clud­ing the un­think­able con­se­quences for the white es­tab­lish­ment too. The new po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment, or the pro­posed so­cial pact, has to ad­dress the fun­da­men­tal ques­tion of the mak­ing of a new South African “na­tion”.

An­der­son says it is fea­si­ble to imag­ine and con­struct a “na­tion”. Put dif­fer­ently, is a “common po­lit­i­cal cit­i­zen­ship”, which Mah­mood Mamdani makes ref­er­ence to in the case of Julius Ny­erere’s Tan­za­nia, far-fetched in South Africa?

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