How to keep hope alive
A culture of multitribalism, nonracism and nonsexism must prevail to realise our new democracy, writes
hand, and, on the other, the historic foundations of our economy on invasive capitalism, whose extractive habits for natural resources and human labour are still orientated towards Europe.
The democratic aspiration becomes harder to visualise against the reality of extractive orientations, whose structure remains firm, but with only one historic difference: they are now also served by new, numerically small recruits who labour under the illusions of self-empowerment as they, in fact, consolidate the dependence of our economy on foreign, colonially embedded needs. There is no counterbalancing township vision (the source of the new) to reorientate towards a groundedness in which to invest.
Secondly, it has been a major failure of the black collective imagination in 23 years of democracy to continue to resort to race in understanding South Africa’s predicament. Against some realities of history, race is part of the explanation, but it has never been fundamental – although it has been made to seem so until it seemed to have become an unassailable reality. What is fundamental is the story of humanity in this part of the world.
It is often forgotten in today’s South Africa that two major threads running through a century of struggle for freedom here have been antiracism and antitribalism. The latter has been so phenomenally achieved that its power to be deployed against the historic fiction of the former has not been fully realised and appreciated. I elaborate with some observations.
Firstly, section 1(b) of the provisions of our Constitution should have added “nontribalism” to “nonracialism” and “nonsexism”, in recognition of the solemn undertaking of the multitribal, multilingual and multinational gathering of those who met in Bloemfontein on January 8 1912, as the SA Native National Convention declared that its aim was “to bring all Africans together as one people, to defend their rights and freedoms”.
Against this background, it is reasonable to speculate that, as a result of the deployment of race in the political and economic history of South Africa, the relationship between the so-called races was prioritised among the negotiating parties of the Convention for a Democratic SA.
I believe that the reaffirmation of unity among the oppressed should have led to a follow-up congress to that of 1912 in Bloemfontein. This kind of unity was evident in the existence and broad social activism of the United Democratic Front.
The unity of the oppressed was as important as its antiracist, antisexist stance. Instead, the antiracist stance predominated out of proportion to its diminishing demographic relevance.
The tendency towards multi-ethnic and multinational convergence had been happening for much of the 150 years of South African capitalism. Significantly, there has been a new wave since 1994 which has added an imported cosmopolitanism to South Africa. In this regard, the Southern African Development Community, with its 300 million Africans, becomes an extension of regional cosmopolitanism that drew workers from southern Africa.
Mandela’s government in 1994 was the first one in 150 years to formally put at the centre of national concern the conquered, dispossessed, dispersed, decultured and oppressed. The Constitution was the symbol of that recentring effort. The extent of the challenge was vast. None of the conquered tribes had ever lived together voluntarily under a single constitutional obligation.
But the cosmopolitan and multitribal convergence speaks to an even larger matter of historic significance.
The multinational, multicultural, nonsexist, nontribal, cosmopolitan community of southern Africa, its axis located in South Africa, does not need “whiteness”, “white racism” and white people as a reference point to define its identity and sense of selfworth. They have been here for more than 1 million years. In that, 150 years of brutal repression is but a drop in the ocean. The human community that has evolved over those 150 years has an enduring sense of itself and the capacity to create a civilisation once more in this part of the world. It derives its historical sense of self from Zimbabwe, Mapungubwe, Congo, Mali and Zambia, among many others with cross-cutting cultures that define collectively a distinctive space of culture: one more gift to the world.
Perhaps my last word is to the so-called white South Africans. I recall addressing them 17 years ago, at the first Steve Biko memorial lecture. I said: “Wherever the white body is violated in the world, severe retribution follows somehow for the perpetrators, if they are nonwhite, regardless of the social status of the white body ... This leads me to think that if South African whiteness is a beneficiary of the protectiveness assured by global whiteness, it is an opportunity to write a new chapter in world history ... Putting itself at risk, it will have to declare that it is home now, in South Africa, sharing the vulnerabilities of other compatriot bodies. South African whiteness will declare that its dignity is inseparable from the dignity of black bodies.”
Whiteness as ideology or lifestyle in an overwhelmingly black demographic environment in Africa in the 21st century is impossible to sustain. From the perspective of whiteness, the township is no longer the source of labour and profit, but a site for the co-creation of new living environments that have evolved a new awareness of themselves.
Perhaps Hilton College will not wait for the minister of rural development and land reform to decide on appointing a special master. Perhaps Hilton College will write on its website: “Mr Mndeni Sikhakhane and Mr Bhekindlela Mwelase, and those that have passed on, are the fathers of all our boys. They will rest on their land as future generations of boys tell their story, our story: the story of Hilton College.”
Then again, perhaps the minister will surprise us and proclaim the idealism expressed in our Constitution. He may confirm his and his government’s allegiance to it “as the supreme law of the Republic”. He may own up to a blurring of vision in his department and commit to restoring dignity to our men and their families, ensuring that it is respected and protected as the very reason for government in a constitutional democracy.
This is part two of a speech Professor Ndebele delivered at the inaugural Jabavu Lecture last week at the University of Fort Hare as part of its centenary celebrations held jointly with the School of
Oriental and African Studies of the University of London