Sixteen years into our democracy questions still remain as to whether or not South Africans will ever be able to cobble together a shared national identity.
This country’s bitter history of more than 350 years of colonialism and apartheid has engendered deep divisions along political, as well as cultural, linguistic and ethnic lines. Past repressive governments have insisted that South Africa is fundamentally 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’.
As citizens, we ourselves sometimes cleave to the divisions of the past – making the forging of a shared new identity much harder, yet so much more urgent.
In a diverse country such as ours, our solution should not rest in a national identity based on a singular shared culture, language or ethnicity. Neither, as is often assumed in western models of nationhood, should it rest on a common citizenship or shared geographic space alone. As Nelson Mandela stated from court docks in 1962, it also should not be defined solely in relation to one majority community.
South African identities are not ‘gated communities’ with fixed borders; more often than not, they overlap meaningfully, beyond the occasional shared word or value. Our modern South Africanness therefore cannot be but a ‘layered’, plural and inclusive one, and one based on acceptance of our ‘interconnected differences’.
However, building commonality on the basis of difference presents a unique challenge. A shared sense of South Africanness, therefore, will have to be based on politics. It will require continual persuasion and lobbying, and cannot be enacted by decree or good intentions alone. This is both a weakness and strength.
What, then, is the basis for our common political identity? South Africa’s unifying narrative is predominantly political: a history of emerging out of the ashes of a civil war and peacefully constructing a democratic dispensation. Our Constitution, the founding document of our political settlement, anchors both our diversity and a new set of democratic rules and values.
A common South Africanness should also be weaved around the idea of an inclusive democracy. Solidarity with the most vulnerable must cut across racial and political divides – meaning that social justice must underpin governance.
Taken together, these would form the basis of our common interests and a national consensus across historic, ethnic, political and colour divides. Our shared ambition should be to mould a new democratic identity for South Africa that emphasises the present and future, rather than remaining trapped in the bitterness of the past.
Yet because this common South Africanness is a political construct, there are some obvious pitfalls.
First, leadership style will matter very much. There will be an imperative on political leadership to govern in the interests of every South African at all times, and not for one political party or faction. Here, we can recall the legacies of Gandhi in India and Nelson Mandela, who in South Africa attempted to evoke a symbol of unifying patriotism around which all could rally.
Further, with politics at the core of South Africanness, undermining democracy and the Constitution threatens the formation of this shared identity. New leadership must follow the rules applied to everyone else, and flagrant ignorance of new democratic laws by post-apartheid leaders won’t do. Democratic institutions, including the courts, the media and civil society, must continue to be active watchdogs in ensuring that democratic and constitutional values are embedded in everyday practice.
Trust in, and the legitimacy of, the democratic system and its institutions are additional requirements for a strong common identity. Where corruption in the public sphere appears to go without punishment, or where consequences are mitigated by political connections to the ruling party, government’s legitimacy and credibility is undermined. Further threats are posed by the combination of a lack of delivery, a seemingly indifferent democratic state, and the perception that only whites and the black elite see the economic benefits of democracy.
Political space must also be allowed for differing and divergent opinions, without the requirement of absolute loyalty to any party, leader or tribe, but to the Constitution.
It is also important that the vast talents of all South Africans are utilised, and that deliberate marginalisation or exclusion based on race is eschewed. Opportunistically using race for self-enrichment or to cover up wrongdoing undermines a common identity, as does retreating into ‘nativism’ and proffering exclusive definitions of South Africanness or Africanness.
Our common South African identity, and shared future, will have to be built as a mosaic of the best elements of our diverse present and past, histories and cultures.
This does not mean committing identity or cultural suicide. We can still embrace our individual identities – as Afrikaners, Zulus, Indians – while also being part of the broader South African collective. However, there should not be one way of practising Afrikaner-ness or Zulu-ness, and some amongst us may want the choice to opt out of these identities altogether, and this must be respected. Most importantly, the way we embrace and practise these identities in our daily lives must not conflict with the constitutional values of human dignity, gender equality and respect and empathy for others.
Race, and the continued legacy of apartheid’s racial and economic inequalities, are among the major faultlines in the country’s efforts to build a common South Africanness. Therefore, at the heart of economic development strategy must be policies that genuinely uplift not only the poor, but rather the widest number of people at the same time – rather than just a small elite, whether white or black.
Finally, if the poor black majority is left out of prosperity, a common South Africanness will remain a fading dream. Hardliners of all races will then continue to have justification for manipulating black resentment and white anxieties to push for a narrow definition of South Africanness which excludes others.
William Gumede is co-editor of The Poverty of Ideas: South African Democracy and the Retreat of the Intellectuals, published by Jacana in 2009.
Image © Jan Hofmeyr