Of nations and tribes

2014-08-01 06:45

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Just because we come from diverse backgrounds doesn’t mean we need to be divided, writes David Maimela, after listening to Graça Machel’s Mistra lecture

Throughout history, the debate about nations, nationhood and therefore the practice of nation formation has always been both fluid and controversial.

Compounding this reality is the nature of human society in the 21st century. Rapid globalisation and new forms of “big power” domination have further influenced the meaning of “nation”, nationhood and nation formation.

Europe, with longer traditions of democracy, is still grappling with the question of nation formation: the Ukraine situation, with all its intricacies, bears testimony to this.

Looking further afield, the partitioning of Korea more than five decades ago serves as another example of how war – the pursuit of politics by other means – and external intervention combined to bring about forced nation formation, which resulted in hostility and disunity.

While closer to home, the formation of South Sudan is a further illustration of the fact that nation formation is a constantly evolving and sometimes unpredictable phenomenon.

The debate on nation formation involves many facets of life, as well as intellectual traditions and personal experiences.

What is a nation and what is a tribe? How do nations emerge? Is nation formation legitimate? Is geographic space an important requirement, or are there other requirements? What are the roles of colonial conquest, violence and war in nation formation?

What does a nation have to do with identity, both individual and collective? What of the tension between state and nation? Is the phenomenon of nation formation static? Who qualifies to be a member of a nation? Do nations exist in Africa? What do race, class and gender have to do with nation formation?

All of these questions are pertinent to self-understanding, as well as articulating identity politics at an individual and collective level.

In many ways, the third annual lecture of the Mapungubwe Institute of Strategic Reflection (Mistra), graciously delivered by Graça Machel at Wits University last Thursday, attempted to return to these important questions.

The theme she was requested to speak on was framed as a provocative question: “For Africa to live, the nation must die?”

This was an adaptation of a popular slogan during the 1980s, which went: for a nation to live, the tribe must die!

Many of the issues to which Machel drew attention were sobering. Among other things, she reminded her audience that, with the exception of Tanzania, no African country can claim to have succeeded in building a nation.

She attributed this, quite rightly so, to the impact of colonialism, which resulted in the arbitrary partitioning of Africa by European imperial powers in the 19th century and the consequent internal displacement of people and the destruction of livelihoods, personality, culture and human dignity.

She went further to intimate that Africa’s restoration would not be complete without an attempt to retrace the African map of precolonial times. This not to redraw borders, but to understand the deep linkages among African peoples better. In short, she argued that Africa existed and Africa exists.

As for South Africa – the last country to be freed in Africa – it can be argued that the past 20 years have seen attempts at social transformation, and that these have included attempts to build a new nation out of a divided past.?For South Africa, a very diverse society, old conceptions of “nation” that emphasise a population

with a common culture, language, ethnicity and historical continuity cannot hold. Logically, the South African reality poses a question: “What is the nature of a nation?” as playwright and poet Wole Soyinka would ask. More importantly, can we still emphasise nationhood, and to what end?

The discussion after the lecture highlighted several issues, including the evolution of human relations through human movement, cross-cultural marriages and the very fluid nature of identity.

These have made it possible for legal and physical borders to be transcended and for new forms of identity to emerge, which undermine the collective senses of nationhood with which we are familiar.

Machel emphasised that the narrower identities of family and ethnicity do not have to disappear with the drive towards nation formation and continental unity.

She said narrow identities should not be understood in terms of seeds that give rise to trees. Instead, they should be understood as things that transform and mature into different forms.

She also observed that a racial divide still runs deep in this country. But equally, perceptions of a return to tribalism abound.

These perceptions are further fuelled by factional contestation within and between political parties in a country where the state increasingly faces the threat of capture by established selfish interests.

Taken together, these realities shake the illusion of South African exceptionalism.?Machel’s lecture, one hopes, will heighten and enrich debate on these complex issues.

But many questions remain. For instance, what is the relationship between the individual and the need to transcend narrow nationalisms especially in Africa?

Africa has been free for about six decades. It took Europe more than six decades to build its present continental unity. By contrast, African continental unity has been rather slow and uninspiring.

In the end, it will take decisive leadership and activism to transcend narrow nationalisms, to let the national seed “die” as it transforms into an African tree.

Maimela is researcher in the political economy faculty at Mistra. A recording of the lecture can be found at: www.mistra.org.za

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