What does it mean to be South African?

2011-07-09 09:45

Recent incidents have called into question our ability to cohere as a society. The killing of right-wing leader Eugene Terre’Blanche, for instance, threatened to spark a racial war.

While we were still alarmed by the sight of armed right-wingers gathered outside court at the hearing of Terre’Blanche’s alleged killers, the farming community was outraged by Julius Malema’s singing of a liberation song that contained the lyrics “Dubul’ ibhunu (Shoot the Boer)”.

They charged that the song incited the killing of white people. A criminal act, coupled with juvenile taunting, essentially threatened to tear us asunder.

This begs the question: are we ever going to get to a point where we feel a common sense of belonging, that we’re tied by a shared set of values that enable unity of purpose among ourselves to tackle what are common problems facing our country?

Despite the haunting memories of the past and challenges of the moment, we’re nonetheless not doing badly as a country. Research shows that in 2004, for instance, 54% of citizens defined themselves as South African. Only 18% defined themselves as African – 4% used a racial identity, and 14% an ethnic identity.

How we promote this overriding national identity will be among the key questions that will be deliberated upon at a national colloquium on social cohesion organised by the Department of Arts and Culture.

One cannot imagine questions more fundamental than: what does it mean to be South African? And what values define us as a people?

Once we’ve defined our identity, it then becomes part of public morality. There’s a vast difference between public morality and the law. Moral persuasion is a much more effective mechanism towards egalitarianism than law enforcement.

It’s not illegal for anyone to accumulate as many empowerment deals as possible, but it is morally repulsive. Nor is there a “moral stick” to deter such obscenity. We need to get to a point where certain behaviours, though legal, are defined outside the norm.

Before we get there, however, we first need to establish what we’re all about.

Getting to the answer must take us back to our heritage. In that search, our guiding question should be: what is it in our past that we should retrieve to help us solidify the present? And, of course, ours shouldn’t just be a romantic retrieval of any past, but one that is compatible with the present.

If that is so, then we’ll find the age-old ethos of ubuntu extremely useful.

Critics among us will hasten to say that, in talking about ubuntu, we’re romanticising the precolonial past.

They’ll go on to tell us that today’s South Africa is just too individualistic, with people being more concerned about themselves than the next person. This is precisely the reason we need ubuntu, as it underscores our shared humanity.

This does not necessarily mean that individualism is suppressed in favour of the whole, since the welfare of the individual ultimately rests on the wellbeing of others.

Consensus-seeking is a quintessential element of ubuntu – the idea is to reach a decision that appeals to all interests in order to maintain internal cohesion and unity of purpose. In the course of cultivating this consensus, people are made to feel that they count even though their ideas may be discarded.

Another benefit of ubuntu is found in recent history, namely, the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Notwithstanding its imperfections, the TRC gave the victims of police brutality and bereaved families a much-needed sense of closure and a new beginning.

Equally crucial, it enabled the country to avoid going down the dangerous path of outright legal prosecutions – a route that could have elicited a terrible backlash.

The idea of gaining forgiveness following a public confession is deeply rooted in an age-old African belief that a human being is innately good and can be rehabilitated, however hideous his or her deeds.

Agreeing to the TRC was also indicative of the inclination of the African majority to achieve harmony through ubuntu.

» Advocate Mancotywa is the chief executive officer of the National Heritage Council. He writes in his personal capacity


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