Is our search for social cohesion an illusion?

2014-10-17 06:45

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

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 nation-building.

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?

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

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