Placebos will not suffice in the search for identity

2010-04-24 11:11

Touchy-feely campaigns to help foster a South

Africanness, such as wearing Bafana Bafana T-shirts on Fridays, are at best

placebos. A new South Africanness will have to be

­constructed on firmer foundations.

To start with, diverse developing countries such as South Africa,

which has such a politically divided past, obviously cannot find a solution in a

nationalism based on shared culture or citizenship alone.

How then should one define South Africanness? We must start with

the premise that there cannot be a single definition of what constitutes South

Africanness. The ethnic, ­language and regional diversity left by colonialism

and apartheid must mean that modern South Africanness has to be “layered”,

plural and inclusive.

Former president Nelson Mandela’s 1962 statement in the dock

­during his political trial for inciting resistance against the apartheid

government neatly put it that South Africanness cannot be defined in ­relation

to a majority community.

By the same token, there cannot be one defining culture that

reflects South Africanness. The fact that we are so ethnically, culturally and

­lingually diverse should be central to a unique South African identity. South Africa’s democracy is based on a

compromise between the ­diverse political groups and acceptance of these


South Africa is a melting pot of people who have their roots in

­Africa, the East and the West.

Colonial and apartheid governments have insisted that South ­Africa

is a society of self-enforced communities that always has the ­potential for

gruesome conflict.

Yet despite more than 350 years of colonialism and apartheid, South

African cultures are not “gated ­communities” with fixed borders, but more often

than not overlap ­considerably. This means that South Africanness is a state of

­“interconnected differences”. The challenge for South Africa is how to build “a

common sense of South ­Africanness” on the basis of our ­“interconnected


What makes our situation different is that creating a new South

­Africanness will have to be based on politics.

What then is the basis of our common political identity? The founding document of our political

settlement is our Constitution.

A common South Africanness will have to be weaved around the idea

of an inclusive democracy.This means that social justice must ­underpin


Because South Africanness is a political construct, there are some

obvious pitfalls. For one, leadership style matters. There is going to be a

premium on South Africa’s political leaders to govern for every South African,

not just one political party, faction or ethnic group.

Nelson Mandela, like India’s ­Mahatma Gandhi, tried to evoke

through his own personality a symbol of all-South African patriotism around

which all South Africans could rally, no matter their colour, ethnicity or

political allegiance.

Since democracy and the new constitution are at the heart of South

Africa’s new identity, undermining both cannot but

undermine the formation of a new South Africanness.

President Jacob Zuma, for example, some time ago warned that ANC

MPs should serve the ANC first, before the Constitution. This is wrong.

Democratic institutions, such as the courts, the media and civil

society, are watchdogs of democracy.

A new democratic South African identity necessitates widespread public trust in the

democratic ­system and institutions.

A prerequisite for developing a common South Africanness is

­allowing the space for different opinions.

Another prerequisite is that the vast talents of all South Africans

– not only those of the same colour, party or faction – be used.

Opportunistically using race for self-enrichment or covering up

wrongdoing undermines the building of a common South African ­identity. So, too, retreating to ­“nativism” or wanting

to seek an ­exclusive definition of South ­Africanness overrides the

Constitution’s core definition.

A common South African identity will

have to be built as a mosaic of the best elements of our diverse past and

present, histories and cultures.

The continued legacy of apartheid inequalities is one of the fault

lines on the country’s efforts to build a common South Africanness.

Policies that genuinely uplift the largest number of people, rather

than a small elite, must be at the heart of any economic development. If the

poor black majority is left out of prosperity, a common South Africanness will

remain a pipe dream.

  • Gumede is co-editor, with Leslie

    Dikeni, of the recently released The Poverty of Ideas (Jacana)

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.