The F-word: Are we 100% united or 100% divided?

2013-02-03 10:03

ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte was on to something ??good this week. She decried being called a minority and located herself firmly as part of the historically oppressed majority.

Duarte reportedly urged South Africans to change their language on race if they were to help build a nonracial South Africa.

“I’m sorry but I am not a minority. I am a South African black woman. And I am a South African citizen and very proud to be that.”

She added: “People like the idea of nonracialism, but find it hard to live it.”

In the grand scheme of things, an ANC leader declaring herself as Duarte did should be expected. Yet in current South Africa, there is a growing sense of self-stratification based on language, colour or ethnic origin.

There is, for example, a trend of car bumper stickers or tags in cars with 100% Zulu, Tswana, Venda, and so on. I am yet to see a 100% Chinese or Irish, or any of the communities originating in Europe or Asia.

It is understandable that our nation will be fixated by identity given its long history of dispensing privileges and curses on the basis of sameness.

But it is regressive if it is done for what its proponents imagine is the sheer glory of their membership to the group they belong to.

A sense of belonging is innate in human beings, but can be destructive if its identity becomes the basis for thinking of oneself as being of a special breed and therefore deserving of special privileges. We in South Africa should know better than most.

A retreat to the “population groups”, as identified by Duarte, is no worse than this “100% this or that” movement we see on our roads. Both have potential to cause the person to identify themselves in the most limited of ways, instead of seeing themselves as a South African first and foremost.

Nearly 101 years since the founders of what became a premier liberation movement in the nation intentionally chose to transcend tribal identities, we have no business glorifying identities that keep us from our common nationhood.

The ANC founders did not deny they belonged to ethnic communities and clans. They simply did not dwell on this or exaggerate the virtues of their membership to these groups. They saw and celebrated the bigger picture.

There is therefore nothing necessarily wrong with people celebrating their ethnic origins, and practising their traditions and customs. But there is a fine line between celebrating one’s origins and starting to think one is exceptional because of who one is or who one’s ancestors were.

While I have sympathy for the argument that we need to know where we come from to know where we are going, the current romanticising of groups is intended to take us backwards rather than into the future. It seeks to magnify the benefits of belonging to a group when there is no basis for doing so.

To paraphrase what playwright George Bernard Shaw said about patriotism: Purveyors of the 100% brigade imagine that their community is greater than others for no other reason than that they were born in it.

It also feeds on the myth – much loved by African-Americans – of how one’s people were once warrior kings and heroes, and how those who are not members of their group are innately less accomplished than themselves.

Africa has been rocked by senseless exaggeration of the virtues of being born of one community and vices that come with being unfortunate to be born of the other.

Granted that we are yet to witness an ethnic-based confrontation or deep-seated hatred for the other simply because they originate from the “wrong” side of the river or speak “funny”. We cannot afford to wait for Rwanda or Serbia before we become concerned about the nascent tribalism.

The nonracial and nontribal projects are urgent business. It will be a pressing matter until the day that all South Africans are as proud to wear 100% South African as some are today flagging their minority status.

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