The nation: A ?process, not an event

2014-08-21 13:45

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A cohesive society doesn’t simply happen overnight, writes Gail Smith

“All of us, all South Africans, are called upon to be builders and healers. The objectives of equality, nonracialism and nonsexism constitute the very essence of the new society we seek to build. We can neither heal nor build if the rich see the poor as hordes or irritants, or the poor sit back and wait for charity.”

These words by Nelson Mandela speak to many of the ongoing challenges that continue to thwart the process of nation formation in South Africa 18 years since Madiba’s address at the opening of Parliament in February 1996.

They speak not only to the schism that exists between the “haves” and “have-nots”, but to the fact that nation formation remains the responsibility of all South Africans and is an ongoing process, not a destination.

That our country remains on a trajectory towards social cohesion, that our nation is still in the process of being formed, are not necessarily reasons for pessimism.

A central tenet of a recently released report by the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra)?– which seeks to “assess the extent to which South Africa satisfies the theoretical prerequisites to be a nation”?–?lies in the naming of the research project, Nation Formation and Social Cohesion: An Enquiry into the Hopes and Aspirations of South Africans.

The choice of nation “formation” instead of nation “building” is deliberate. It implicitly recognises that the process of forming a cohesive nation is “ongoing, gradual and perhaps never finalised”.

Among the key findings of Mistra’s research into the prospects for the country’s future, which also explores many complexities that characterise the challenge of nation formation that find acute expression in South Africa, is one that will come as no surprise to most South Africans.?It confirms the persistence of the historical patterns of exclusion of the majority of the population.

The report does not seek to gloss over the fissures and fault lines of our fledgling democracy. It seeks to probe some of the key issues constituting national identity, aside from geographical accidents of birth, inherited economic positioning, language, heritage and legacy.

This enquiry into the process of nation formation in post-colonial and post-apartheid South Africa recognises at the outset that familiar orthodoxies of “nationhood” are inadequate for the specificities of an enquiry of this sort at this time and in this place.

It recognises that theories of nations, states and nationalities have to be combined with a deeper engagement with the lived experiences of Joe Public. That nation formation cannot be a process imposed from the top. That agency?– from the state to civil society to individual citizens?–?is essential.

That “we can neither heal nor build if the rich see the poor as hordes or irritants or the poor sit back and wait for charity”.

The scope of the project recognises that the process of nation formation did not begin in 1994, but well before.

It endeavours to establish how diverse communities engage one another and how they relate to the state and to institutions of authority. It also examines how these institutions advance or hinder the process of nation formation and social cohesion.

In seeking to understand if there has been a retreat from the liberating ideas that propelled the struggle for liberation, it recognises the despair still widely felt in our young democracy and the hopes and aspirations that flourish nonetheless.

It explores the various manifestations of “othering” that occur along racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, social, economic and spatial lines, as well as examples of civic-mindedness and camaraderie found in Hout Bay and Thembelihle, among other sites, where one respondent speaks of “some Indians [being] blacker than myself”.

In pursuit of a common vision of what constitutes “us”, we cannot shy away from the myriad ways in which “we” demonise “them”. And, as such, immigrants and “our” toxic attitude towards “them”, as well as “their” role in “our” nation, constitute a key thrust of the research trajectory.

As does the recognition that race relations have many dimensions, including an appreciation of the contributions in the struggle against apartheid, intermarriage and common courtesies.

The fact that our history and economic positioning on the continent?–?with the attendant pull factors?–?render a monolithic cultural model inappropriate.

While remaining cognisant of the social, political and economic impediments, the report attempts to distinguish between the negativity of the national mood at given moments and the protracted process that is integral to attaining nation formation and social cohesion.

It seeks to provide some nuanced answers to the question: Given the race-obsessed ethnic engineering of the past, the cautious transition to democracy, the myriad manifestations of corruption in public and private sectors and the dog-eat-dog mind-set of self-advancement, how attainable is “this very essence of a new society” that was envisaged by Madiba in 1996?

Key points of the research

»?It focuses on the process of nation formation and social cohesion in post-colonial and post-apartheid South Africa

»?It dwells on the challenges and the activities made in respect of these political and social developments since 1994

»?It includes a ‘case study on social cohesion and commemoration of national holidays’, and also posits a ‘possible new approach to national holidays’

»?Drawing from literature that defines nations as, among other things, political, cultural, economic and territorial constructs, it seeks to assess the extent to which South Africa satisfies the theoretical prerequisites to be a nation

»?How many languages, sets of culture, the legacy of racism and socieconomic deprivation and political interests played themselves out in the past 20 years and what the prospects are for the future

»?The concept of nation formation is used to emphasise the fact that, unlike with the more popular notion of ‘nation-building’, the emergence of nations is a process that does not lend itself to artificial homogenising impositions

»?A unique and creative element was to examine the lived experiences of communities in various parts of the country to establish how they interface with one another in their diversity, how they relate to institutions of authority and how these institutions advance or hinder nation formation and social cohesion

Smith is head of communications at Mistra. The research report was released on Thursday

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