What happened to multicultural identity?

2011-03-19 12:53

A few years ago, the Harvard Committee on African Studies asked me to address them on some of the challenges facing our new democracy.

I chose to focus on the paradoxes that often confront new democracies.

The opening up of the political space brings not only the assertion of new identities, but new identity interests. By identity, I do not mean just material interests but psychological and cultural resources that groups of people define as their own.

These could range from language rights to how groups claim ownership of geographic space.

As people assert these identity interests, a bigger paradox emerges that demands great leadership skills: can the nation develop a shared sense of identity while recognising the existence of these multiple identities and multiple claims?

The extent to which a nation can manage these conflicts is in turn a function of its usable past.

This usable past is made up of past political, cultural and intellectual resources that enable the nation to deal with current problems.

The process of choosing from the past is always selective; no society has a perfect past.

India’s birth was a result of a bloody rupture with Pakistan but the country’s leadership was able to choose from its history that which could be used in building the biggest and most diverse democracy in the world.

According to Indian scholar Rajni Kothari, India’s ability to survive as a democracy has to do with a long history of “multiethnic and multinational existence” and that “Gandhi’s genius lay in mobilising such a past for changing the directions of the present”.

I suggested to the Harvard gathering that another paradox of new societies was a declining capacity for collective problem solving.

Unlike exceptional figures such as Gandhi or Mandela, most political elites would rather exploit racial and ethnic differences for short-term political gain
Also, dominant political elites would rather let the country go to ruin than seek solutions from alternative histories.

The role of intellectuals in such situations is to rise above the politicians and engage directly with society in the quest for “the usable past” across the political spectrum.

The founding of the African National Congress in 1912 was a significant moment in the construction of a non-tribal identity among Africans.

And the Black Consciousness Movement was unique in crafting an anti-ethnic black South African identity among Africans, coloureds and Indians.

As a black consciousness activist, I still cringe when I have to use those terms.

But I also now recognise that we have to be democratic enough to allow people to call themselves as they wish.

If we cannot rely on politicians, then what can we as public intellectuals and activists – in the media, community organisations and religious organisations – do to preserve our historical capacity to forge a common identity in the midst of our plurality? Unlike politicians, we are not searching for votes.

First, we must reclaim the terms of the identity debates from the politicians and the technocrats.

To speak, as Jimmy Manyi did, of human beings in terms of an “oversupply” of the labour market is not so much the revelation of a racist mind in the Verwoerdian sense as it is of a technocratic mind that is not sensitive to the politics of cultural identity, and of why people remain attached to geographic spaces.

However, this does not mean we should not problematise those attachments or have debates about identity and space and nation building.

Political institutions structured around identity is a recipe for disaster.

The current provinces deepen ethnic identities and identity interests around being coloured or Indian or Zulu or Xhosa or Pedi.

They should be abolished.

A common South African identity will remain elusive for as long as we do not have a much more cosmopolitan view of space.

Gauteng is an example of the kind of geographical cosmopolitanism I have in mind.

There is no ethnic group that can claim exclusive ownership of the geographic space given the multiple origins and identities of the people who live there. This principle needs to be elevated to the national level.

Above all, we must develop in our communities a new multicultural politics that is not centred on electoral competition.
This multicultural politics must be informed by what the scholar Kirstie McClure calls a “politics of direct address”.

This is a horizontal politics through which individuals and groups of citizens get to know each other by participating in common civic institutions around common identity interests such as good schools for all our children.

As the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor puts it: “My own identity crucially depends on my dialogical relations with others.”

Indeed, without those relationships built on dialogue with one another, there may well be no identities left to defend.

The unfortunate aspect about the Jimmy Manyi-Trevor Manuel controversy is that intellectuals have engaged the debate by simply asserting their identities instead of asking deeper questions about whether a democratic society can be built on the existing, ethnicised institutional and geographic underpinnings.

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