Is a Common South African Identity Really Possible?

2015-10-15 07:39

Lingering atop current fads in South African social discussions is the question of a common “South African Identity”. The question, now being entertained by many prominent figures in the country’s social & political landscape, is one which should be asked, given South Africa’s need for social reform from our violent and conflictual past. Scholars, journalists and politicians addressing this question may be lauded for their approaching this subject, but failing to account our marred history means no real solutions can be identified. Old adages such as “unity in diversity” along with others like Tutu’s famously coined “Rainbow Nation” phrase are now well and truly tokens of a symbolic period encapsulated by dizzying euphoria since 1994 and the initial years subsequent.

Violence and crime, as a result of poverty, entwined with a psychology of violence and flouting the rule of law cannot be left untouched when looking at [possible] catalysts for our social dissonance. Residual awkwardness for the majority of different race groups interacting with one another in an honest and comfortable way, means perpetuation of reductionist views are easier for South Africans to submit to. These cheap assumptions of course have their grounding in our past, something which many have tried to shrug off in a liberal and at times, obnoxious way. The multitudinous configuration of identities as an [intended] result of segregation is still something which affects our interactions with one another on a daily basis, as lived realities of the less fortunate majority are polarized far below the privileges of some.

Glenn Moss in his book The New Radicals – A Generational Memoir of the 1970’s recalls his discomfort and awkwardness being around students of colour during his time at Wits in the 70's, (something Steve Biko lauded him for admitting and articulating honestly at the time). Racial (and now class) divides present considerable challenges for South Africans to converse and get to know one another honestly and in a comfortable manner. Whether we’d like to admit it or not, our psychological and social conditioning both as a result of our past as well as failed attempts to wholly transform social and economic conditions has resulted in the perpetuity of social enclaves and silos. whether it be on university campuses like Stellenbosch or in our own urban settings, such social spacing only allows for a continual distancing which isn't only unhealthy for ourselves, but detrimental for the country as a whole.

This "awkwardness" Moss describes is still something largely persisting in our country today. The racialized history and socialization of South Africans under the architecture of the old regime still looms large. This “awkwardness” results in aversion for most South Africans from different racial, cultural and religious groups or spaces (it doesn't take much to notice this). Geographical, social and cultural spacing are still left largely intact, leaving the formation of a common identity not only a distant possibility, but one which holds no weight as to its achievability. The only suggestion from my perspective is to initiate intercultural exchanges whether they be through programs by organisations, govt. or other social movements. The Hewitt family in Pretoria tried this, but as recalled in an earlier submission, received considerable criticism for their efforts, having been dismissed as a family seeking attention (something I personally disagree with). Perhaps such initiatives need to have more permanent, and long term impetus with  a focus on development (economic and social). Given prevalent fear from violence and crime however, it must be conceded that courage is needed. Such courage one may say, comes only from the benevolent and sincere part of the human heart. Complacency and migration cannot be the only ingredients in our response to the trajectory we currently see for our beautiful country.

Transformation as an attempt to reverse the injustices of old shouldn't only be restricted as an attempt to create new middle class constituencies but facilitate socialization across divides of class and race. whether this is facilitated by government, NGOs or other institutions remains the question. Transformation as per the economic route is something we’ve all conceded will take considerable time, not least because our economy is moving at a glacial pace, but also because there's a dissonance between the haves and the have-not's. This of course now spans beyond notions of colour, with  many elites linked to patronage systems in politics and business enjoying privileges and luxury beyond the imagination of most South Africans. A common South African identity is only possible when genuine and sincere efforts to meet and know one another across the myriad of divides. Sincerity and a better understanding of one another is where assistance and development become not just slogans but actions encased with genuine humanity and concern for one another

As a friend so cogently noted on his Facebook wall earlier this week

“South Africans can be capable of great empathy and insight. Too often, they yield to base parochialism and prejudice.”

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