Ours is a country in desperate need of a better national myth
The craft of nation-building must be accompanied by an effective and believable national myth, in art, as in life.
This article was originally published in January 2020. It has been updated to reflect more recent events.
Fook Island is one of South African abstract artist Walter Battiss’ (1906-1982) most celebrated concepts. It is an imaginary place inspired by his travels to several islands during the 1960s and 1970s, including the Seychelles, Zanzibar, Fiji, Hawaii, Madagascar, the Comoros and Samoa. During the 1970s, he conceptualised a land with its own stamps, currency, publications, passports and “fooklore”, and invited other artists to join him on the island. Together with artist Norman Catherine, they created work commemorating creatures and legends of the island, and its ruler King Ferd III (Battiss), descendant of one Ferdinand who arrived on the island back in 1723.
Much has been written about Fook Island, some suggesting Battiss was creating a world far from the reality of apartheid South Africa, and with the posthumous discovery of letters corresponding with a male lover, it is viewed in some corners as an escape from the oppressive anti-homosexual laws of the time. The depth, the materialistic realisation, as well as the duration of the project, also make Battiss’ Fook Island a particularly remarkable creation, even as the creation of fictional worlds which parallel and comment on the very real world we live in is prevalent in much artistic creation, especially in popular entertainment.
Specifically with regards to visual arts, we have seen recent examples of the creation of ever-developing fantastical worlds, growing from one exhibition to the next, such as artist Athi-Patra Ruga’s reimagining of Azania, which comes with its own founding mythology, its own beauty queens, and much like South Africa, there is an island, where leaders whose authority must not be questioned were made. But in his fantastical Azania, there is also a dynasty of reigning female monarchs.
Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai Chiurai also dabbles in alternate realities, in worlds with alternate histories and founding myths. In 2017, he presented a short film, We live in Silence (Chapters 1-7), the final instalment of a series he began in 2011. In the film he stages alternative colonial histories, interrogating the notion that the colonised are to think like, behave like, and fully adopt the ways of those that colonised them. Here too, the liberation leaders are cast as women, black women in particular.
The worlds these and many other artists create are enriched not only by the visual execution, but also through the incorporating of histories and founding myths, accepted as central to these fictitious nations’ identities, motivating action and influencing expression. That national myth is also used by a fictional leadership to motivate their political machinations in Chiurai’s 2009 The Black President series.
In real life too, the national myth is one constantly exploited by governments, as well as looked to by the populace as a source of inspiration for national identity, the national brand image as it were. In fact, in recent times, governments have looked to branding experts to curate and market that national identity to citizens as well as country visitors. Think Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia campaign of the 1990s, which saw his government champion the creative industries and present the UK as a “cultural powerhouse”. Or more recently, the Great Britain campaign, launched in 2012 with a £113-million marketing budget “to stimulate jobs and growth”.
“The American Dream” is a concept many across the world have become familiar with as it spread through 20th century television and cinema. The term itself was coined by American writer and historian James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book, Epic of America, where he describes it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement”. While the phrase may have been new, the concept of America as a country with potential for upward mobility for all is rooted in America’s 1776 Declaration of Independence, which states:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This of course was almost a full century before the abolition of slavery in 1865, and almost two centuries before the removal of the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation until 1965.
More recently, as that country grapples with its identity, the “America is an idea” concept has grown in popularity. It’s been expounded on by politicians, writers, celebrities, and more recently by ride-sharing company Lyft in the decidedly diverse and pro-immigration 2019 campaign, “America is an Idea, not a Geography,” where the company shares stories of its many drivers from immigrant families.
Whether or not the country actually lives up to the ideals of its Declaration of Independence, or the catchphrases that encapsulate it is an altogether different debate. The idea that upward mobility in the United States is possible whoever you may be as long as you are prepared to work hard has become the foundation of the American narrative. Indeed, for every country around the world, the narrative about the country’s past and its intention plays a big part in the story that informs a nation’s identity, their national myth as it were.
Admittedly, at this moment in history, countries around the world seem to be grappling with the question of national identity, as is evidenced by a rise in right-wing thought and action over the last few years, laid bare on social media channels and voting booths.
Here at home, in South Africa’s young democracy, “rainbow nation” branding popped up early, growing from that moment in December 1991, when Archbishop Desmond Tutu uttered: “You are the rainbow people of God.” By 1994, former president Nelson Mandela stated in his inaugural speech: “We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity — a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.” And the idea of the rainbow nation spread.
In his 1996 paper, titled “Myth of the Rainbow Nation: Prospects for the Consolidation of Democracy in South Africa”, current vice-chancellor at the University of Witwatersrand, Adam Habib, then a senior lecturer at the University of Durban-Westville’s Department of Political Science, wrote:
“After being coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the metaphor of the ‘rainbow nation’ soon took on a life of its own. It has been adopted by top political figures, such as Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. It has been utilised by big business concerns to exhort the broader public to buy some or other commodity in the name of patriotism. It has been advocated by a range of organisations within civil society to advance a variety of political and socio-economic causes. It has been accepted by both the national and the foreign media as the descriptive label of the South African nation. And, it has beguiled the outside world into trumpeting the ‘miracle’ of the South African transition.”
Now, over two decades later, we’ve seen four presidents and an interim one, a terribly handled HIV/AIDS crisis that resulted in preventable deaths estimated at over 350,000 people, state capture, xenophobic attacks, VBS looting, a record-breaking unemployment rate, continuing economic inequality along racial lines, more preventable deaths through the disastrous handling of a pandemic, and most recently, crime, vandalism, and widespread looting. The ‘rainbow nation’ concept doesn’t quite inspire the same confidence it once did in many South Africans.
That said, there are moments along the way that seem to produce occasion for social cohesion, however brief, but the South African narrative is in need of much more than sporting victories and beauty pageant wins for sustenance. They do their best, but it would be unfair to expect them to do all the heavy lifting when it comes to building a national identity, a national myth to gather around and be inspired by.
Habib continues in the abovementioned 1996 paper, with an almost prophetic warning: “It is absolutely essential that a national political identity is generated that subsumes narrower ethnic and racial identities, so that manipulating political figures are not able to exploit social and economic tensions within society to establish widely supported claims for secession. Failure to generate this national identity will leave the forces of democracy forever vulnerable to such political figures…”
Indeed, it has come to pass, as various politicians have selectively used parts of our history to push political agendas, be it the DA’s “Honour Mandela’s vision” billboards framing the party as the real custodians of the Mandela Legacy, the EFF’s branding as the party that cares about the needs of the poor while looting from the poor, or the ANC’s exploitation of its liberation movement credentials, to the obliteration of several liberation parties whose contribution to the fight against apartheid seems to have all but disappeared from the popular imagination.
And here we are, July 2021; corruption is a real part of the South African story, as are inequality, unemployment, poverty, racism, racial tension, xenophobia, and infrastructure failure; and so are hard-working South Africans, who are getting on with it in the face of challenges.
We’re without a doubt a nation in desperate need of far better governance and much better leaders, which beyond the very and urgent important tasks of education, vaccination, and economic transformation, would go a long way towards the construction and fortification of a South African narrative for a society to buy into, to be guided by. Much like the fantastical lands created by artists, which at once interrogate, comment on and engage with reality, while allowing the imagination to consider alternate possibilities and futures, we’re a country in need of better national myths to hold on to, to be inspired and motivated by, in order that we may rebuild, even as everything around us burns. DM/ ML
Disclosure: The partner of the author of this article is artist Athi Patra-Ruga, who is also mentioned in the story
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