Mazibuko does of course have a very succinct point. We certainly do have far greater challenges that do not involve singsongs, rugby, or Darren Scott – even if he does make it back to the Supersport studio. These are scary times in South Africa. It is a country grudgingly confronting the reality of white privilege and the thrust of a new political leadership. We’re learning that in order to confront the harshness of what may soon come; the bandages concealing our festering scars will have to be ripped off.
Mazibuko may feel Darren Scott’s slur to be of trifling importance but the frivolities of a national anthem and the way we speak to each other as white person to black person are essential to forging a way forward for this country.
Participation in a multicultural, multiracial, multilingual society like South Africa requires a strong, mature sense of identity and though we are almost 20 years into a purportedly new South Africa, we are still defining the tropes of a South African identity. Of course we do not expect to happen on a national identity somewhere along our merry way into the future. The construction of this identity is a contest between varying ideologies. What defines a South African, and who is it that will decide on what it means to be South African – this is what outrages us. To quote a tweet again (yes, I consume vast quantities of 140-bit sized pockets of information), City Press editor Ferial Haffajee on the appointment of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng: “Things I learnt about us: we’re OK with second best; love an under-dog and are now firmly a conservative nation”. The hullabaloo over the appointment of Mogeong was particularly vocal because it signals who we are as a nation and where we are going.
Issues of national identity are not frivolous. They are essential not only in how we are viewed from the outside but also how we view ourselves from within. A national flag, a national anthem, and language, not any specific language, but the sum of what we say to each other – these are what we have agreed on to define our South Africaness. When these facets of our identity are breached, when they are ridiculed or severely offended by public figures, it is quite right to be outraged. It is a violation of the South Africa we have managed to build thus far.
Crucial to establishing an identity that straddles the boundaries of race and culture is the way we relate to others with whom we differ in race, class and ideology. In lambasting black South Africans for over reacting to one racist slur by a public personality, we seem to have forgotten the historical legacy from which these frivolous “national crises” emanate. Just as a bad childhood leaves its mark on the whole of a person’s later life, so too, a bad historical memory has a lasting effect on the way we perceive each other – and what we now demand from each other. The legacy of apartheid lives on in a doctrine of structural inequality that divides us sharply and the flimsy fabric holding us together is being torn asunder by demagoguery, fanaticism and ill will. What remains are the symbols of what we would like to be, of what we aspire to, in a multilingual national anthem sung as it was meant to be, and language rinsed clean of racism.
Of course any attempt to unravel the mechanics of what informs a sense of South Africaness is deeply problematic. The more simple naive among us – I include myself here – want this to be a South Africa that inherently espouses the idealism of equity, honour, non-racism and liberty but there are no palpable rules to clearly define what makes us a “people”. Our unity is fundamentally arbitrary. We are not united by any one language or culture – what we share is a sense of place and history. There is a whole world beyond the borders we have imposed on ourselves.
Sure, South Africa is mired in problems but we are not exceptional. We are not aloof of the rest of the world, what we seek in defining ourselves is locating a South Africa within the rest of the world. A national identity is subverted in multiple directions by a global impetus and the demanding fusions of home. When we express outrage at a racist discourse and a very public bungling of the national anthem, we are expressing outrage at violations of our aspirations as South Africans. Beyond the constraints of a state and its aggrieved, embittered and defensive people, the greatest contribution to a sense of South Africaness would perhaps be to look beyond the shackles of our borders, individual, national and ideological. If we did, would we remain as petty? As xenophobic? As racist? DM