In the maelstrom that is South African politics, some questions are so fundamental that they are simply never asked. To listen to the angry debates we have, it sometimes seem that we are not, in fact, in the same mental space - even if we inhabit the same geographic space. This goes to the heart of questions about whether we are one nation, and if we are, why we are that nation.
A few days ago Dr Saths Cooper, president of the International Union of Psychological Science, but also one of those deeply involved in the Struggle, suggested that instead of being one nation, we “don’t have a national culture. We don’t indeed have a nation. We tend to be, at the best of times, warring ethnic and other kind of entities. And we have yet to see a nationhood based on apple pie and all of those nice things that we would all want to believe in.”
It seems very hard to disagree with Cooper. And he absolutely has the legitimacy to make such a comment, considering his qualifications, back-story, and general life experience. Certainly his comment is something we need to examine, and decide if we agree or disagree. And of course, the consequences of agreeing with him could lead to other questions: should we give up on the national project; is there an answer to what the ANC has always called The National Question (race); should groups just secede from the Republic?
It is certainly true that it seems there is more anger around racial issues now than there was, say, ten years ago. Some of this makes sense; it’s about how white privilege has been perpetuated, and that Apartheid lives on in the economy. It’s also about a frustration regarding how white people often are seen as failing to realise, and then acknowledge this. It’s perhaps also about a generational shift: the generation that brought the ANC to power saw reconciliation as their primary focus; now it’s about empowering the majority of the country, and white people can be seen as not getting involved in that project. Also, younger South Africans may well feel that the time has come to transform, and white people may be seen as having a stake in keeping things un-transformed.
And, of course, the actual work of transforming a country is always going to be much harder than the initial period of transition.
Having said that, it surely must be true that South Africans can be defined. During the 2010 Football World Cup, you could spot a South African in a stadium, not because of how they looked, but because of how they acted, and how they interacted with each other. More and more, that is the case. And it is certainly true that the generation of kids who went to school together – despite living in Soweto and Sandton – is now working together, and that kind of integration is becoming more meaningful.
One thing that most South Africans by now share is an understanding that the world is a diverse place. Here, if you get invited to an official function, there is no immediate assumption that your “plus one” is of the same race, or, for that matter, opposite gender to you. The list of places to tick under “diet” is lengthy. That kind of thing doesn’t happen in Australia, where the Prime Minister believes in knighting Princes. (And doesn’t even lose his job over it.)
Then there is the outpouring of grief for Madiba. For perhaps the first time in our history, white South Africans poured out to pay their respects upon the death of a black political leader. The reason for that is probably that Madiba allowed them to feel comfortable in their own skin. Perhaps, strangely, he absolved them of guilt, and thus allowed them to feel South African.
It is a cliché that sport is important for nation building in South Africa. And yet, that doesn’t mean it’s not true. If there is one person who has been on our national stage for over a decade and yet never created an enemy, it’s Hashim Amla. He is unique in that everyone respects him, even those who tend towards the Islamophobic. And he’s done this by being fairly quiet, and just producing results, time after time, innings after innings. It is proof that producing the goods consistently can earn you respect in our country, despite what can be an obsession with race.
The other point to make is that Cooper is talking during a specific time. Since 2015 started, we’ve seen racial debate around the wearing of ANC colours by journalists, the rant by Zelda le Grange, the release of Eugene de Kock, and then the attack on a coloured teenager by white teenagers in the Northern Cape. That’s quite a long run of events, all at the same time.
Having said that, there is probably a much bigger reason why our nation seems more like “warring ethnicities and other entities” at the moment. It’s because our economy is not doing well.
In a recent article in Foreign Affairs about populist movements in Europe and North America (think the UK Independence Party, the Tea Party movement within the Republicans and Jobbik in Poland), the political scientist Yascha Mounk suggested that “[a]verage citizens don’t just make less money today than they did a generation ago; they are also a lot less certain about their future incomes and their degree of protection against new forms of financial and social risk. It is little wonder, then, that so many citizens not only suffer from a strong sense of economic decline, but also are growing increasing convinced that the political establishment has failed them”.
That comment could easily be made about many South Africans today: miners are losing their jobs, factory workers are feeling despondent, and even in the services sector, people who started out as shop assistants no longer feel they’ll get promoted to store manager in the near future. It’s well known that a lack of hope as a result of economic conditions often leads to extremist parties growing in size. Julius Malema is surely a beneficiary of that.
It is almost always true that the general angst we’re feeling eases when everyone feels the pie is growing again, so much that they don’t need worry too much about the size of their slice. But if it’s getting smaller, they feel they must fight other people harder.
Where Cooper may also be wrong is that there is a sense of South Africanness sometimes. It was just about eighteen months ago that a coloured ANC leader, in Marius Fransman, an Indian doctor in Iqbal Surve, and the black-led government itself came together to get the white Dr Cyril Karabus out of the UAE. It was a fine moment to be South African, and no matter what you think of the track record of Fransman and Surve in other fields, it was proof that they were South Africans, and sometimes in the finest sense of that word.
We come together in non-political national moments. Think of the Nigerian church collapse – it was a moment when everyone was shocked together, no matter which side of the fence they sat on.
These examples must add up to proof that we are a nation, and that we can justifiably feel as a nation. Sometimes it may feel as if we are apart because we haven’t yet defined ourselves. But that definition process is underway, and it should generate more and more momentum as we go. And over time, our differences will matter less and less. DM
Grootes is the host of the Sunrise show on SAfm. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.
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