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The Resurrection of African Nationalism

Mzukisi Qobo is head of Wits School of Governance (designate), University of the Witwatersrand.

Identity politics are coming out of slumber, and perhaps this is a good thing. In recent weeks a number of incidents have pushed questions about identity to the centre of our debates. There are two incidents that raised temperatures in the popular media. In one, Tinyiko Ngwenya, a black woman and a chartered accountant, narrated her unpleasant experience of living and working in Cape Town, pointing to how despite the fact that we live in a democratic country she continued to be treated as if she were a minority in her own country.

Countless other black professionals have recounted similar experiences with racism in Cape Town. Her experience was quickly dismissed by smug liberals and progressives are like as either subjective or not worthy of the front page of the Cape Times. In so doing, they invalidated what many black professionals and the underclasses have experienced in that part of South Africa.

A few weeks after Ngwenya’s experience, the deputy president of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) Floyd Shivambu made statements that were read as race-baiting when on the occasion of appearance of Ismail Momoniat before Parliament’s finance committee, he asked why the National Treasury is always represented by the same individual, with no African leadership showing up.

This quickly escalated into apoplectic accusations of racism by some leading lights in the media opinion spaces.

Although the transcript of the proceedings of the finance committee meeting has no evidence of a racial attack by Shivambu on Momoniat, the narrative that the EFF is peddling fascist views was unrelenting.

The outrage in defence of Momoniat revealed how race remains a potent force and how selective we are in our outrage about injustices. There is a much bigger question beyond these individual cases on how far we have come in settling the issue of race, and how are we doing as a country in advancing non-racialism.

Tensions over how to settle the national question are not unique to South Africa. As the Indian scholar, Vineet Thakur points out in his book, Postscripts on Independence: “Most nations, especially in the postcolonial world, are works in progress where multiple ideas of nationhood compete and complement each other for authorial claim on nationhood identity.”

Contestations over how to finally put to bed racism and construct a new society on different, and better terms, and in ways that positively affirm our interconnectedness as human beings will continue for a long time.

Evolution of African Nationalism within the ANC

The ANC has a long history of grappling with the meaning of non-racialism, and questions regarding who should lead the struggle, and what to do with the categories that were invented by apartheid – “Africans”, “coloureds”, “Indians”, and “whites” to serve a specific end, that is, to construct gradations of social and economic privileges between these different groups, as well as to define their levels of participation and representation within the apartheid’s political arrangements.

This social engineering was put to full use in the various legislative arrangements, including the Natives Land Act (1913), Urban Areas Act (1923), the Native Representation Act (1936), and various discriminatory legislation right up to the formalisation of apartheid by the Nationalist Party government in 1948 and beyond.

The ideological evolution of the ANC began with limited moderate goals from the moment of its formation in 1912 until three decades later. This was unsurprising since the organisation was given birth by an elite that had a hybrid outlook – socially conservative and politically liberal at the same time – and which sought accommodation within the status quo.

The first generation of ANC leaders was drawn from the clergy, tradesmen, intellectuals, landlords, lawyers, and doctors, and were aggrieved that the system did not recognise their social standing.

Their major struggle was to preserve the qualified franchise that existed in the Cape during the colonial administration, where blacks who had a certain level of education and ownership of property could vote; and also extend this privilege to other provinces in the country. They wanted a seat around the table, even if they received crumbs from the white man’s table, rather than pushing for an overhaul of the political and economic system altogether.

It was only in the 1940s with the emergence of a group of radical youth leaders – AP Mda, Anton Lembede, Johan Ngubane, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu – that the ANC began to develop a coherent nationalistic ideology aimed at achieving self-determination and economic freedom for Africans.

The younger leaders saw the previous generation as having failed to mount an effective struggle against white supremacy. They then took it upon themselves to complete the task. During this time, the tone of the struggle shifted towards a populist nationalist character tethered to mass mobilisation.

In the words of Lembede, “Nationalism is essentially an ideology of the masses because it stirs the deepest human feelings.”

Unlike the early founders of the ANC who had moderate goals that were cast in broad terms, the radical leaders of the 1940s formulated clear strategic goals: to achieve political and economic self-determination, as well as to ensure moral upliftment and educational advancement of Africans.

In sum, theirs was to restore the dignity of the African rather than that of the African elite. This was a fundamental distinction. This wave of African nationalism helped in consolidating the ANC’s ideological posture for at least a decade and a half.

The influence of the Communists in the ANC, and the break-away of the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) in 1959 were two major factors that undermined African nationalism in the organisation.

The communist influence was already present in the formulation and adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1955. With the Africanism of the radical kind receding, and expropriated by the PAC, non-racialism filled the vacuum. It is remarkable that it was only in 1969 that the ANC finally opened its membership to other races other than Africans. It would only be in 1985 at its conference in Kabwe, Zambia that the ANC would allow whites to be members of its National Executive Committee.

Contestations over race persist

The idea of non-racialism, both expressed in the ANC’s own internal politics, and as an ideal to strive for in society is not a well-established body of ideas that has been deeply embedded in the psyche of the organisation or the South African society for that matter. At best, it is backward-looking in seeking to negate the force of colonialism and apartheid.

It is noteworthy that the contestation over race within the ANC did not end in Morogoro or Kabwe. This continued right to the times of the United Democratic Front (UDF), especially in the Western Cape. During the times of the UDF there were debates among activists, especially Africans from townships versus “coloureds” or in the language of that era – those who lived on the other side of the ‘spoor’ (railway tracks).

The tensions were over the meanings of formulations such as reference to the struggle as about “the liberation of blacks in general, and Africans in particular”, as well as assertions such as “the struggle should be led by African working-class leadership”.

It would thus be intellectual dishonesty among ANC leaders today to pretend that all these questions were settled, that there was a perfect consensus on the meaning of these racial categories, and that the reality of distances from or proximity to power among various groups under the black category no longer exists or is something to be scrutinised today.

The future of nationalism and non-racialism

It is a mistake to dismiss the re-emerging strand of populist nationalism as a lunatic fringe that is sowing the seeds of racism or fascism. The founders of the ANC committed the same error when they belittled the efforts of young thinkers such as Lembede, whose ideas would later have a shaping impact on the ideological character of the ANC in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, dimming only with the implantation of the idea of non-racialism.

Nationalism always thrives under the conditions of social marginalisation, and when the voices of the marginalised are drowned out by the liberal-minded middle classes or leftist thinkers who assume they know it all. Nationalism always strikes a chord especially with those who are denied social and economic power, and whose voices are on the fringe, and whose experiences are not well-understood.

Identity politics, as the University of Pretoria academic Sithembile Mbete reminded me recently during a podcast discussion on Race Relations, Culture Shifts, and the Battle of the Sexes, have been with us for a long time; they are nothing new.

The debate on race and identity should not be taken personally or as something that is shameful to have. South Africa is a society that is evolving. We rather debate these uncomfortable truths in the open than smother views we don’t like into silence.

Questioning the utility of non-racialism is not a clamour for a new form of black racism, which would in any case be ineffectual in the absence of social and economic power. Rather we need to think hard and seriously about what it means to be human in South Africa today, how we are connected or disconnected as diverse social groups, what our ethics are on poverty and inequality, and how do we cultivate capacity to share the pain of those who don’t quite look like us and understand where they come from rather than choosing deafness to their grievances.

Crucially, we need to acknowledge that we have a long battle on our hands to demolish the structures that were created historically to undermine the dignity of black South Africans, while imagining and building a positive future that values human worth. DM


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