The idea of South Africa is blowing in the wind. Many of the institutions intended to transform the promise of a non-racial democracy into a concrete reality are in tatters. Public commentary tirelessly laments the corruption and ineptitude of our leaders and our administrators.
Yet the problem lies not only with what we can see and touch. It is in the air that we breathe, an increasingly foul pestilence that overcomes people and institutions.
What is this air? It is the ideas and values that circulate between us, that fires our imaginations and our passions and that draws the lines between friends and enemies. We pay hardly any attention to what Pratap Mehta calls these “normative conditions of institutions”, as if public life breathes in a vacuum.
We are in the middle of an epochal change in South Africa.
One of the enduring paradoxes of the ANC, especially as the organisation evolved from the mid-1950s, is that in the name of “nationalism” it endorsed a profoundly non-national vision of South Africa.
A new report by a group of international legal scholars notices – I believe for the first time – an important disappearance from the ANC’s political language. The term “self-determination” vanished from its lexicon in the 1950s. Elsewhere, across Africa and Asia, colonised people fought for self-determination from European empires.
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This was a term with a long provenance in European conceptions of political community, invented to give legitimacy to popular appeals from largely Slavs, Greeks and German speakers for independence from European continental empires – the Austro-Hungarian Empire, for example, or the Ottoman Empire.
As it became a principle and later a right of international law, African movements seized on it as a route to their own independence despite misgivings about its deep roots in European nationalism.
Here in South Africa, however, the ANC and its Congress allies struggled for national democracy, not for self-determination. The Pan Africanist Congress split with the ANC precisely on this point.
Instead, the language of self-determination was appropriated by the National Party, who from the 1960s and 1970s framed apartheid as a project of decolonisation. The purpose of Grand Apartheid, the NP declared, was to give self-determination to Africans in their own ethnic states.
The Union of South Africa, they proposed, was an imperial abomination, an artificial political community that threw diverse people together in an unnatural unity. The order of the world was distinct nations in their own territory.
The idea was not so far-fetched from an international perspective. The post-World War 2 consensus, the great historian Tony Judt explained, was founded on the idea that homogenous nations should reside in their own territories – driving a post-war exchange and movement of populations (ethnic cleansing) unprecedented in human history.
Since 1955 and especially since 1969 the ANC has refused such ethnic republicanism. Instead, it has insisted over and over again that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white”.
In other words, the ANC accepted that anti-colonial freedom in South Africa would not be achieved through the self-determination of blacks in relation to whites. There is no doubt that South African communists played a decisive role in blunting the nationalist tendencies in the ANC. This fluid and plural vision of South Africa, however, also resonated with African precolonial traditions.
If we compare, for example, European society at the Cape in the 18th and early 19th century with Nguni societies before Shaka, what is striking is their political sophistication by modern standards.
Whereas Company rule in the Cape did not know the rule of law, Nguni society was rule-bound. Whereas European society was riddled with race-thinking and with race, Nguni societies easily integrated strangers, even white ones. Whereas Cape society was a slave-owning and trading one, this was a practice largely unknown among the Mthetwas, the Zulus and the Ndwandwe. The Cape chronicles are full of stories of European shipwreck survivors travelling among peaceful, orderly societies.
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This, I believe, was the constitutional promise of 1996. South Africa was a plural society given shape through colonial wars, racist violence and capitalist exploitation. Instead of turning away from this history, modern South Africa would be made by transforming it.
This was not a naïve story of rainbowism, of whites and blacks holding hands while singing kumbaya. It referred to the hard work of state-building and creating a new type of economy. Both of these are historical projects.
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Many of the people who staff and run the institutions of South Africa’s modern constitutional state, including those in political parties, parliamentary officers, government officials and business leaders, do not share the normative values that underpin them.
On the contrary, what is striking about contemporary South Africa is the length to which politicians, officials and so on have gone to repurpose public institutions to achieve ends for which they were not designed.
The growing repudiation of constitutional democracy comes with a very sharp sting. There are growing assertions here of nationalism as self-determination for Africans. It gives to the current situation a truly surprising aspect, not just in South Africa.
In the name of anti-imperialism, the left has come to endorse (third world) nationalism, often turning a blind eye to its sometimes authoritarian, patriarchal, elitist and conservative local content, if on the international stage its posture is radical.
It has produced some strange contradictions. Left-wing academics themselves, if they happen to be white, are deemed indistinguishable from the ideologues of apartheid because they are said to be “within the same hegemonic project of whiteness”.
An uncanny arc is formed, uniting the left and the extreme right in a common span of nationalism. At stake is the end of South Africa.
South Africans must once again push back against these nationalist winds. They howl radical slogans but share much with the republicanism of the National Party. They huff the notes of decolonialism but exhale the nationalism of the European late-19th century.
Most importantly, the values of this nationalism propre are incompatible with the normative conditions of South Africa’s modern state, excusing State Capture, corruption and institutional collapse.
South Africa needs intellectuals, politicians, officials and activists who believe in the idea of South Africa. Otherwise, we are blowing in the wind. DM