Heritage Day, 24 September, is one of the best things about the democratic era. It is an acknowledgement, in principle, that South Africans are a diverse lot and that each group may have its own understanding of their heritage. We need to insert heavy caveats before a discussion.
The African Nationalists (ANC) and the ethno-nationalists of a particular kind (EFF) will – probably with force – have the last say on heritage in South Africa. The rest of us – social democrats, liberals, conservatives and even political-religious types – may tap into the histories of our heritage and settle on some identity qua heritage which should make us feel good about ourselves, about our past and the future…
Before they have their way – and they will, to be sure – we can reflect on the value and benefits of diversity, multi-culturalism (I’m not comfortable with the way “multiculturalism” is thrown about), and the hybridity among sections of the country.
I am not a specialist in identity politics. I am, also, not interested in the politics of race and racial politics and have some distaste for minority politics. One does not have to be a Jew to oppose antisemitism, or coloured to be critical of racial discrimination and attempts at marginalising people whom the African nationalists, like their Afrikaner predecessors, have classified as “coloured”, and whom the ethno-nationalists would wish away, or dissolve into some nativist acid.
The problems I have tried to identify in commentaries about the coloured community were driven, in the first instance, by social justice. After that my concern is about the effort by the African nationalists in power to present an official story, or to abuse heritage, race and identity politics, shaped by an ill-conceived nationalism. These are ambitions that the ethno-nationalists, the EFF, share. The EFF are more brazen, though, and would drift closer to Benito Mussolini’s conception of nationalism.
Mussolini was adamant that “the nation is a history of sentiments, traditions, language, culture, and race” (this needs careful consideration). Turning to calls for social justice, he suggested that concerns for the poor – he referred especially to class struggle – is rampant among “a people that has not integrated itself into its proper linguistic and racial confines”. (See Young Mussolini and the Intellectual Origins of Fascism, page 192).
People are living there
The cross-headline is not entirely appropriate. I just like it…
The African nationalists in power believe that as “owners” of the present, they have the right to reimagine or even reconjure the past. And so, a good place to start, with full understanding of the horrors and destruction of communities over centuries, is to acknowledge the presence of “others” and, hard as it may be for some of us, to listen and not assume that we, any one group, has all the answers.
We can at least acknowledge the relationship between personal or private and public. It is rather chauvinistic to deny (as women have historically been denied in patriarchal society) people access to political life and to bring their (personal and sometimes private) lives to discussions on the future.
Multiculturalism can be a terribly misleading concept and is often misused to conceal cultural biases and chauvinism.
Though my knowledge of feminist literature is limited, the tokenism and taken-for-granted normality of chauvinist ordering of society (we have to accept society “as it is”) works against the emancipatory impulse that should be central to everything we do. I am not going to apologise for that which I wrote in italics; if you’re conservative or right wing you might prefer to use “freedom” or “liberty”. Words are like concepts that have their own meanings.
Back to an earlier statement. The history of our heritage has been shaped over centuries of arrivals and departures, interaction (mixing and miscegenation, inbreeding, and all the things that sinners and saints get up to), dominance and dependence, voluntary and involuntary disruption, movement and settlement… and just about everything that humanity is capable of. With that as background, harmony is hard to achieve, especially in a society where a multiplicity of “cultures” abound.
Multiculturalism can be a terribly misleading concept and is often misused to conceal cultural biases and chauvinism. Its use by liberals tends to be superficial – this is the cringe-worthy multiculturalism I associate with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (see here, and here) – and rarely disrupted established patterns of power.
One good way to break with this distinctly liberal view of diversity (and multiculturalism) is to think of diversity as disruption and resistance.
At worst, it can lead to people in the same locales living parallel lives. An incident that I can’t forget is when an academic in the US approached the dean or head of her school for research funding in the developing world. His reply was something like: Why do you study them? That’s just the way they are. (I will share this reference with anyone who is interested. I don’t have access at hand).
I guess what all of the above points to is that we are, as mentioned, a mixed bunch. The histories of our heritages are as fraught and filthy and as wonderful as we can be. Really, if it’s true that our political class represents us, to be sure they come from our communities, and we elect them, then our histories are as horrible as the worst among us and as wonderful as the best.
One good way to break with this distinctly liberal view of diversity (and multiculturalism) is to think of diversity as disruption and resistance; opposition to the overt and tacit acceptance of the power relations that dominate our society, and that harsh future into which the ethno-nationalists want to drive us.
None of this means that 24 September will be just another day under sunny skies around the braai. Though with the harsh winter losing its chill, that seems welcoming. More than the day itself, if we want to give meaning to our heritage(s) we may want to take a leaf from Stuart Hall, who wrote, many years ago, that people have a right to articulate where they are, where they came from and “what other possible futures are available to them. These futures may not be real; if you try to concretise them immediately, you may find there is nothing there. But what is there, what is real, is the possibility of being someone else, of being in some other social space from the one in which you have already been placed.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: All these years later, race, exclusion and inequality are still central to our political reality
The last words in that sentence are key, it is where we have “been placed” in the African nationalist retention of the Afrikaner nationalist racial classification system which makes some of us children of a lesser god and others socially and culturally superior.
I turn, as always, to Chinua Achebe, who reminded us that telling people to abandon their own culture for another (invariably the culture of the powerful), is a most supreme form of arrogance.
As for the day itself, I will probably sleep in, rise slowly, have a slice of toast and sit at my computer for the remainder of the day. DM