Defend Truth


Who are we, we the People of South Africa? So many answers – healing the rifts isn’t easy


Dr Michael Kahn is an independent policy adviser and honorary research fellow in the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University, and a member of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science Policy.

Are we a nation? What binds us as we belt out segments of the national anthem? What binds us as we dodge a testosterone-laden cyclist who is dodging a minibus? What binds us when we dodge paying our taxes?

It’s election time and fantasies abound. Trust us, we who know what you need and want, we, the past and future representatives of you, the People. People? Who are you, what have you sacrificed?

Yu Hua’s chapter on People argued that Chairman Mao came to embody the very People in a gigantic personality cult. With his death, the god Mammon became the new emperor. Does this tell us anything about our polity?

Perhaps the closest we got to this was when the crowd celebrated Jacob Zuma as “our 100% Zulu boy”. It was close.

“We the people.” So begins the Freedom Charter with its vision of inclusion. “We the people.” So begins the Constitution of the United States with its acceptance of human slavery. Very different ideas of the People, these.

The Freedom Charter stood against the absurdity of apartheid that defined two kinds of people: Europeans and non-Europeans. So today we have our inclusive Constitution that recognises unity in the diversity of our Peoples with their 11 languages, excluding that of the First People.

Recall 17th-century poet John Donne, who intoned that “no man is an island”. Down south, we the people long understood this in the saying Motho ke motho ka batho. I am through all. Thus the principle of Botho, or in the Nguni tongues, Ubuntu. First we are people, social beings, the very basis of humankind. After that we are political animals, and that gives us humankind, nastiness, conquest ’n all.

In principle we care for one another, hence the slogan Batho Pele (people first), which commits the government to deliver to the people. I promise you. Really?

Batho pele means no Life Esidimeni massacre of the infirm; it means no Albert Street inferno; it means no grand theft from the public purse; it means no Marikana: it means that no child is left behind to drown in a pit latrine at one of the 3,300 schools that provide such conveniences. Really?

What does Batho pele mean in practice?

It depends where you stand.

Out on the eastern fringe of Khayelitsha you occupy a steel shack for which you pay R1,000 a month (R2,000 if you are a foreigner). Your children can get to school, and you have access to a clinic.

Maybe you live on the boundary of a commercial maize farm, and have acquired rights of tenure as a long-term farmworker. You earn the going rate, your children attend school, and one has a foot in Free State University. There are future prospects, but change is slow and you feel frustrated. Your brother is a councillor and drives a Beemer. You don’t. Why?

Up on Waterkloof Ridge you worry that your husband might be suspicious of your personal trainer. OK, slow things down a bit. His eyes are elsewhere yet again, and now he’s got an urgent business trip, and it’s “sorry doll”. Beauty will see to the kids, and I’ll get what’s mine.

If you are down one of those picturesque valleys that meanders down to the Indian Ocean, it is difficult to access state facilities as transport is erratic and costly. You rely on hand-me-downs, and in return provide childcare to the little ones. Gogos of the world unite, you are indispensable.

So many questions. So many answers. Each to their own.

And then there is the awfulness that Nietzsche named ressentiment. “They” wronged us. We shall get even. “They” stole it. We shall steal it back.

And so it goes on, and so it never ends. Healing the rifts isn’t easy.

A century ago, Jan Smuts tried it with his notion of South Africanism. In the run-up to the 1994 elections the ANC promised a better life for all. Then a quarter century later Cyril Ramaphosa invoked Thuma mina – “send me.” Send me a handout? Send me to the back of the queue? Send me another promise?

We the people share common ground. We are all traumatised by violence, power blackouts, foul water, the terror and losses of the pandemic and uncertainty.

We the people, citizens of the Republic of South Africa, a sovereign state. But are we a nation? What binds us as we belt out segments of the national anthem? What binds us as we dodge a testosterone-laden cyclist who is dodging a minibus? What binds us when we dodge a police van conveniently double-parked outside Shoprite? What binds us when we dodge paying our taxes? These are the not-so rational behaviours that kick in as we climb Maslow’s hierarchy. Can I have the WiFi code please?

And hello Mammon, our old friend, we’ve come to talk to you again. It seems we have this in common with our Chinese comrades, partying away as they celebrate the Year of the Rat, that most admired creature. Wily, wise and cunning.

We are all our people, be you a Hansie Cronje, Caster Semenya, Oscar Pistorius, Siya Kolisi, or a Johnny Clegg. And Johnny how we celebrated your passing in Osiyeza – The Crossing.

We the People sing and dance and love and cry, mess up and move on. The fat cats prey upon us, we whom the Greeks termed the hoi polloi; basopa wena we are more than you. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Skinyela Skinyela says:

    The national question is very simple and basic, yet it is very complex here in RSA because of our peculiar past and present.
    We are probably the only nation-state with 12 official languages(the 18th amendment just added the sign language) , which enjoys equal legal
    status, our national anthem is probably the only one that uses not less than 4 languages, etc.

    But we’re not the only country with multiple languages, Indonesia has way more than us for example, our problem is that we either do not have a lingua franca or we’re resisting it because… ‘it’s not my mother tongue’

    Wars of conquest happened everywhere throughout history and one can even claim that it is such wars that united many tribes into single polities in Europe.
    In Africa a similar process was already happening even before continuous and permanent contact with the Europeans was was
    Was this development interrupted and/or corrupted?
    Why did the successive colonial governments retain the traditional leaders and put them in government’s payroll as state functionaries after conquering them?
    We now have two legal systems, we have traditional courts administering customary law and we have the modern courts, why not incorporate customary law into the mainstream law and do away with traditional courts. That should be easy since the constitution recognize customary law.
    And also do away with that layer of un-elected government, for our constitution is founded on equality.

    • Michael Kahn says:

      Your arguments are sound. Hop over the Limpopo to Botswana that found a way of incorporating traditional systems into the constitutional order. We are being held back by unelected dikgosi and indunas. On the mechanisms of conquest: keeping some traditional leaders (the vanquished) in place to enable indirect rule is also as old as conquest itself. A simple bargain – work for me, your new boss, or lose your head. Imperial London ruled millions of people in today’s India with a handful of troops and administrators. Easy, peasy, if you know how.

  • T'Plana Hath says:

    “Oh the sea is cold and the sky is grey.
    Look across the Island into the Bay.
    We are all islands till comes the day
    We cross the burning water.

    A seagull wings across the sea
    Broken silence is what I dream.
    Who has the words to close the distance
    Between you and me?”
    – Johnny Clegg and Savuka, 𝘈𝘴𝘪𝘮𝘣𝘰𝘯𝘢𝘯𝘨𝘢

  • Campbell Tyler says:

    How refreshing to read such erudite comments, free of hate and anger, adding to the article on which they comment, not denigrating it or ignoring it altogether to make ones own point. Thank you Michael Kahn, Skinyela Skinyela and T’plana Hath. An uplifting moment in an otherwise ordinary day.

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