The Question of National Identity: Is There Any Meaning to It at Present?

By Saliem Fakir · 10 Apr 2010

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Picture: Frames-of-mind
Picture: Frames-of-mind

The death of Eugene Terreblanche and the racial rousing that Malema stokes, brings out from the underbelly of racial and ethnic discord, the remnant question - can we ever be a nation?

Terreblanche’s death and these war songs also come at a time when the world will soon be descending upon South Africa to witness our multiplicity of tongues, religions, races, natural beauty and the conspicuous divide between rich and poor, as they feast their eyes on a spectacular display of the world’s best football talent.

The question of national identity also arises because not so a long back, President Jacob Zuma asked where all the Whites were when national days and events were being celebrated.

There was a noticeable feeling of absence and a void of affiliation with the celebrations, dreams and hopes of the majority.

This is not the only reason we should be concerned about the state of our nationhood. In the juncture between 1994 and now - a time passing faster than memory can hold - the idea of whether a nation has been constituted or not is indeed vexing minds.

The early days of our democracy were marked by a sense of intense rumination, as if the conclusion of peace between races would provide clarity and direction. Movies like Invictus breed a certain raw nostalgia for the idea that was supposed to be in the making, but did not quite reach fruition -- perhaps it invites, too, a childlike naivety.

And of course, since then, the idea of a Rainbow Nation is long dead. It was a nice idea at the time. It had a touch of sentimentality and a metaphor that hoped to capture the essence of a nation made. But this was also its mistake. It takes more than a metaphor to make a nation.

What, then, constitutes the idea of a nation and how can one imagine our cohesiveness evolving -- if at all? Why this question? Why even the foolishness of the idea? Is a whole nation even possible?

Are we always meant to agree? And, is the fact that we are so different, precisely not the seed of a myriad projects and wills claiming to be in the interest of nationhood and national identity?

As of yet, it would be best to say that we are prospective South Africans, not full South Africans.

Somewhere between Mandela and the present idea of a united South Africa, things went sour.

First, it would seem that we must agree to travel on the same path before we can agree to be one nation that evades the old divisions of race, class and religion.

This at once raises questions about the nation’s conception. 

Collectively, we are bound by a common geography; there is a constitution that frames the ethos within which we must work together and our statehood has received affirmation in the internationally recognised United Nations system.

However, despite all these niceties, how we function, as a whole, will ultimately determine our fate. And while this country’s human inhabitants either seek or refuse to discover each other, its physical and natural state will persist, as it’s human inhabitants come and go.

Therefore, the culture that we foster between us is the vital glue for continuity.

For now, though, we are a nation both inwardly and outwardly schizophrenic and suffering from a tendency towards multiple personalities -- disorders that can leave outsiders a bit perplexed.

When there is no collective cognitive leap, the recourse is to find security in ethnic and racial enclaves. And so it becomes the world of closed communities and minds that inform the body politic. It’s an irresistible reflex that we are more habituated to than not.

When people are drawn back to their dissociations and to the ill body of a fractured nation; feelings of patriotism suffer the blow of reality’s cold hand and we are driven - for whatever reason - to our enclaves, our closed communities and minds.

It would be incorrect to suggest that all nations are not subject to the fluidity of identity. This is where some of our naïve ideas must end.

Even in homogeneous societies, inter-generational differences can shift a national mood. National identity is not meant to be static.

These tensions are starting to be felt in Europe and the United States (US) -- both countries long thought to be stable entities and sources of identity.

The South of the US is increasingly become Latino in which Spanish is already the first language of choice. At the same time, Anglo-Saxon legal and political institutions sit on shaky pedestals. It was only in the 1960’s that some black Americans started feeling that they were no longer second-class citizens.

In the US, at least, nationhood is constantly evolving.

The churning heat of resistance from the bottom as well as assaults against the existing order can only be kept at bay in ethnically, ideologically, racially and religiously divided societies when there is a single hegemonic power over ideas and political, legal and economic institutions.

But, instead of making a nation, this may be suppressing its birth.

What binds us in the future will be less the tongue we speak, the race we belong to or the religion we follow. It will be how we transcend all of this to the language of a new humanism.

This, though, will have to break the very irresistible temptation for the logic of class, race, religion and ethnicity. Once these are rooted, they throw up the demon of self-interest within the realm of nationhood or nation.

The idea of “nation” is only valid in so far as it serves a doctored form of nationhood, viz., the interests of a very narrow group, which quintessentially already mistrusts everything and everyone around it.

Nations, it would seem, must go through periods of stability, crisis and reinvention before a new thesis emerges.

In reading history, somewhat disappointingly, one finds more proof of this cycle of uneasiness with what constitutes national identity, than ideas of nationhood that have stood the test of time without contest, chaos and upheaval.

However, what one also finds is that what holds things together is good leadership. In our case, this would not be leadership that decries ‘the war song’ on an ad hoc basis, especially if all it does is produce a sullied political atmosphere.

If, the idea of nationhood is to work it must come from the acceptance of difference. Part of nationhood is to have a healthy and rich respect for diversity, vigorous defence of different views and living in the absence of fear. 

South Africa’s nationhood will always be exemplified by its differences, but it is the ethos within which this unfolds that will give a unique character to our nationhood. It’s a project that needs to be kept alive.  

A new type of racial chauvinism, which is cynical and purposefully directed for the sole logic of acquisition, is sure to divide an already fractured nation, rather than win the nation.

These signs must be read, as they signal a need for change in tack or all will be doom and gloom. And, we can kiss the project of nationhood goodbye.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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jbeeton Verified user
9 Apr

The Question of National Identity

Good article, but for me it omits some important realities - there are more than one, first of all, I feel in SA. There is the level of politics and the reaility they create concerning the issues; there is the media of course, which is a story all of its own; and then there are the good ole people down on the ground who day to day try hard to work and live together - that is where the Rainbow Nation is in my experience. And that is the reality we are not reflecting at the political and media levels where, frankly, the role players are living worlds apart from the people.

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Rory Short
13 Apr

South African Identity

As a born South African and a life time opponent of racism in any guise I have no problem in seeing myself as a South African who happens to have English as my home language and to have a white skin.

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