OPINION: Toward a national identity

In the lead up to our first democratic election in 1994, we lived in a state of cautiously expectant euphoria.

After centuries of racial division, the tantalising possibility of cohesive national identity seemed within our grasp.

The notion of the Rainbow Nation, popularised by among others, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, gained traction.

We came to understand, nay believe, that despite the deep divisions fostered by decades of discrimination, marginalisation and violent dispossession of the majority of South Africans, unity was within our grasp.

The payoff line of this project of nation-building, “united in our diversity”, gave credence to the advertisement of a major bank at that time, that “there is more that draws us together than drives us apart”.

Twenty-five years later, on the verge of our sixth national election, we are arguably as divided now, as we were in the dark days of the 80s before sanity prevailed and the National Party realised it had just two options: adapt or die.

Despite frequent calls for national unity by a wide variety of politicians, we lack the silver bullet of a strong sense of national identity. There is now more that drives us apart than draws us together.

We are, however, far from unique in this regard. Countries around the world face similar challenges fostered by a weak sense of national identity.

Political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, expresses it thus, in his book Identity: The demand for dignity and the politics of resentment: “This is the situation throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and it is a major obstacle to development. Countries such as Kenya and Nigeria, for example, are ethnically and religiously divided; stability is maintained only because different ethnic groups take turns in power to loot the country.

“High levels of corruption, poverty, and failed economic development are the result.”

Ever since the Arab Spring, Libya and Syria have been wracked by ethnic divisions, which finds both countries mired in seemingly endless civil wars, with millions of people displaced, hundreds of thousands killed, and an outpouring of refugees that has, in turn, resulted in political upheaval in many European countries that have opened their borders to refugees.

Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia have, and still do, endured internal insurgency and chaos, because of these very real ethnic and religious divisions.

By contrast, Fukuyama points out, “Japan, Korea, and China all had well-developed national identities well before they began to modernise they did not have to settle internal questions of identity”

Commenting on the role of diversity in the rise of identity politics in recent decades, he points out that “diversity – on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and the like – is both a fact of life and a value”, adding that “there is nothing wrong with identity politics as such; it is a natural and inevitable response to injustice. It becomes problematic only when it is interpreted in certain specific ways”.

Identity politics has resulted in police departments in America fundamentally changing how they deal with ethnic minorities as the result of the “BlackLiveMatter campaign, and the #MeToo campaign has placed sexual harassment front and centre in our social discourse.

The paroxysms that sundered the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to World War I, and more recently, the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides, however, are examples of diversity taking “ narrow, ethnically based, intolerant, aggressive, and deeply illiberal” ethno-nationalist forms in the guise of national identity, in effect, the dark side of national identity.

Politicians on the campaign trail manifest a worrying array of divisive tendencies that do little to foster a sense of national identity, in the lead-up to polling day.

President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks soulfully of “our people”, but he has yet to spell out precisely who “our people” are. ANC supporters? The previously disadvantaged? All South Africans?

His recent appeal to young white South Africans to not leave the country in search of opportunity elsewhere, suggests that even he does not know who are “our people”.

The ACDP wants everybody to vote for it, but speaks out vociferously against homosexuality, despite the fact that our constitution forbids discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.

Black First Land First won’t allow you to join if you are white. It also propagates virulent anti-white rhetoric that has landed it in trouble with the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), and in in December, the Independent Electoral Commission warned the party to “refrain from hate speech, or risk being de-registered” from the upcoming elections.

The EFF is no better, with its leader, Julius Malema, having been hauled before the SAHRC on multiple occasions.

He was censured for his “kill for Zuma” utterances in 2008 (while president of the ANC Youth League), and earlier this year, the SAHRC found that four public utterances he had made, and another by the EFF’s Godrich Gardee, did not meet the legal criteria for hate speech.

Tellingly, though, the report says: “These statements enjoy some constitutional value in dealing with matters such as land reform and inter racial relations.

“The Commission nevertheless notes that although not passing the legal threshold for hate speech, public figures should refrain from making statements that erode social cohesion.”

But it isn’t only politicians who – knowingly or not – foster societal divisions. Penny Sparrow and Vicki Momberg, who indulged in public rants deeply hurtful to black people; Mokopane doctor, Jimmy van den Berg, who segregated patients by race in waiting and treatment rooms, and charged black patients more than white patients for the same treatment; and Theo Jackson and Willem Oosthuizen, who perpetrated the notorious “coffin assault” against Victor Mlotshwa, come to mind.

As a society, we are also well known for our xenophobic tendencies, which have boiled over many times in the past, with perhaps the most shocking events taking place in 2008, when xenophobic violence in Guateng, Durban and Mpumalanga claimed the lives of 62 people.

There have been frequent flare-ups since then, the most recent in March in Durban, which saw three foreign nationals lose their lives. That the pervasive intolerance which bedevils our society must be overcome before we can build a cohesive national identity which celebrates our diversity, is axiomatic.

Trouble is, where do we start?