Nation building and the ideal of unity in diversity in post-apartheid South Africa

One of the few times a common emotional reaction occurs in South Africans is a World Cup victory (rugby or cricket thus far), a rousing rendition of the national anthem, reminders of President Nelson Mandela or reference to the Constitution’s visionary ideal of a nation united in diversity.

As we enter this significant month of acknowledging our culture and heritage, we can be so bold as to ask: have we begun to succeed in building a nation? Indeed what makes up a nation and how do you build this notion of nationhood and common belonging?

Post-apartheid South Africa has the unenviable task of reversing the most cruel, yet well-crafted, evil strategy of social engineering ever designed by a serving government. The evil genius of the architects of apartheid was recently referred to in admiring terms by renowned journalist Alister Sparks. Given the continued existence of those who believe apartheid was acceptable alongside those who believe it was an offence to our common humanity, how do we forge a South African nation?

The diagnostic report of the National Planning commission starkly sets out the scars of apartheid – racial profiling, race-based discrimination and their continuing impact in a range of sectors, the triple discrimination experienced by African women and gender inequality in broad terms, the accentuating of ethnicity,  poor education access, joblessness and inadequate wages for labour, the spatial racism of the group-areas policy and low-skill levels among the most vulnerable and general exclusion from meaningful participation in the real economy. All of these led to a confused and abiding culture of feeling aggrieved, entitled and for some, born to privilege. One of the effects of long-term oppression is a terrible feeling of inadequacy while on the other hand long-term dominance results in a sense of superiority and entitlement that is ingrained in those who are beneficiaries of racial discrimination. This is our nation and we need to forge a new inclusive South Africa together. In fact our negotiated settlement means we have agreed a social compact as a nation to create a better future for South Africa. Can this be done given our history and these remaining features of the apartheid legacy?

The African National Congress, as leader of society and the majority party in government for more than four terms, has the unenviable duty of being the leading actor in forging this new united nation, in helping shepherd the emergence of the South Africaness many desire. To do this it must eschew racism, chauvinist ethnicity, gender oppression, and worker exploitation in its policies and practices. It has to lead the way in showing the nation there are principles that bind us and the residues of our past cannot be the measure of our future. This is a tough challenge, but the ANC cannot neglect it. Of course all of us have an obligation to support the ANC in this the biggest, most challenging, national priority.

Since 1994 South  Africa’s people and government have bravely sought to address social challenges – education access has been expanded; health, housing, water and electricity provision are being addressed; and millions today enjoy a better life.

While important, these changes and democratic successes cannot be regarded as the full sum of what must be done to build a new nation. We need to appropriate national symbols and activities larger than ourselves to fully support the commitment to that bond that asserts united and South African, yet still deeply appreciative of our diversity. Our flag, our anthem, our schools and universities, our national days, our languages, could be powerful signs of unity if we could all agree to recognise them in this way.

Attaching the unifying symbol of nationhood to these examples could help promote a still to be achieved social cohesion in South Africa. Thus far our country has not fully achieved cohesion. I suspect that fault may lie with our political and institutional leaders. We are all not doing as much as we should to promote national unity and democratic pride in South Africaness.

Our polity and national discourse continues to bear the imprint of our divisive past rather than our common future. Consensus is still viewed as compromise and unity of purpose is not prized. Moreover, the overwhelming influence of government under apartheid has left us a legacy that social change and the building of new ties must be the business of the governing party solely and whoever governs. Those who occupy positions of economic power regard redress as  governments job. So despite their control of capital they remain on the sidelines when it comes to building a new transformed nation. They will  not celebrate our diverse colourful heritage on Heritage Day – that is governments job. They will not pay a living wage and create the prospects for a prosperous society – that is for the former oppressed. It is the ANC that must do that. These are matters of social cohesion that cannot be left to government and government bureaucracy.

The government is somewhat at fault here too. National events have somewhat of a partisan flavour and appear to exclude when they should be premier occasions for social cohesion. It may be necessary to draw on civil society in the preparation of such events and the mandate would be national inclusion and promotion of belonging and national symbols.

We, the people, must lead in creating this new free nation. Free to redefine ourselves as uniquely committed to diversity, freely appreciative of religious freedom as a force for peace, alert that race is a factor in our daily busy lives, but aware that it is not the sole factor as respect for and promotion of human dignity should go beyond race. We, the people, are the motive force that must give shape and meaning to a united South Africa. The task is urgent as we cannot allow time to entrench division and separation.

The Freedom Charter and our Constitution refer to what must be addressed. Both call for a South Africa that belongs to all who live in it, black and white. They affirm a nation united in diversity. This appears to be an ideal that most South Africans embrace. We are somewhat unique in this affirmation of diversity.

A nation united in purpose needs much more than unity in diversity to build bonds that genuinely bind us as South Africans. There are many who suggest we will only make progress when we fully implement the spirit and intent of our Constitution. The Freedom Charter outlines what must be done. Access to land must be provided to those without land and they should be assisted to generate a decent income from working the land. All workers must enjoy access to basic human rights and be treated with dignity in every workplace. The rule of law must apply to all and not be a blunt sword against the most vulnerable. The promise of opportunity has to be available to the rural poor in equal measure to the urban resident.

However, to truly confront the legacy we must begin our efforts very early, by ensuring our schools are places where values that are in harmony with our Constitution are taught and promoted, places where character is built and shaped positively. This implies schools, colleges, and universities should not reinforce racism, ethnicity and patriarchy. They should be places of robust intellectual rigour where young people acquire knowledge of our past and learn how to live successfully in a non-sexist, non-racial, democratic society united in its diversity.

One of the most important guarantees of our Constitution is the protection of the rule of law. It’s a protection that assures all the people of this country that they will never again be victims of arbitrary governance as was the case under apartheid. Never will their property be arbitrarily seized by illegal means, never again the offence of ethnic chauvinism and exploitation. Never again the unfair discrimination of job reservation and unequal wages.

A nation and state that will practically assure its residents, citizen and  non-citizen, these basic rights may have the makings of a united nation.

South Africa has  founding documents that lay the basis for creating such a nation, but we must devote greater energy to ensuring that we implement them fully.

Comrade Naledi Pandor is a member of the ANC NEC and Chairperson of the Education and Health Sub-Committee

Posted in Phambili
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