Being South African: The politics of identity
By Adrian Hadland
IN THE PERIOD since our country’s first democratic election in 1994, scholars and commentators have often pondered what it means to be South African. Certainly the data suggests that South Africans overwhelmingly support the new dispensation and are proud to be called South Africans. And yet, after 300 years of colonialism and then racist repression, is it really possible that our diversity contains within it enough common features to support a unique South African identity? And, if so, what might these shared features be?
The notion of identity is a complex construction that has been interpreted in different ways for many years. Xolela Mangcu, a visiting scholar at Wits University’s Public Intellectual Life Project, has begun to trace back through history the debate around identity and has already identified several profound contributions from black South African intellectuals going back hundreds of years.
Thinkers such as Tiyo Soga, Sol Plaatje and, more recently, Steve Biko developed sophisticated notions of a South African identity, Mangcu told a Development Dialogue earlier this year. These conceptualisations did not generally focus on race as the defining feature, a common assumption of many contemporary interpretations of identity. Instead, identity has been developed historically as an inclusive concept that invites membership rather than as a club designed to exclude.
Until fairly recently, current debates on the question of identity were centred around the need to understand the national character in order to promote what is positive and beneficial and in order to suppress what is divisive and destructive. There has been an urgency to this task given the fractured past and the diverse cultural and linguistic composition of the national character. The delineation of the national identity has even been considered an imperative tool for democratic consolidation.
But contemporary political events have served to distract the identity debate and have seen the introduction of a different, some would argue ominous, new agenda. The looming retirement of President Thabo Mbeki and the succession squabble this change has spawned has raised the temperature of South Africa’s political environment. In this heated space, identity has became a useful tool in the hands of contending factions.
Some scholars, such as Professor Ivor Chipkin, argue that the current national executive has attempted to marshal the power of identity using race in a bid to reduce criticism and isolate dissent: “The idea being supported by some is that any criticism of the South African government is ultimately in the service of a white agenda and represents white values. Criticism is an affront to an African government as it serves to criticise black people in general and casts doubt on the sovereignty of a black government. It therefore undermines democratic space rather than consolidates it,” Chipkin, a chief research specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council’s democracy and governance research programme, told a Development Dialogue event in September.
Mangcu expressed a similar dissatisfaction with the appropriation of the identity debate and its confinement to a measure of racial solidarity. “I listen twice now whenever someone tells me they are black: what’s happening? why is that invitation to solidarity being used?”. It became clear to Mangcu that in the process of confining the identity debate also appropriated or even negated the identity discourse of black intellectuals such as Soga and Biko. “In all of this there seemed to be an appeal to black consciousness, an appropriation of Steve Biko’s ideas, to man these defenses of the government and I found this unacceptable”.
Mangcu explained how he had spent much of his political life in the black consciousness camp. The manipulation of Biko’s ideology on identity by powerful state figures had forced him to confront the contradiction in “a real and personal way”. He had realized, however, that both sides had made cynical use of the identity debate. While some over-emphasised the importance of identity and ascribed everything to its functioning, others thought it an unsolvable dilemma that led to a dead-end. “. I hail from the black consciousness movement and identity was very crucial… However, I became sceptical of this reliance on identity”.
The argument that some people are more authentic than others is one of most dangerous things imaginable, said Mangcu.
It is evident that it is now time to reclaim the identity debate and wrestle it from those who would over-simplify or distort its complexity to suit a particular political agenda.
Before the debate was sidelined into a measure of racial authenticity, a focus on the more useful notion of citizenship was beginning to emerge. By this measure, you are South African if you consider yourself to be South African and if you agree to perform the duties and accept the responsibilities of citizenship.
But even this notion needs refining as immigrants from Africa and elsewhere begin to establish a long-term presence, challenge the definition of citizenship and exert their own demands on who should be called South African, and on what basis.
Back in 1998, deputy arts, culture, science and technology minister Brigitte Mabandla pointed out that South Africans “have embarked upon an exciting new voyage of discovery as we begin to explore and define who we are as a people”. It seems the journey is still nearer the beginning than the end and that the identity debate still has a considerable way to go.
Claiming space: Alliance politics in light of Polokwane (and beyond)
By Adrian Hadland
SOUTH AFRICANS NEED to begin to prepare themselves for the possibility of a Jacob Zuma presidency and must start figuring out what that means, a number of political experts agreed. And even if Zuma doesn’t end up winning the nomination for ANC president at next month’s national conference in Polokwane or go on to become the country’s third democratic president, a set of forces have been set in motion that will inevitably lead to a fundamental reconfiguration of power in South African politics.
Addressing a Development Dialogue hosted in Cape Town on Thursday (November 29) by Isandla Institute and the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, ANC MP and senior SA Communist Party (SACP) member Yunus Carrim said that no matter who won the nomination, a “new alliance” had begun to take shape. This alliance will seek to renegotiate its relationship with the ANC ahead of the 2009 election and will look for concrete agreements on representivity and on its capacity to influence the party and government.
“The fact is that the SACP has taken a decision to have a congress in July to decide what approach to take regarding the 2009 election,” Carrim told the dialogue. Following the July congress, the ANC will be asked to agree to an electoral pact that may require a certain quota of SACP delegates in legislatures with primary responsibility not to the ANC but to the SACP, he said. “If that option doesn’t work,” the SACP may decide to contest the 2009 election on its own merits. The party would then look to forming a coalition government with the ANC, rather than remaining within an informal alliance. Cosatu has also indicated it is anxious to renegotiate the terms of the ANC alliance, of which it too is a part, with a view to improving its influence on policy.
Indeed it was repeatedly stressed at the gathering that no component of the alliance was monolithic. Each experienced its own dynamics, divisions and power relations.
Overall, though, the left wing of the alliance was starting to feel like it was making some important advances in the formulation and implementation of policy, according to Business Day political editor Karima Brown.
This gathering confidence and air of expectation in the left, has in part been the result of the manner in which Zuma has shaken up domestic politics, the speakers agreed.
Current president Thabo Mbeki is popularly perceived as insufficiently accountable and criticized for centralizing his power, suggests Jonathan Faull, a political researcher for the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa). Zuma, on the other hand, is presenting himself as being “open, sympathetic, consultative and in touch with the mass base of the party”. This has led to the forces of the left within the ANC alliance coalescing around Zuma’s candidacy.
A space is opening up which is allowing members of the ANC alliance to relook at issues of political culture, Brown told the gathering. But there is no guarantee that a Zuma victory will necessarily lead to success for a left agenda, she added. “Is Zuma a left candidate? I don’t see him as the answer to the left, but he does present an opportunity to the left to move forward.” She added that “the problems in the alliance are not going to disappear overnight if Jacob Zuma wins the nomination, but the consensus-seeking and interactive style of Zuma might make a difference.”
Faull agrees that Zuma’s candidacy is “a very significant reality”, in spite of the current legal challenge. But Faull also asks whether a Zuma presidency might prove to be a “cul-de-sac” for the left? “Zuma has projected himself as sympathetic to the concerns and grievances of alliance partners. What this means regarding the influence of the alliance on policy remains open to question. … It’s debatable whether Zuma needs the support (of partners who cannot vote at the ANC conference, such as Cosatu and the SACP) going forward”.
Whether one supports Zuma or Mbeki, there was no question that South Africa’s political geography was now defined by the struggle between the two for the leadership of the ANC, the alliance and the country, the speakers agreed. “This is the terrain, whether we are sympathetic or not” (to Zuma), says Carrim.
What is clear, Faull argues, is that outside the ANC there are several important constituencies both domestically and internationally, whom Zuma will need to court and convince that he has what it takes to govern.
Carrim agrees that space is opening up that Mbeki will not be able to take back even if he wins. “The balance of power has shifted… If you look at power relations, it is clear there has been a shift from the leaderships of all alliance organisations to the rank and file”.
All three speakers at the event stressed that a great deal of uncertainty remained evident over the future direction of local politics and the shape of the ruling alliance. These are “uncertain and challenging times”, Carrim said. According to Faull: “The next 18 months will remain a period of flux in South African politics. Are we deepening our democratic culture and strengthening our institutions or are we eroding them? At the moment, optimists and pessimists can make equally compelling arguments”.