Nationalist and ethnic movements have re-emerged in the 21st century. While nationalism and ethnicity are two different forces – the former being more concerned with state power than the latter - there are many similarities and overlaps between the two types of movement. Both create what have been called by theorists of nationalism imagined communities using invented traditions which they use to bind people to their cause, and within which mobilisation takes place. Both tend to be led by middle class nationalist or ethnic “entrepreneurs”. And both ally themselves with God, with nature, with family and patriarchy and with some notion of land or territory.
Both nationalist and ethnic movements are malleable and complex belief systems, and within a particular nationalism or ethnic movement there can be fundamentally different trajectories. They may seem to be one thing but turn out to be quite another. The two-sided nature of nationalism is well known – Benedict Anderson called it “Janus-faced”, while Elie Kedourie famously said in a classic essay that nationalism “begins as the sleeping beauty” but “ends as Frankenstein’s monster”. Much the same can be said of ethnic movements or ethnic nationalisms. How and why does this happen and how do these two-sided phenomena come into being and sustain themselves in particular societies?
Here in South Africa we have had a plethora of nationalisms. Afrikaner nationalism was the most powerful and poisonous of these (but even it appeared to have a noble face at one stage. In what some think of as its embryonic form during the Anglo-Boer War, when Boers fought against British imperialism, it was, in the eyes of the British and Irish left, a just cause). African nationalism has always been its great rival and is today the most powerful force in the country. But ethnic movements also abound. Sometimes ethnicity and nationalism become one thing – Afrikaner nationalism is really an ethnic nationalism, and the same would apply to 19th century Zulu nationalism.
Both have used ethnicity as the basis for claims to land, nationhood and state power. But other minor forms of ethnic nationalism have begun to emerge post 1994 – most interesting is the ethnic nationalism emerging in the case of ethnic groups seeking expansion or consolidation of their land holdings, or, even more powerfully, on whose land minerals have been discovered. The Zulu and the Bafokeng are the most significant and powerful of these. These groups have elevated their former Chiefs to the status of Kings, clearly implying an element of nationalist, rather than simply ethnic, ambition, and in the case of contemporary Zulu nationalism, begun to make serious claims upon ever greater portions of territory. In the case of the Bafokeng, presiding as they do over some of the most valuable mining land in the country, an ethnic capitalism is consolidating itself. Other small ethnic groups seek to follow this pattern aiming to use their land holdings, whatever the value that land may hold, and largely re-invented traditions as the basis for claims to authority, expansion and even sovereignty over their “subjects”.
The vicious side of nationalism can subside. For example, there is clearly a gentler form of cultural nationalism emerging amongst Afrikaners today, a nationalism which does not seek political power or have claims to land, but which seeks to give expression to the cultural and intellectual strengths which lie in the middle classes and intelligentsia. Newspapers, festivals, talk-shows, online outlets, books and music are the forms this benign form of nationalism is taking.
But it is the dominant African nationalism which is of greatest interest. It is here that the society finds itself pinned down, captured, trapped in an especially powerful form of hegemony. Nothing like it has ever been experienced in this country. It does not matter that the state is corrupt or that it is ineffectual, or that it is in the thrall of neo-patrimonialism. It does not matter that the army – in many nationalisms, the root of state power – has never been so weak. It does not matter that the economy is flailing, or that the ruling class is divided. The society is being held together by the invisible force of ideas, the stories it tells itself about who we are, where we come from and why we are here. African nationalism has become naturalised. And this naturalisation has occurred at the expense of the development of a modern state rather than as an adjunct to it.
It was Gramsci who predicted in the early 20th century that what he thought of as the “modern state” would control the population through ideas. It would not work through the power of armies or the simple force of the law. These were essentially 19th century, physical, forms of social control. It would, he said, work through the force of ideology, ideology which would capture the hearts and minds of the population so that everything they experienced seemed to be normal, the natural way of things. (Incidentally this, he said, was why Leninist ideas of toppling the state were rendered irrelevant – there was no longer a simple “state” to topple).
Of course, Western culture is replete with academic, literary and other cultural explorations of these ideas, which have grown more powerful as the 21st century progresses. From “1984” and “Brave New World”, through the work of Foucault, to “Black Mirror” we cannot but be horrified by the ever-creeping captivation of the Western mind. But the captivation of our own minds by African nationalism in South Africa today is a virtually unexplored field. What does it consist of and why is it in contradiction to the state rather than otherwise?
The Manichaeism of the nationalist “origins” story
African nationalism has virtually erased our actual history and has replaced with a simplified “story” of our “origins” depicted simply as a struggle between good and evil. The story is deeply rooted in Christian ideas, it is selective and episodic, and has within it several key elements which together add up to a semi-biblical and highly mythologised tale.
The main myth
In the myth good pre-dated evil in the form of the perfect African society, before the fall as it were. In this good African society there was sufficient land for all, African settlements were spread evenly throughout the land, there were few, if any, Khoi and San people, rulers were benevolent, conflict was minimal, and women and men were equal. Evil came into being in 1652 when white settlers arrived. This initiated the fall. This was, in the myth, followed by a period of nearly 300 years of unmitigated disaster and conquest. Capitalism and agriculture were the ruthless means through which land was taken, men subjugated, families damaged. The myth draws a curtain over these 300 years, and does not explore them in detail, meaning it does not have to account for multiple complexities and ambiguities, or tell the millions of individual or community, political or cultural, social or economic, stories that made up this huge span of time.
The next landmark in the myth is 1912, when the ANC was formed, and it is rapidly followed by 1948 when the Afrikaner nationalists obtained power and apartheid was initiated. This period is covered in a little more detail but not much. Evil itself, its various forms, complexities and variations, does not need to be examined; it can be glossed over. All that needs to be said is that the ANC struggled bravely and virtuously throughout this period, and eventually won, according to the myth, through conquering the South African Defence Force in Angola. This gave rise to the defeat of apartheid in 1994, and the emergence of the modern era, with Mandela as its saviour-like figurehead. Since then according to the myth, it has been a constant but generally noble and well-meaning struggle to get rid of the evil systems promoted by apartheid.
It is tragic how easily this myth has been promulgated and made to seem to be natural truth. Of course, like all good myths there are important truths within it. But it is clearly not history, yet it passes as such. And what is not said is most striking. The moral authority of the African nationalist movement over the crimes against humanity that preceded it have given it licence to re-cast our entire history in African nationalist terms. Many things have vanished from our minds because of the Manichean mould in which our past has been cast. We are no longer able to think of the past as one of incredible complexity or explore areas of moral ambiguity and layered meaning. The Truth Commission established this as the historical template which would be used in its hearings. Most striking was that the Commission’s critical findings concerning the ANC’s treatment of its members in exile were not made public: nothing bad was to be heard from the ANC side.
In the historical mythology, anything that happened before 1994 is diminished in importance to the extent that it hardly exists in the public mind. Our memories of our past no longer contain histories of “Coloured” “Asian”, Khoi, San, White or Chinese people other than as tokens of the nationalist story. The millions of people of all races who were not within the fold – the PAC, the Liberal Party, the Progressive Party, the United Party, the IFP, the Unity Movement, non-Cosatu Unions, the ARM, the ICU and hundreds of others - are largely written out of history too. The role of Africans who did not resist cannot be spoken of. And yet in a multitude of fields, ranging from collaborative chiefs, people playing cooperative roles in a variety of settings, some authoritarian some merely part of civil society, to setting up, running and benefiting from “homelands”, and many others, Africans took part in the multiple systems of power and authority in ways which need a complex discussion. But who is included in the Manichaean mythological history is decided by a single question: “Were they on the right side?” There were only two sides in this version of the past.
Social and political movements outside of or in contradiction to the liberation movement, such as religious, cultural, millenarian, literary, artistic, political or ethnic movements are absent from our memories. Forms of domination other than crass Afrikaner nationalism or the grossest forms of capitalism, such as paternalism, or slavery, or the “inboekseling” system, or chiefly rule, or patriarchy, or conquests of the San by a variety of peoples, or conquests of some Africans by other Africans, are not part of the picture. Sol Plaatje’s book “Mhudi” is celebrated, but little mention is made of the tragedy which is its subject: the virtual extermination of the Barolong by Zulu invaders, and the subsequent alliance between the various peoples conquered by Zulu nationalists with the Boers of the region. Noble or evil acts by any persons other than direct agents of the nationalist movement or, concomitantly, its enemies, are discounted.
The creeping hegemony of this pseudo-historical myth is shortly to be reinforced by the changing of school textbooks, perhaps so that the minds of children are freed of having to think about anything other than the single story of good versus evil, of the noble versus the wicked.
The twin motifs of suffering and heroism
Nationalist narratives veer between portraying the population as pitiful on the one hand, or as courageous on the other. It does not take the visitor to this country long to realise that while both notions are present, it is the “pitiful” motif that prevails. Although the “Fees Must Fall” movement seems to have taken a stand against the motif, by burning or threatening to burn artworks that they claimed showed African people as victims, it is victimhood that pervades most people’s perception of the African masses, and indeed most African nationalists’ self-perception. As only one example of many cultural forms that have reinforced this – including fiction, theatre, poetry and romanticised histories - African Nationalist songs are almost all about suffering and pity. Born of the terrible apartheid years, strongly influenced by Christian hymns, and musically sombre, they cast the people as engaged in an endless and thankless struggle which is marked by sorrow and pain. “What have we done wrong”, they say, “We weep for our nation” and “We will go, even in the dreariness”.
To write of the motif of suffering in this way is not to suggest in any way that there was not enormous, unforgivable suffering inflicted by the apartheid regime and the segregationism which preceded it, during the entire twentieth century. But myths which emerge from a certain reality have a way of consolidating themselves into realities themselves. This is what has happened to the notion of the suffering masses. From being a simple and heartfelt reflection of reality in earlier times, it has become a political motif for present day nationalists to exploit. And the perpetuation of the motif is aided by the fact that Western media seem to find it difficult to think of Africans in any other way.
What is the significance of this for the creation of an African nationalist hegemonic order? Suffering is a common myth in nationalist movements. Like all myths, the idea of perpetual and unmitigated suffering over a long historical period binds people together. In some nationalisms, the myth continues to bind people together hundreds of years after the actual suffering took place – as is the case in parts of the Balkans. Afrikaner nationalism continued to use the mythologised memory of the Boer War concentration camps as a binding myth fifty years and more after the event. And so it is with the memory of the suffering during apartheid. This mythologised memory performs the function of joining all Africans together into a single bloc and cuts off any thought of differentiating between different classes or groups of Africans or any changes in their status as a suffering people 25 years after apartheid ended. It binds the population to the mythologised past, and to the “nationalist origins” story outlined above.
Concomitantly, every nationalism must have its heroes, and African nationalism is no exception. From the point of view of creating a hegemonic set of myths those heroes are required to be brave and stoical in the face of villainy. In South Africa today, there are very few publicly acknowledged heroes other than African Nationalist heroes. Because African nationalism has captured the state, it is able to merge the heroes of the nationalist movement and the heroism which any state needs to recognise for its own purposes, into one.
The main heroes of today’s hegemonic nationalism are ANC leaders and members who have performed, or who are thought to have performed, heroic acts. The phrase “stalwart of the movement” covers virtually everyone over the age of 50 in the ANC, while the death of any of said stalwarts is acknowledged nationally. Mandela has provided the ideal hero – imprisoned for so long and hence unsullied by the vagaries of the struggle, he has been brilliantly mythologised for these purposes, both by local myth-makers and by international movements. His life story has been told and re-told, his words and beliefs – or at least those that suit the needs of nationalism – have been popularised, and his image made into a universal meme.
A veteran of suffering and a hero of post-apartheid achievement, he embodies an enormous number of the characteristics that nationalists need to keep their mythologies going. Other ANC heroes, such as Tambo, Sisulu, Hani and a hundred others, are cast in a different light – few of them took part in governing post-apartheid SA and are more straightforwardly portrayed as martyrs and to some extent sufferers along with the masses. The courage with which they undertook to oppose apartheid needs the acknowledgment of all. But the way in which their heroism has become merged with the founding myths of the nation state itself is yet another indicator of supreme hegemony.
In 2018, for example, the centenary of the birth of Mandela was probably justifiably celebrated nationally as he was the first, and much loved, Head of State in the post-apartheid era. But so was the centenary of the birth of Albertina Sisulu, who never held any office and who was really an ANC hero rather than one known and loved by all. The blending of the two celebrations took place without comment. The ANC was the state, and the state was the ANC, to paraphrase de Gaulle.
Public memorialisation of both suffering and heroism is widespread if rather shallowly embedded in the culture. Hundreds of memorials have been built all over the country, but, in keeping with the general silence about and lack of care for history, many of these have been left to decay. In these memorials the two types of memory are combined. The martyrdom of the children of Soweto, or of Steve Biko, or of Chris Hani renders them both heroic and part of the suffering masses. Heroism and suffering together in one.
Male, female and child in nationalist mythology
Many, if not most, nationalisms and ethnic movements have a powerful patriarchal impulse at their core. African nationalism is no exception. While the South African constitution is extremely enlightened in its embrace of women’s and LGBTI rights, and while the ANC has made strenuous efforts at attaining gender equality within the movement and within government itself, the attainment of hegemony by African nationalism has taken place in an entirely different register. The nation is thought to have “fathers” of the nation, such as Mandela and Sisulu, and “mothers” of the nation such as Winnie Mandela and Albertina Sisulu, not coincidentally, in this case, the wives of the “fathers”. By implication, their followers are thus defined as “children” of the nation, thus enhancing their status as sufferers - “suffer little children to come unto me” – in the Christian sense.
The motifs of father, mother and/or children appear in songs and speeches and inform the general tone and approach towards leaders, with African traditions of age hierarchies and paternalism playing into the mythology. The result of this is the infantilization of the population itself. As in the myths of ancient China, we are all “children” of the great father and the nurturing mother. The infantilization of South Africa’s public is a striking feature of the society, even in this sophisticated globalised age. Education is not taken seriously other than as an entitlement, knowledge of the wider world is almost non-existent, debate and the questioning of public figures is often on a primary school level, and crooked public figures are thought of as having been “wayward” or as having “strayed” rather than as grown-up criminals.
The structures of the ANC reflect this to some extent. The ANC Women’s League is not a recognisably feminist organisation in the modern sense, but represents what some have called a kind of “motherism” – the promotion of women as helpmeets and mothers for the nation as a whole, as the bearers of the values of domesticity, social welfare and cultural values, and as gatekeepers for access to the many jobs which are today available for women within the state.
The ANC Youth league, in turn, plays the role of the leader of the nation’s children, the young hotheads who need both nurturing and discipline, who are both encouraged in their opinionated ways and forgiven for their waywardness where necessary.
And finally the President of the ANC is indeed the Father of the Nation. Our current President Ramaphosa adopts a fatherly, or perhaps avuncular tone when addressing crowds, invoking God wherever possible. Recently he said the ANCs recent conference was “It was like praying, praying to our God, saying please come down and heal South Africa, come and heal our land. South Africa is being healed cause there's a new dawn, new spirit flowing through South Africa." His somewhat Jesus like tone on Twitter reinforces this.
It is difficult to assess whether or how a woman would cope with the expectation of god-like fatherliness. The ANC has had considerable debate as to whether it is “ready” for a woman President, suggesting that the masculine fatherly role is one which it finds comforting and necessary. A feminism which challenges these notions is not taken seriously. Rape, for example, is primarily considered a dimension of suffering rather than a manifestation of patriarchal power. The way to handle it, goes the nationalist approach, is to mourn, to comfort and to bewail the evil it entails. Not to find and punish the perpetrators.
The role of fantasy: millenarian dreams
The myth of nationalism goes along with a strong predisposition towards finding millenarian solutions to intractable problems. As with almost all millenarianisms, this one has its root in the same belief system that underpins the myth as a whole – Christianity. The millenarian solution is essentially a magical one, which proposes a moment, a day, or another marker, which will signal the beginning of an upheaval of the world so that evil will be banished and or punished, and good will prevail. The idea of the “rapture” of course, is the ultimate millenarian myth. And most movements claiming to be “revolutionary” are tied to some idea of instant upheaval and the rapid replacement of all that is bad with a brave new world. African nationalism is drawn to such notions.
In the South African case powerful millenarian myths have appeared in many different settings from the tragedy of the Xhosa Cattle Killing to the youth movements of the 1980s, where notions of total upheaval of the existing order were common. Such ideas continue to have traction today. The Economic Freedom Fighters in their 2019 manifesto promised so wide a range of good things to their followers that only something miraculous could possibly have delivered them. And their revolutionary notions are at one with the millenarian expectations that the complex, intractable ills of South Africa can be fixed without the tedium of pragmatism and time.
So profound is the influence of the millenarian idea that it has infected many different parts of our society. Just as we are incapable of thinking of anything approaching actual history any more, so we find ourselves constantly in search of the saviour, the knight on a white horse, the moment, the manifesto, the offer, the one infallible man, who will prove to bring the change, preferably instantly, that we so desperately need.
The binding force of death
Some extreme nationalisms are virtually death cults; Nazism was a case in point. While nowhere near this level of weirdness and horror, African nationalism has some cultish ideas around the question of death too. Death is built into the mythology because it is both the end point of suffering and the marker of martyrdom. It is the ultimate manifestation of the fact that there is a Manichaean battle between good and evil, and that evil sometimes prevails. During the years of struggle the tragic deaths of prominent activists came to play a vital symbolic role. Funerals became highly politicised, theatrical, sometimes militarised and violent events. Today the politicisation of funerals is less overt, but the symbolism they entail is no less remarkable. Significant deaths are owned by African nationalism, and public funerals provide an opportunity to rehearse and re-enact the mythologies that bind. The marching cohorts of liberation fighters, the firing of guns, the speechifying by important figures, the wearing of uniforms, the singing and the chanting all combine to turn each major funeral into an opportunity to re-state publicly the markers, symbols and principles of the nationalist mythology.
One fascinating indicator of this was the recent attempt by the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, to publicly mourn the deaths through starvation and neglect, of scores of psychiatric patients formerly of the Esidimeni hospital, and of dozens of workers shot in the Marikana massacre. The ANC, said the DA, was to blame for the deaths. “The ANC is killing us” ran the slogan. This attempt was met with a surprising degree of outrage and anger by African Nationalists, who claimed they were shocked at the “use” of the deaths of individuals by a political party. But it is hard not to believe that what they were really shocked at was the adoption of the mythology of death by people who are not African nationalists. For though it is African nationalism that “owns” the domain of death, here the tables were turned. Not only was the domain of death claimed by someone else, but the entire mythology of the struggle between good and evil was itself up-ended. The good had become evil. This was a direct attack on the pillars of African Nationalist hegemony and could not be tolerated. Those who dominate the ideological terrain are always vulnerable to challenges such as this.
The compromises of identity politics and intellectual deformation
The narratives of identity politics that have emerged in the past few years on campuses and in middle class circles have different philosophical and historical roots from those associated with African nationalism. Myths of whiteness, intersectionality and identity-based representivity are not a fundamental part of the African nationalist repertoire, for example. And African nationalism’s binary conception of history and society is only loosely allied to the multi-layered meanings attributed to postcolonial identity. Furthermore identity politics is inward looking and personal in many ways, while African nationalism emphasises the communal and the societal, and the myth of history looms large. But there is one area in which the two ideologies have found one another – that of essentialism.
Essentialism entails the attribution of an “essence” to one’s identity - a core, unchanging root thought to have been granted by history or even by biology, and innate to existence. It assumes that some phenomena are inevitable, natural and/or biologically determined. Essentialism stands in contrast to social constructivism, which emphasises how one’s being and memory are creations of history.
While identity politics is by definition actually based on an essentialist notion – that one has a thing called an “identity” which can be racial, ethnic, gendered or all three, African nationalism goes much deeper. To the nationalist, identities are somehow primordial, rather than societally shaped. Their origin is lost in the mists of time, and one’s being is granted by ancient history.
The idea of race plays a role in both narratives. In the African nationalist view race is the ancient and primordial reality which is conceptualised as the vehicle through which the twin forces of oppression and resistance manifest themselves. Whites oppress, blacks experience oppression and resist it, and there is no question as to who is who in the discourse. Nationalists have tremendous problems in incorporating those whose identities, in their terms, do not fit the primordial mould. “Coloureds” and other similarly ambiguous groups are barely catered for or even mentioned in the nationalist narrative, for example.
In identity politics, on the other hand, race is also conceived in an essentialist manner, but is but one of a multiplicity of possible identities, and there is no reason why any new identity cannot be added to the list of possible ways of being. “What is your preferred pronoun” is a question, for example, that the African nationalist would find puzzling. The idea of “whiteness” too is not one that has emerged naturally from the nationalist repertoire, as it entails a fixedness to one’s state of being which is incompatible with the broad sweep of mythologised history constantly being invoked by the nationalist.
However, nationalism is perfectly compatible with an identitarian perspective in certain respects. And as far as race is concerned, in South Africa today the two approaches have become blurred together and public conversations about the issue sometimes use nationalist and identity-based ideas interchangeably. Those whom one might call “race warriors” will at one moment ally themselves with the historical myths that underpin nationalism, and at the next lay claim to the ahistorical meanings given to identities today.
Proponents of both belief systems appear to have agreed to a sort of working misunderstanding, perhaps to seem more at one with each other than they really are. This has meant that a doubly reinforced notion of race as an essential form of being has begun to enter into public discourse. Never has it been so difficult to provide an analysis of the South African reality without casting it into the mould of one or the other kind of concept of nationalism, race and/or identity. Bookshops are filled with books re-telling nationalist myths, hagiographies of nationalist leaders, the fiction of “the nation” or the biography and autobiography reinforcing and pondering identity, personal experience and racial angst. Radio and television shows reflect similar things.
The intellectual damage of this is significant. If we take what’s happening in Universities as an indicator of the general state of our intellectual health the picture is worrying. History as a subject for public consumption has virtually been obliterated; in the public mind it has been supplanted by mythology. Universities are severely limiting or even closing their history departments, while the rewriting of school textbooks is not destined to go well. Archives are neglected, chaotic, even wantonly destroyed; valuable book and manuscript collections, whether private or public, are thrown out; museums are in a state of decline and decay. Soon we will have no past at all.
The social sciences are also troubled by the myths of nationalism; in their case however, it is combined with identity politics and the general move in Western culture towards a radical postmodernism. Non-identitarian topics are unfashionable and the nature of society is assumed to be best understood in literary, psychological and metaphorical rather than historical and empirical terms. Philosophy departments have fared no better, and they have begun to lose the rigour and depth that was their strength and to replace it with the shallow investigation of the trendy and the unthreatening.
(The sciences are less vulnerable to these tides, but they too are subject to the hegemonic trends of the time. The National Research Foundation, for example, has recently re-designed the law governing its operation to embed the provision that the Minister of Science and Technology can and will shape what subjects will and will not be funded. Scientists will have increasingly to prove their relevance in terms of the nationalist and developmentalist myths of the time rather than in terms of scientific imperatives. This will be the death knell of state-funded pure science.)
Besides the immense historical gaps left by the general societal adoption of the great creation myths of nationalism, many other questions are today not explored or examined by serious researchers. The powerful determining forces of history, of class, institutional and state formation and of social change have been increasingly side-lined in contemporary thought. Comparative studies are almost non-existent. We barely discuss phenomena such as the rise and consolidation of a predatory bourgeoisie under the guise of nationalism, the turning of the state into a mechanism for plunder, the creation of an enormous and excluded class of the ultra-dispossessed, the manipulation of access to state resources by organised labour and students, and the capture of the political domain (parliament, public politics) by ruthless nationalists – their mission to dominate underpinned by nationalist mythology
The nation versus the Constitution
The myths of nationalism achieve hegemony by making their approach to things seem normal, and anything outside it seem strange and even incomprehensible. The consequences of this for the formation of a stable society are dire. There is an enormous disjuncture between the type of hegemony we are experiencing and what the Constitution expects of the society and polity. While the constitutional idea of the nation is based on notions of individual freedom, the rule of law and the efficacy of multiple democratic institutions, the African nationalist idea of the nation is based on notions of affective ties, the rule of the father and the efficacy of familial belonging and filial duty. While the Constitution aims to create a polity in which a multiplicity of interests, views and perspectives are given expression, the binary vision of African nationalism precludes complexity. While the Constitution seeks to protect freedom of speech, both nationalism and identity politics wish to restrict it.
The precepts of the Constitution and the ideological predisposition of nationalism and its allies are two entirely incompatible universes of being, and the hegemony of African nationalism is in fact a brake upon the full emergence of a modern state in South African. Indeed one could argue that African nationalism provides its adherents with a self-contained universe within which all that is meant to be offered through the existence of a fully developed state is already provided. To some extent from the pure nationalist viewpoint, the state is useful as a means to accumulation and power, but nationalists don’t really need much else from it. They don’t need it to bolster solidarity, to create a sense of belonging and to house the representative institutions which allow all members of society, and not just the nationalists, to find their voice and place.
As we try to form a viable state, it is constantly undermined by the presence of a self-contained ideological mini-state within it, one where only African nationalists exist, where only African nationalist thought is appropriate, and where the values and precepts of African nationalism dictate truth and morality. Those outside of this “mini state”, such as Opposition parties, NGOs, members of Civil Society, the judiciary and a huge range of other things, find themselves confronting this question: Do we continue to work on forming a proper, constitutionally defined state, often against the wishes and impetus of African nationalism? Or do we enter the nationalist universe, adopt its binary, Manichean vision, endorse its myths and pseudo history and subordinate ourselves to its will. If we choose the latter, the formation of a fully-fledged South African state is doomed.
We are confronted today with the Janus-faced nature of nationalism. The African nationalism which started out as a force for good - as the Sleeping Beauty which fought for freedom and sought to end one of the most vicious forms of oppression known – has morphed into a Frankenstein’s Monster, a ruling class philosophy which dominates the society, silences non-nationalist thinking, channels our discussions and debates into questions raised by historical mythology and racial identity and leaves the more telling matters of who really rules, who benefits and who suffers from the social order, unexplored.
Disclaimer: in this piece the word “myth” is not used to mean “untruth” but to mean a narrative and set of symbols which perform a particular social function. Most of us live according to myths of one sort or another and the myths we live by contain both truths and untruths. They are the stories, the daily mythologies, which guide us through life. This piece is about nationalist and ethnic myths.