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Nationalism isn’t the answer

It was late. I was tired and trying to find my way out of the city. It must have been Maas op ‘n Maandag (“Maas on a Monday” on RSG) on the radio, because it was Deon Maas (aka Witboy) who interrupted Wits sociologist Andries Bezuidenhout’s remarks on nationalism to try and interpret it for his listeners. Maas’s attempt basically amounted to equating the manifestation of nationalism with the denial of the distributors of the Simply Slim slimming product, after said “herbal” product was banned by the Medicines Control Council for having contained a schedule five pharmaceutical agent. While the leap between other forms of chauvinism and the popularity of slimming products may be more tangible, Maas’s well-meant attempt was surely a bridge too far. What it rather emphasised, is perhaps how ignorant about nationalism we really are in South Africa despite having lived in its suffocating grip for centuries on end.

Unreasonably irritated, I soon switched off the radio, but the stompies I picked up did smoulder for a bit. Bezuidenhout, a renaissance man of certain repute, seemed to contend that though nationalism of a certain sort seemed necessary to rally a nation behind itself, there was a point at which this phenomenon can become self-destructive. The example he used was the Anglo-Boer War, in which some leading figures on the Boer side cautioned against the self-destructive effects of their violent resistance, but they continued nonetheless in pursuit of a future in which they could speak their mother tongue, practise their culture and exist as a people. Thoughts around the merits of what they did soon left me, though.

Festering instead, was the niggling sense that democratic South Africa failed to learn the lessons of its nationalist past. Victory and positioning in our politics still conform greatly to the ways we have done things before. Of the thirteen parties represented in our Parliament, only four parties do not rely expressly on some sort of exclusive nationalist call or another, them being the Democratic Alliance, the Congress of the People, the Independent Democrats and the United Democratic Movement. The remaining nine parties, together occupying 295 of the 400 seats in Parliament, invariably afford greater legitimacy to South Africans on the basis of their political affiliation, their race, their religious inclinations or their culture — a position which will inevitably subvert constitutional prescripts to party rule, no matter which of them would happen to rule.

Just as anecdotal election-time evidence suggests that localised incidents of divide-and-rule campaigning happens even among the four, more constitutionalist parties listed above, we can also accept that there are constitutionalists who align themselves readily with the nine more overtly nationalist political parties. This is a confusing situation if, as a voter, nationalism is your big bugbear, but one I have come to put down to being similar to the anomaly that keeps the frog sitting in the pot even though the water it is sitting in may be getting hotter and hotter. Like the frog in the pot, political parties and their members do not operate in a vacuum. They have to find their way in a public discourse that is as amenable to change as the sea is to the QEII making a U-turn on a dime.

In this regard, public opinion-makers have limited use. I have often been emboldened by the utterances of commentators such as Aubrey Matshiqi and Xolela Mangcu — the latter, in particular, did a pretty good job of crystallising how easily a wholesome civic nationalism can morph into a divisive, chauvinist national neurosis in his book To the Brink: The State of Democracy in South Africa — only to find they too can display rather entrapped, orthodox attitudes based on what is possible along racial lines, rather than where the possibilities lie in breaking through the nationalist mould that our electorate so loves clinging to. Of course, incidents such as AWB secretary-general André Visagie threatening to touch news channel presenter Chris Maroleng “on his studio” helps matters along little, as it invariably only fuels the self-involved logic applied by the Lebohang Phekos of this world on why South Africans will never be able to unite as a nation.

The time has come for us to be more solution-orientated in our public discourse, especially in times when right-wingers and other arch-nationalists like Julius Malema tear at our national fabric. What this will take I do not know, but a good place to start would be the lessons of our collective past, the first of which are that one form of nationalism invariably begets another. At the end of the day, good South Africans are all we agreed to be in 1994. Until we are sure what that entails, we should defend the rainbow nation ideal from the several reactionary agendas out there threatening our collective future as South Africans.


  • Coenraad Bezuidenhout

    Coenraad Bezuidenhout has a masters degree in political economy and a decade's worth of experience in economic policy and public affairs. He currently heads up the Manufacturing Circle, a private sector lobby group representing - you guessed it - South African manufacturers. He writes here in his personal capacity on any issues of immediate interest related to politics, economics, public affairs and the arts.