Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

South Africa needs a new national myth

star to steer by

I’ve been talking to a lot of people lately. The young tech entrepreneurs and artists I met at Culture Shift. The 40-something filmmaker, writer and consultant I first encountered at an idea orgy (where ideas mate to produce new ideas). The marketing guru inspired by the potential for technology to inspire new social movements. The 25-year-old entrepreneur – yes, yes, say it, cougar tendencies – who let me accompany him on his regular walk around Westcliff (observation: passing motorists found the site of a big black guy in an ANC T-shirt and a very pale white chick walking together in the street utterly fascinating). The young Airbus pilot who wanted to talk to me about the disenchantment of black South Africans with politics at the Jolly Roger at 3am (I know what you’re assuming, so I’ll add that he was black). The Bangladeshi permanent resident who knows more about our political history than any South African I’ve met, and many more, mostly under the age of 30.

I’ve been sounding them out on an idea I’m afraid to utter out loud in a forum like this, because chances are it’ll be shot down. Thought Leader readers are a tough audience. But what the hell – ideas can only live if they can be replicated, so I’ll put this out there. (Disclaimer: I use the word “we” and “us” repeatedly, knowing that I cannot claim to speak on behalf of anyone but myself.)

Essentially, what I am arguing is this: South Africa needs a new national myth. Or myths; no single story can truly encompass the breadth and complexity of our reality. By national myth, I mean an overarching narrative that lends meaning and purpose to daily life. Uri Ram, drawing on the work of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, puts it succinctly: “Nationality is a narration, a story which people tell about themselves in order to lend meaning to their social world. The fact that nationality is a story does not challenge its reality, because myths are not mystifications.”

I use the term myth, but you can call it what you like: a vision, a story, a counter-narrative. It doesn’t matter what we name it; what matters is the idea itself.

Let me explain why. I wrote my doctoral thesis on the role of advertising in post-apartheid South African national identity. In exploring how Castle Lager and Vodacom influenced our sense of a national self, I identified a number of national myths that predominated in South Africa over the time. By national myth, I don’t mean a falsehood, but rather an overarching narrative which lends meaning and purpose to daily life. The power of myth becomes clear when you look at the history of South Africa. Prior to 1990, the landscape of the imagination was dominated by two myths: Afrikaner nationalism and The Struggle. Both were potent and they powered a great deal of action over decades. The presence of the myth ensured commitment to a cause that might otherwise have seemed quixotic.

FW de Klerk effectively named a new national myth when he announced on February 2 1990 that we were now living in a new South Africa. The Rainbow Nation appeared from around 1993 and lasted alongside the myth of Madiba magic until 1998, when Thabo Mbeki killed it off with his Two Nations speech and replaced it with the African renaissance. The African renaissance never really resonated and it was effectively replaced in the 2000s by what I call Brand South Africa, when the media focused on tourism and the performance of the Rand, and which culminated in the 2010 Fifa World Cup. Since then the nation has been wandering about without any real meaning or purpose. We’re fixated on divisions within the ruling party; political discourse has descended to the level of argument over the meaning of a stupid bloody word. No narrative about where we’re headed has come to dominate public discourse. It is Julius Malema who has effectively defined the national narrative with his call for economic freedom (an idea that at its heart is a good one, by the way). We know we need to achieve economic freedom, the fabled better life for all; it’s just the how that’s proving tricky.

When political analysts observe the potential for the entire national project to unravel, you know you have a problem. If you think about what dominates our national discourse, it’s overwhelmingly negative. Corruption, incompetence, lack of service delivery, crime, the increasing impatience of the masses who probably regard the constitution as slightly less useful than toilet paper, as Aubrey Matshiqi writes here (which is exactly why Media Monitoring Africa started We The People – to educate ordinary South Africans on why the Constitution is relevant to them and how it makes a difference in their lives – and why I’m frustrated that it didn’t get more support than it did). The jobless youth are restless.

It’s easy to give into hopelessness, and there are millions of South Africans who have done exactly that. Yet there’s so much good happening out there. Cheesekids, Greater Good, the SKA and many other NGOs, LeadSA (our national prefects), the National Research Foundation, FormulaSA and so many others from a whole range of fields. And yes, even in government: the story about Home Affairs is a good one, evidence that it is possible to turn a basket case into a functioning entity that actually delivers services to South Africa’s citizens efficiently.

There are so many brilliant people out there who really are making a difference. (As tech entrepreneur Stafford Masie said at Culture Shift, “Why make money in America when you can make a difference in Africa?”) There is excellence, there is energy, and there is creativity. The reason these things are not making the kind of impact that they should be is that they don’t add up. They’re too scattered; there is no focused narrative. For ideas to be replicated, they must be simple and compelling. We need something that can be made as relevant to unemployed matriculants as it can to innovators and artists.

Here’s the thing. All of these tough conversations must happen. We need the honesty that Zama Ndlovu writes about. As she observes: “Until we are able to have a decent conversation, we cannot hope to get to make the compromises that are required to move our nation forward. We cannot hope to create a space that allows for innovative leadership and creative solutions.”

But if it’s only tough conversations, if it’s only peeling back the carpet to examine the dustbunnies and the dead cockroaches underneath, we’ll give up trying. We’ll become so overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge and the breadth of the divisions between us that we’ll abandon the conviction that we can make things better. We’ll lose the ability to create that space that allows for innovative leadership and creative solutions. Instead, we will become more insular, more focused on immediate gratification – perhaps drugs, or cars, or shoes – rather than holding out for the bigger picture. Because what’s the point when none of it means anything and we’re all screwed anyway? We’ll retreat to a Dainfern of the mind as so many already have done.

So we need a counter-narrative to the corruption/ division story, an alternative to the notion that nothing will ever really change, that we succeed or fail on the whim of politicians and that underneath all the politeness we actually can’t stand each other. None of the kumbaya bullshit of the Rainbow Nation: something that is honest about our differences and our challenges, and rooted in the dignity and equality stipulated in the constitution. But also – and this is important – something that inspires us. Something that reminds us of what we are capable of if only we put our minds to it. The American psychologist Rollo May once wrote of the need for myth and its role in national identity. “The outsider, the foreigner, the stranger,” he wrote, “is the one who does not share our myths, the one who steers by different stars, who worships different gods.”

And that’s what we need: a star to steer by. A fixed point in the sky to focus on when circumstances knock us off course. (http://thoughtleader.co.za/simonhartley/2012/03/27/embracing-irrelevance-is-a-bitter-thing/)

I don’t have the answers. I honestly don’t know how to tackle that thing in the air that Zama writes about. But we need … something. An icon, a meme, maybe even a slogan, though I don’t think something like “Inspiring new ideas” is going to inspire any actual new ideas. What form it might take, I don’t know. But find it we must – because without it we’ll just get even more lost in the wilderness than we already are.

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