Submitted by Matthew Beetar

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United Provinces of South Africa, and to the Republic for which it stands …

Then again, maybe not.

I have run into a fair amount of criticism for not being completely patriotic and enthusiastic about the construction of a compulsory South African identity.

No, I am not “proudly South African”, and I am proud to say it. In the seemingly desperate battle for a uniform that everyone — regardless of race, creed, background or shoe size — can don, we have lost sight of what should truly define us as a country: our diversity.

The recent proposal to introduce a pledge into schools is a backward step in defining a sense of national pride. While I fully support the notion of being made aware of the sacrifices that great people have made in the past so that we may have the future we are currently living, I struggle to come to terms with the expectation that in order to qualify as a true South African, one must be proud of all people, values and traditions deemed worthy.

Don’t get me wrong — I realise that the pledge and the drive toward a national ethics include an appreciation for some of the most fundamental human rights. But the motivation behind it is warped: the ANC is mimicking the strategy of less complicated countries in a bid to say: “Yes, it means this to be a South African: [insert list of worthy adjectives here].”

The existence of a national ideology, a national identity, is a foreign concept for South Africans: it is irrational to assume that we can simply set aside all our differences.

What is also bizarre is to assume that we have a reason to place our “national identity” above any other that we may have. People usually do not enjoy placing a singular identity above others — I am sure no gay man, for example, likes to be defined solely by the fact that he is gay, or a black woman by the fact that she is black.

So why, then, do we assume that in such a culturally diverse country, where ties to heritage, family or self-formed identity run deep, we should naturally choose to place an imposed national identity above all others?

Of course the pledge and the extended “Proudly South African” campaign goes hand-in-hand with the need to create a tangible definition of what it means to “be” South African: what the country as an entity stands for, and thus what it means to be a part of it. I am all for entrenching a notion of human respect among all citizens. My problem lies with the shroud of superficiality that surrounds the eradication of difference in the process.

For some reason there seems to be a chilling fear when it comes to difference. Differences are thought to be absolutely synonymous with conflict, rebellion and nation-degeneration. Far from celebrating difference and encouraging an understanding about other cultures (in the broadest sense of the word), there appears to be a continuing tendency to conform towards an idealised and irrational Westernised paradigm of normality.

Our Constitution shines with talk of equal rights, tolerance and acceptance, yet the powers that be frequently act in ways that seem to oppress sub-groups and reverse any change that may have taken place. And generally if one complains about an approach, one is either called counter-progressive in one form or another, or simply told to leave the country.

Now that’s what I call forward thinking.

So what, then, am I expected to be proudly South African about?

Is it the history of the land into which I was born, through no choice of my own? Is it the achievements of individuals from the past, whom I shall never know personally? Is it the country’s peaceful shift into democracy, of which I was oblivious due to my age? Or is it something more trivial — such as the friendly people, or the weather? I would not die for “my country” if we were called to war. Nor would I get into an argument of blind and violent defence if a foreigner began criticising it.

Ironically, the majority of patriots that I have encountered are proud of the quirky sayings, the food, the weather or the geographical features of the country — not the surface values or the institutions.

For me to say: “I am a proud South African”, and be proud to take on a national identity, we as a people (defined by geographical borders) would have to realise that no, we cannot simply forget our differences. And, as opposed to shying away from the possibility that we may all be different (horror), embrace our plurality with the mindset of realising that there are alternatives to our narrow ways of life. The key here is to advocate a negotiation of understanding, not a compromise of beliefs.

Perhaps the decision to introduce a pledge was a move in this very direction. But I hardly think so. We cannot hope to forge that common link between groups when difference is suffocated and ideals are introduced merely to mask variation and smother true tolerance.

Of course I am being idealistic — but so is the current approach. Which is more far-fetched: to work towards convincing people to set aside their differences because “essentially we are all equal” (but of course some are more equal than others), or to work towards convincing people that through our differences we can appreciate the fact that we deserve equal rights and respect? Difference is deeply entrenched in this country. Why not celebrate it first and become united through it later? The current ideology needs to shift away from simply saying we encourage difference.

I agree we need some common sense of social cohesion. The fact that I have used “we” throughout this post shows that there is a space for the development of a mutual identity. National identity is something from which we paradoxically cannot shy away in our apparent postmodern existence.

However, a South African should be defined in terms of something completely unique — something that does not mimic other national identities. There is a need for an executive that sets an example: we need new leaders who show the people what it means to be tolerant and accepting, and who do not try to enforce values from the bottom-up.

We need to build a notion of pride and unity around a society that has truly managed to overcome ideological walls and identity barriers, and not simply been forced to sweep them under the ANC welcome mat.

Matthew Beetar has just completed his undergraduate degree in media and cultural studies and English at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg. Setting aside his pastime of cabaret-ing for charity, he is now pursuing his honours degree in cultural, media and gender studies at Howard College campus. Other than dreaming of winning an Oscar simply so he can do the acceptance speech, he hopes to help see in a new regime of leadership in Africa, all the while idealistically believing it is possible to change perceptions of identity, sexuality and gender roles by using the media.

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