It is not easy to ignore the national question in South Africa, particularly presently, both in the context of 20 years of democracy and also given the troubling discourse by certain seemingly regressive people and or institutions. It is also hard to overlook this paramount issue of the national question when one observes the socio-economic challenges confronting South Africa today, and what appear to be a directionless government and a chaotic Parliament.

By a “national question”, to put it simple, it is generally implied that there is appropriate balance of power and influence among all people and or ethnic groups in a nation state. Linked to the national question are notions of nation, nation-building and nationalism as well as nation state. In simple terms, pride in identity being of a particular origin is nationalism. Nation-building, not state-building, can be viewed as the strengthening of unity, coherence, functionality and pride in a nation state — nation state simply refers to a geographical area characterised by legitimacy based on sovereignty of a nation. The reason I do not spend time on the question of sovereignty of South Africa is because the then Parliament of South Africa declared South Africa as a sovereign independent state through the 1934 Status of the Union Act. Others might want to engage with this issue, because there are those who are of the view that the “sovereignty” of South Africa remains in question.

The former Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, defined a nation as “a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture”. French philosopher Ernest Renan, writing in the context of a “French nation” argues that, “the essence of a nation is that individuals have many things in common, and as well as all forgot [forget] many things”. Benedict Anderson, who has put the theorisation about notions of nation, nationalism and national identity back on the agenda, defines a nation as “an imagined political community — and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign … the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship”. It is however important to remember what Charles Tilly, the American social scientist, said, that: “Nation [as a concept] remains one of the most puzzling and tendentious items in political lexicon.”

As argued elsewhere, we must acknowledge that it is problematic to think of a “nation” as simply a people pursuing democracy and freedom, especially in the context of South Africa. I say this not to downplay African nationalist struggles, which unquestionably bring [brought] about new “nations”. I am highlighting this point because there are those who view a nation as simply a people in pursuit of political freedoms. I have argued that the definition of a nation in the context of post-apartheid South Africa could be: a community that shares a lot in common and respects its repulsive political history, through systematic restitutionary, reconciliatory and restructuring measures, and equitable sharing of resources. Social and economic inclusion should be non-negotiable, given the repulsive political history shaping South Africa’s fortunes and misfortunes.

The discourse in South Africa implies that we are indeed drifting away from becoming a nation. The government of the day is not able to expedite social and economic inclusion. The key apartheid figures are rejoicing. Despite the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sought to achieve catharsis from the ills of the past, lack of honest and remorseful acknowledgement of the evils of the apartheid regime have continued to spur revolutionary pressures from the previously disadvantaged group. Similarly, the Convention for Democracy in South Africa negotiations ended up with a sub-optimal outcome, which essentially maintained the status quo.

FW de Klerk, the last apartheid president of South Africa, was reported to have said on CNN in 2012 that the apartheid regime was only morally repugnant in a qualified way. Dave Steward, the executive director of the FW de Klerk Foundation, also mentioned, in a January 16 2015 article, that despite the apartheid regime South Africa is much better than other African countries that did not experience apartheid. What De Klerk and Steward, and many other like-minded people and institutions, say is reinforcing the racist and ahistorical notion that African people are incapable of developing themselves without the intervention of the European settlers. They omit the fact that these celebrated achievements of the “whites” were done with the resources that they found on the land — resources that were extracted with the forced labour of Africans, who were mostly treated as mere property.

Regardless of the constitutional provisions for nation-building in South Africa, comments such as the ones made by key figures of the apartheid regime can only succeed in fanning the ember of anger, disgust, and revenge, where possible. Such statements complicate the process of nation-building because they are most likely doing more damage to the psychology of people whose rights had been denied for centuries and they were treated as sub-human. Thus, the form of relations that exist between the various peoples that makeup a geographical space matter so much for nation-building. White South Africans should acknowledge the privileges and advantages that apartheid colonialism gave them, and we need to find better ways of co-existing.

In an attempt to theorise nation-building and nationalism, Anderson, as indicated earlier, suggests that nationhood is artificial and socially constructed, especially by the elites who derive power and privileges from such constructions. This explanation is however limited to the extent that it fails to recognise the link that exists between the concepts of nation and nationalism. Whereas the nation may be an abstract construction, nationalism is a practical expression of the feeling of oneness that distinguishes a group or race from the others. For instance, the active, consistent and sometimes violent resistance of the colonised peoples to the various colonial governments in Africa and Asia in the last century or so were evidently expressive of the awareness of the differences that exist between the colonised and the coloniser.

The salience of consciousness of belonging to a nation is critical and even more pronounced in countries that experience settler colonialism such as South Africa. Although South Africa developed a constitutional framework that seeks to incorporate the various nationalities into a nation state, the continuity of the old patterns of relations and privileges by one race over the other (ie the European settlers over the host Africans) have tendentiously undermined the efficacy of the Constitution in blurring the racial divides. Indeed, what has happened and continues to happen in South Africa is that, despite the freedom that political independence has brought emancipation in the form of access to economic justice and equity remains an illusion.

In conclusion, economic transformation that can ensure access to economic justice has not been effective. Nation-building requires that there is systematic restitutionary, reconciliatory and restructuring measures and equitable sharing of resources, as argued earlier. It also requires that we do not forget the terrible political history whose ramifications are still felt today. It also demands that we all find ways to co-exist. Most importantly, it also requires that our leaders or prominent individuals and institutions are responsible in their utterances. The political leadership, private-sector leadership, leadership in the broader civil society as well as the intelligentsia have to play a useful role in imagining and constructing a South African nation ultimately.


  • Vusi Gumede worked for the South African government in various capacities and in different departments for 12 years. He has been an academic since 2010. He has held various professorships, fellowships and editorships in and outside South Africa. He is currently a Dean for the Faculty of Economics, Development and Business Sciences at the University of Mpumalanga in South Africa. He holds various qualifications, including a PhD in Economics that he completed in 2003 at the University of Natal. He has published 15 books and over 50 journal articles and book chapters. He has supervised to completion over 20 Masters and Doctoral students as well as undertaken various research projects for institutions in and outside South Africa. He serves in various committees, including the Presidential Economic Advisory Council in South Africa, the International Advisory Board of the Southern African Institute for Policy and Research, the National Council of the South African Association of Political Studies and the Pan-African Federalist Movement.


Vusi Gumede

Vusi Gumede worked for the South African government in various capacities and in different departments for 12 years. He has been an academic since 2010. He has held various professorships, fellowships...

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