Today, wherever we are, we hear discussion about “the failure of post-apartheid South Africa”. Many conversations are unconcerned with building democracy, being satisfied with a look signifying “we knew it would be like this”.
There are many troubling questions concerning the present. The feature of “this” which I address today is the “unfinished business” of nation building, the continued significance of colonial and apartheid legacies of division in the present. In this context, we need to examine how we approach identities.
It is a controversial topic, with some prescribing that being African has specific and essentialist, unchanging characteristics, impervious to time and place. We can only understand this and other contentious issues if we locate them in their historical context.
In South Africa, the liberation struggle de-emphasised ethnic identity in the interest of building a common identity. This was in opposition to both the colonial and apartheid governments' efforts to divide black and white and separate African people into “tribal” groups.
On the continent as a whole, attempts to build new nations often saw suppression of identities, many of these being important for those adhering to them. There have also been tendencies to identify the nation with victorious liberation movements and to impede the activities of alternative organisations.
Insofar as distinct identities may be recognised, under the label “unity in diversity”, recent African National Congress conferences make it clear that diversity is permissible or encouraged as long as distinct identities flow into “the national”. The slogan “unity in diversity” is thus understood as a hierarchical relationship where diverse identities are only legitimate where they exist within what is understood to comprise the national.
Those identities formed on an ethnic or regional basis, outside of this national conception, are depicted as illegitimate, divisive and, implicitly or explicitly as deserving of suppression.
In the history of post-colonial Africa there were flagrant examples where tribal identities were used to destabilise states. One of the early cases was in the Congo after the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in 1961, when a tribally based Katanga secession under Moise Tshombe was engineered by external powers to ensure control of the country’s copper. This was one of the reasons that formation of ethnic/tribally based political parties tended to be treated as divisive, and it formed part of the rationale for establishing one-party states in Ghana and other states in years that followed.
It is important to revisit these questions. Recently, Graça Machel reflected on the Mozambican experience, considering the statement of Samora Machel “for the nation to live the tribe must die”. (click here for the lecture.) She argues that we all emerge from distinct socio-cultural contexts. Our initial relationships - the families from which we grow and the communities from which we derive – are key components of our cultural identity. These, she contends, are the seeds of our identities, or our social beings. They can and will expand, be built upon and change shape but they are still the seeds of our future selves.
For a national identity to grow, a tribal identity does not have to die. "With the right conditions, including soil, water, sun etc, the seed does not die. It is transformed into another living entity," she said.
"The seed transforms – at one point spreading its roots, and then growing out of the earth and forming a stem, eventually a trunk, branches and leaves. It all depends on what type of seed.… Indeed, what is in the seed is what dictates the nature of the transformation that emerges from its sowing.
“The very being of the seed maintains its identity in the transformation process.” What is innate in the seed “influences the transformation…. And as human beings we are able to influence the transformation; to use old seeds to breed stronger hybrids; to develop new strains, new strengths.”
Applying this to South Africa, we need to engage with people who see themselves as part of a range of communities. Insofar as these groups conduct their affairs or pursue their identities in ways that are compatible with the wellbeing of others, and do not spread hatred or chauvinism, they ought to be seen as enriching the nation as a whole. If these are described as tribal identities it is a case of the tribal feeding into the national and the national feeding into the tribal, as Graca Machel argues.
When we speak of acknowledging identities we also see these as vibrant identities within living and changing communities and cultures. The new South Africa needs to relate with respect to the customs of all people, subject to the law and constitution. Insofar as any culture may potentially conflict with the bill of rights, the answer is not to simply say “the bill of rights always trumps custom”. The idea is not to “trump custom” but to recognise it as a fluid concept, as with people’s identities, and to find ways of resolving conflicts, for example between the rights of women and claims by Traditional leaders in the context of understanding customs as living phenomena. That way identity can be recognised in conformity with building national culture and enriching society as a whole.
Professor Raymond Suttner, attached to Rhodes University and UNISA, is an analyst on current political questions and leadership issues. He writes a regular column and is interviewed weekly on Creamer Media’s Polity.org.za. Suttner is a former political prisoner and was in the leadership of the ANC-led alliance in the 1990s. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner