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SA battles national identity crisis

Mariette Le Roux

A draft loyalty pledge has plunged South Africa into a new identity crisis as it mulls its common values 14 years after discarding apartheid to forge a united society under a single flag. As the motley rainbow nation quibbles over a government proposal to introduce a pledge of allegiance in schools, some ideological battle lines are being redrawn.

A draft loyalty pledge has plunged South Africa into a new identity crisis as it mulls its common values 14 years after discarding apartheid to forge a united society under a single flag.

As the motley rainbow nation quibbles over a government proposal to introduce a pledge of allegiance in schools, some ideological battle lines are being redrawn.

The pledge has been described alternatively as an attempt at fostering social cohesion and as ideological abuse.

One newspaper columnist said it would do little but remind children that “the little white ones among them are evil seed”.

“This oath is nothing more than an attempt by the [ruling] ANC to indoctrinate vulnerable school children with a permanent guilt complex,” said Jaco Mulder, a provincial parliamentarian of the white minority Freedom Front Plus opposition party.

Some object to the fact that besides the expected commitment to such values as human dignity and justice, nearly half the pledge has to do with injustices perpetrated under the apartheid state.

Education Minister Naledi Pandor defended the move on Friday, telling the Mail & Guardian it was a bid to promote “national unity where ideals are not expressed only by those who participated in the struggle”.

“We hope that young people ... do come to have an appreciation of the struggle that was centred on certain principles of humanity.”

The proposal has been welcomed by the African National Congress Youth League.

“We are of the opinion that the pledge will go a long way to imbue the youth with a sense of pride, patriotism, nation building and a caring society,” it said in a statement.

South Africans of different hues and political backgrounds have been trying to forge a common national identity since the decline of the apartheid state and the ascension of the former liberation movement ANC to the helm of government in 1994.

The nation adopted a symbolically multicoloured flag that same year, a widely negotiated Constitution two years later, and a hybrid national anthem in 1997 that contains Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika as well as Die Stem.

A new coat of arms was introduced in 2000 with the motto: “!ke e: /xarra //ke”, translated as “diverse people unite” from the Khoisan language.

But the nation is intermittently faced with issues that challenge the notion of a diverse nation unified in purpose.

Contentious issues include the ANC-led government’s drive to change place names to which Afrikaners claim an historic allegiance, and the racial make-up of the nation’s rugby and cricket teams that fall far short of reflecting the 80% black majority demographic.

Newspaper editorials, too, were divided on the idea of a pledge.

“Just as no farmer would plant a young sapling in the eye of the storm, no nation as young as ours can be expected to overcome its growing pains without some help,” said the Star, welcoming the initiative.

But Business Day said it was a good idea badly executed.

“The text ... contains much about the injustices of the past but little about what’s important now,” it said.

“This is a troubled and fragmented society and we could do with some unifying values and rituals. But this pledge doesn’t quite make the grade.”

President Thabo Mbeki told lawmakers on Thursday it was important to keep in mind that both black and white citizens had contributed to today’s South Africa.

Yet recent national debate, he said, had illustrated a clear division “between those who believe South Africa is experiencing the worst of times and those who assert that this is the best of times”.

He quoted a recent newspaper editorial by columnist William Saunderson-Meyer stating: “The darkies mutter self-indulgently about past injustices. The whities opt loudly for the theory of the universe [that] the sky is about to fall down, at least over the southern part of Africa.”

Added Mbeki: “... surely all of us have a duty to encourage all our ‘citizens to be politically and emotionally engaged in their country’, precisely to create the possibility for us to unite in action and act in unity.”

Analyst Sipho Seepe, president of the South African Institute for Race Relations, said while the pledge was flawed, the debate should be welcomed.

“This is an opportunity for the nation to be in conversation. That is very important.” - AFP

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