The curse of African nationalism

The government’s knee-jerk reaction to the pogroms that swept across the country speaks volumes to the politics of African nationalism. We were told they were “criminal” acts in the service of a “third force” agenda. This last term has a particular saliency in the South African context. It refers to white, apartheid agents, working through black stooges to provoke violence and war in black communities.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that government responses since 1994 to as diverse a range of challenges as macroeconomic policy and HIV/Aids have been informed by a preoccupation with race and white racism in particular.

Apartheid was a phenomenon of mass, institutionalised white racism sustained over many decades. With human and financial capital overwhelmingly in white hands, economic development and racial redress were contingent on managing white racism. Both Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki correctly placed the question of white racism at the centre of their politics. What distinguished their presidencies was how they set about tackling it.

Interventions such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were opportunities for black South Africans to have their stories heard and acknowledged in the public domain. Facing up to the truth of apartheid—that it was a system of violent domination—would be a baptism of fire for whites. By recognising their personal and collective complicity in this violence, whites could resurrect their humanity and enter the new South Africa. Was this conception naive? Ultimately Desmond Tutu was driven to lament the failure of white South Africans to respond to the gesture of reconciliation.

Yet, if whites could not escape their racism, then they could not be trusted in public life.

This has been one of the key instincts of the Mbeki administration. “Transformation” is certainly about achieving demographic representativeness in the public and private sectors. Beyond that it is about ending white majorities in organisational life in South Africa. This is just. As David Storey puts it: white South Africans must come to terms with being a minority in institutional life.

Disenchantment with non-racialism has seen the resurgence of another kind of politics. It is important that we identify it correctly. The time of Mbeki has been associated with a vigorous African nationalism. It is distinguished from the politics of non-racialism by its insistence that the post-apartheid government is a black government.

This has muddied the waters of what constitutes racism.

Here the analogy with Zionism is informative. Zionism positions the State of Israel as a Jewish state and rebukes criticism of it as the work of anti-Semites. What complicates matters is that anti-Semitism, like racism, is a real force in the world. Yet, when Zionists reduce all criticism of the State of Israel to anti-Semitism, they immunise themselves from legitimate critique.

There are disturbing parallels between the scenario above and the way race has come to be used during the time of Mbeki. Criticism of the government is frequently equated with criticism of blacks in general and Africans in particular—even when it comes from the Congress of South African Trade Unions or the South African Communist Party. We can restate this argument like this:

1. the government is a black government;

2. criticism of the government is, therefore, criticism of blacks; and

3. criticism is racist.

By blurring racism and critique the South African government has refused to hear legitimate criticism. Indeed, the government has been responsible for weakening the accountability of public authorities. The results have been devastating: the hollowing-out of South Africa’s democracy and an inability to come to terms with chronic state failure, whether in the areas of health or crime or electricity generation or service delivery or HIV/Aids treatment.

The inability to come to terms with the agency of black people is, ironically, the hallmark of African nationalism. It is driven to reduce the actions of blacks to the machinations of others (white racists, in particular). Claims of a “third force” are merely instances of this political logic—a refusal to come to terms with the racist nationalism of those committing ethnic cleansing throughout the country.

Is there a way out of the impasse that African nationalism has created? It does not necessarily mean a return to the non-racialism of Mandela. It is necessary to follow Mbeki’s lead and pursue policies to reduce or eliminate white dominance in South African institutional life. Yet this must be done in the name of post-nationalist politics—one that affirms that South Africa is not an African country or black state.

The measure of a South African should not be one of birth or origin. The country should belong to all who live in it, blacks, whites, migrants and refugees who are ready to treat others with respect, with tolerance and as equals.

Professor Ivor Chipkin is the author of Do South Africans Exist?, published by Wits University Press



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