A relationship with a country, just like a relationship with a person, cannot be summarised with slogans, anthems or flags, writes Jacques Rousseau.
Those of us who think about morality and the endless complexities of trying to get along – and progress – in a heterogenous country/world can take a breather for a moment, as Communications Minister Faith Muthambi has developed a strategy to “improve patriotism, social cohesion and moral regeneration” in South Africa.
Her plan is to start teaching basic moral philosophy in primary school, introducing children to ideas like the social contract and reciprocal altruism, so that they can begin to understand that morality isn’t about mindlessly applying some or other set of instructions but rather about thinking things through with a concern for human (and other) welfare.
These classes will run alongside, or be a component of, a critical thinking curriculum. Alongside the lessons on morality, there will be content on basic reasoning skills, political concepts like race, identity, and class, as well as a strong focus on scientific reasoning.
Muthambi believes that these building blocks can serve to prepare students to get far more value out of the more advanced material they engage with as their schooling and university educations progress, and also – crucially – that understanding these fundamental elements of being a critical and engaged citizen will help South Africa become more prosperous in time, united by a shared pride at our innovation, scientific prowess and productivity.
Well, that’s a nice story, at least. In reality, Muthambi thinks we can address patriotism, social cohesion and moral regeneration by ... playing the national anthem on television.
“In our discussion with [the] minister of arts and culture, because that’s one thing we have discussed and feeling strongly about, the issue of national pride ... you go across other countries and you find that their flag is their pride, all over their flag is flying all the time.”
“These are the things that in terms of the memorandum of understanding we are doing with the minister of arts and culture ... and that will address the issue of the national anthem, to bring patriotism so that we are proud of who we are.”
“For me, I don’t know why the SABC doesn’t do that at 6pm or any other [time] ... and also hoisting the flag while the national anthem is singing. And by doing that, you will be educating. I mean that’s a process of education that would spread to so many places and many people to know how the flag is hoisted and to sing the national anthem.”
Well, yes, it is a process of education. People might indeed learn “how the flag is hoisted and to sing the national anthem”. But if that’s all that patriotism amounts to for Muthambi, then we’re talking about mere propaganda rather than anything that can contribute to a well justified sense of pride in something about one’s nation.
And I’ve got no clue how she thinks patriotism – even of this denuded sort – can contribute to moral regeneration. Having grown up in 1970s South Africa, I remember quite clearly how patriotic we were encouraged to be by the National Party, and the moral degeneration that encouraged among many people of my generation.
Her desire to do “something” is understandable. But you can’t fake moral virtue, or programme it – attempts to do so simply make people vulnerable to the charms of the most rhetorically persuasive demagogue that might happen to come around.
You also can’t fake or force patriotism. As I’ve remarked in the past, when speaking of South Africans supporting other African teams in the 2010 (and now the 2014) football World Cup.
“I can understand why South Africans, and Africans in general, like the idea of one of ‘our’ teams doing well. But it doesn’t quite make sense for me, as a football fan, to support teams simply because they represent an African nation, because there is much about Africa that is difficult to support. From female genital mutilation in Egypt and homophobia in Malawi, to assorted human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, there are things about this continent that clearly expose a fundamental divide between Africa as a collective concept, and the sort of world I’d prefer to live in.”
The same is true of patriotism with regard to South Africa. I live here, and most of the things and people I’ve become invested in live here too. So, I’ll keep working towards improving South Africa, and share an affinity with many others who work towards the same goals. And, there are many aspects of South Africa and its people that are inspirational, invigorating, charming and so forth. I would miss much about it if I were to leave.
But a relationship with a country, just like a relationship with a person, cannot be summarised with slogans, anthems or flags. There are parts of South Africa that I despise, and some of these find regular expression in the current government – and especially our president – relying on rhetorical flourishes and empty gestures such as playing the national anthem on our public television station.
If you want us to be patriotic, Muthambi, make us proud. The patriotism will follow.