The South African nation does not exist

At the southernmost tip of the African continent there is a country known as South Africa. Bordered by the Atlantic and Indian oceans, it stretches from the Kalahari in the north to the winelands of the Cape in the south, and from the subtropical beaches of KwaZulu-Natal to the wildest reaches of Limpopo. It is vast and beautiful, and it exists.

But South Africa does not refer exclusively to the country known by that name. It is also sometimes used to refer to a nation; the nation of South Africans. But what is a nation? Benedict Anderson, in his 1983 book Imagined Communities, says a nation is an “imagined political community”. It is imagined because members of even the smallest nation will never know, nor meet, most of their fellow members. 

In this sense, it is obvious, and utterly mundane, to say that the South African nation does not exist. No nation exists in the corporeal manner of a chair. But that is just the problem: even if we accept imagined entities into our ontology, there would still not be any such thing as the South African nation.

For the nation, according to Anderson, “is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship”. And, though there may be deep comradeship within the borders of South Africa, it is only rarely on the basis of a common shared nationality. Most often, it is on the basis of some more insular community, and these, unlike South Africa, constitute nations. 

Consider the Afrikaners. Some of whom still sing the old national anthem, Die Stem, on December 16 each year at the Voortrekker Monument. Or the amaXhosa, amaZulu, abaThembu, vhaVenda, amaNdebele, amaMpondo and Bapedi, all of whom have their own kings. Or English-speaking whites, many of whom have one foot in a foreign country. 

These are not typical cultural variations. Each of these practices contradicts, in its own way, the very notion of a single South African nationhood. One cannot sing an anthem that recalls a nostalgic time when your fellow citizens were not citizens, and that is nostalgic precisely because your fellow citizens were not citizens, without thereby rejecting the claim of a single South African nation. Nor can one accept the authority of a king that rules over you but not your fellow citizens, without thereby rejecting that claim. Nor can one sincerely claim to be South African if one hedges your bets should that claim turn out to be inconvenient. 

Collectively, those who do these things comprise most of the people who would otherwise be South African. There is no deep, horizontal comradeship between them, therefore there is no South African nation.

Perhaps Anderson’s definition is such that it uniquely fits this conclusion. So consider another definition, advocated by Kwame Anthony Appiah in his 2018 book The Lies that Bind: “A nation is a group of people who think of themselves as sharing ancestry and also care about the fact that they have that supposed ancestry in common.” 

But South Africans do not consider themselves to share any common ancestry, whether imagined or otherwise. Nor, as the above examples show, do they care enough to want to act together as a single people. There are several nations within the borders of the country South Africa, but there is no single South African nation.

It is true that, sometimes, something so catastrophically inspiring will happen that, for the briefest shimmer of time, people will start to consider themselves first and foremost South African. Most recently, this happened when the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup. A moment of unity does not a nation make. 

Calling it the “rainbow nation”, for this reason, is an apt description: rainbows, after all, are transient illusions. Even the motto of the South African state, at surface a cheerful affirmation of the rainbow illusion, betrays this reality — “Unity in Diversity”, which is, of course, a contradiction in terms. There is no unity to be found in diversity; only diversity. To be South African, one must accept this contradiction as true. 

The third and final possible referent of South Africa is the imagined entity that claims this contradiction as its motto — the South African state. But what is a state? The most influential definition is given by Max Weber in his 1919 essay Politics as a Vocation: A state is that which maintains a “monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”.

Note first that the violent crime rate, akin to that of a war zone, by itself conclusively proves that no single entity maintains a monopoly on the use of physical force within South Africa. But violent crime is illegitimate, and so no challenge, by itself, to the existence of the South African state. 

But this just demands the question: What constitutes legitimate use of force? One possibility is to take a page out of the lawyer’s handbook and look to the boni mores of society. In short, the boni mores are the moral and social convictions of the community. By this test, use of force is legitimate if and only if the community accepts it as so.

Applying this test to South Africa is, unfortunately, anything but straightforward. We have already seen that there is no such thing as the South African nation, therefore there is no single community by which we can judge whether use of force is legitimate. Each and every community has its own boni mores and each, accordingly, its own view as to what constitutes legitimate use of force. 

Consider, for example, that episode in Hillbrow on January 15 2019, when a mob, in broad daylight, set a man suspected of robbery on fire. In the middle of the street. Surrounded by the tall towers of Hillbrow, dozens of pedestrians congregated and cheered as the victim writhed, desperately, against the flames. “I love what the community of JHB [Johannesburg] is doing,” tweeted one. “This needs to happen more often and everywhere,” tweeted another. 

Were this a fringe event, one might reasonably conclude that it has no bearing on the legitimacy, and therefore existence, of the South African state. But that is just the thing. Some variation of this happens every day, and all over the country. There is ample videographic evidence, in the darker corners of the internet, of suspected crooks caught and beaten, sometimes to death, by angry mobs. It isn’t even right to call this vigilante justice, because that would imply that it is somehow outside the normal strictures of the law. It is so widespread that, for millions of South Africans, this is the law. 

The same dynamic is at play when infrastructure is intentionally destroyed. Nary a month goes by without a school, train or bus burnt down. In Cape Town, more than 140 train carriages have been destroyed since 2015, leaving scarcely more than a third of trainsets operational. 

Consider another example, which shows what happens when the South African state attempts to do something. The Mtentu bridge in the Eastern Cape was supposed to be a showpiece project. Costing R1.7-billion, it was to be the highest bridge in all of Africa. That was until the local community, unhappy with the number of jobs provided them, halted construction. Fearing for the safety of their workers, the Aveng Strabag joint venture, contracted to build the bridge, cancelled the contract and vacated the site, citing force majeure. That was in February last year. Since then, the site has remained abandoned, with the latest news being that completion of the project has been put to tender. 

As above, when the South African state, breaking the mould, decides to get active, it usually serves only as reminder of its profound impotence (yet another reason to think that it does not exist: things that exist generally exert some influence on the outside world. Things that don’t, don’t). The reality on the ground is that state action is rarely considered legitimately authoritative. The country is ungovernable, therefore it is not governed. 

Which neatly disposes of another possible contention against the claim that the South African state does not exist: that I have, again, chosen my definition to fit the conclusion. So, consider the definition given at the Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States in 1933, according to which a state should possess: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states. But since the country is not governed, it has no government. 

One might protest that these are fringe events and circumstances and that, in the central case, the South African state exists. We have the department of home affairs, after all. 

As anyone who has recently been to the department can attest, this contention must be predicated on a privileged ignorance. One could literally stand (because, there are rarely chairs) in the middle of the department and find no evidence that supports the existence of the South African state. The home affairs department is a Kafkaesque bureaucracy without any remembered purpose. Mistaking its workings for intentionality is like mistaking a chicken’s running for evidence of its head.

That the South African state does not exist has a metatheoretical justification as well. Read the news with this perspective and, as if by magic, things start making sense. Faced with pervasive anarchy, it is far more parsimonious to posit the non-existence of the South African state than it is to rely on just its incompetence or corruption. 

Do not get me wrong. In saying that South Africa does not exist I am not saying that its non-existence is a good thing. I would love for South Africa to exist. But to create it requires acceptance, first, that it does not. It requires hard thinking about what it would mean for South Africa to exist (the answer, I am sure, would not involve such vapid expressions as “Unity in Diversity” or “rainbow nation”). And it requires that those of us who wish it to exist work tirelessly towards that goal. 

All of this is required precisely because it is too late to save South Africa. That South Africa does not exist implies that radical structural change is a pragmatic position to advocate. It is time for moderates, who currently restrict their focus to what are, in effect, policy minutiae, to join the discussion as to what that should look like. 

Because, if we are not willing to accept the truth — that South Africa, not metaphorically, not figuratively, but literally does not exist — then we are no better than Nero, fiddling even after Rome has already turned to ash. 

Quentin du Plessis is a teaching and research assistant at the department of private law, University of Cape Town. He writes in his personal capacity


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