Is SA burning in Paris?

Is there growing scepticism in the world about the very possibility of contemporary South Africa—a unitary state composed of peoples who have nothing in common except that they live in the same territory? Is the cosmopolitan project in -crisis? This is how the burning Paris hinterland is interpreted—the consequence of trying to integrate diverse cultures and religions in a single polity. In Holland, Dutch authorities seem to be in no mood for multiculturalism. In the United States, the notion is coming in for increasing criticism, as many reflect on what it means to be an American citizen after 9/11. Was the South African transition the high point of a cosmopolitan politics that is fast receding?

Since the 1980s, there has been renewed academic interest in the notion of citizenship. In Western Europe and the US, the challenge to established notions and practices of social democracy, the hallmark of the Reagan and Thatcher administrations, reanimated discussion about rights and the role of the state. Monetarist economics combined with what came to be known as the New Public Management, facing down the post-war consensus that associated citizenship with three categories of rights: civil (equality before the law), political (the right to choose political representatives run for political office) and social (public education, health care, employment, insurance, housing).

At stake was the concept in TH Marshall’s influential post-war text, Citizenship and Social Class, which associated full citizenship with a liberal, democratic welfare state. In Eastern Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist bloc further problematised established conceptions of citizenship. What mattered in this instance was not so much the content of citizenship, the rights to which it referred, as its limits. The dissolution of Czechoslovakia and the haemorrhaging of Yugoslavia, for example, revived painful questions about political frontiers. The “cultural” aspect of citizenship was similarly raised in the wealthy -liberal-democracies; this time, from the other direction.

As new Eastern European nations sought to tie citizenship to religion, language and culture, “Western” citizenship was being subjected to “feminist”, “multicultural” and/or “postcolonial” critiques. What occupied centre stage was the nation and citizenship. Many looked forward to a citizenship washed clean of racist and other exclusionary instruments.

These views received a boost from the democratic transition in South Africa. The “rainbow nation” inspired thinking about citizenship freed of such baggage. Yet the year of the democratic election in South Africa, 1994, was simultaneously the year of the Rwandan genocide. Bryan Turner, for example, wondered aloud if citizenship did not presuppose a common culture. He asked whether “postmodernisation”, a term he used to describe the fragmentation and differentiation of culture, was not undermining its conditions.

In 1993, Samuel Huntington warned “that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic” but “cultural ... the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilisations”. Soon after, he suggested that democratic citizenship did not only presuppose a common culture, but that it was threatened by those who had not developed a sense of individualism and a tradition of individual rights and liberties.

Then came the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. They seemed to put paid to a tradition concerned with overcoming the exclusionary effects of national citizenship. Reviewing the state of things today, Paul Gilroy has remarked: “Multicultural society seems to have been abandoned at birth … The resurgent imperial power of the United States has made multiculturalism an aspect of the clash of integral and incompatible civilizations, thereby transmitting an additional negative energy into this delicate postcolonial process.”

Much of the contemporary research on citizenship is ill—prepared to meet the challenge of this new conservatism. At stake in the rejection of cosmopolitanism is the revival of an older term: cultural homogeneity as the condition of citizenship. The ghost of Carl Schmidt has returned: Schmidt rejected liberal democracy precisely because he believed that the project of social diversity and political pluralism was a non-starter.

Over and above the straight-forward racism of much of the new conservatism there is, nonetheless, an intuition that deserves to be taken seriously. It says that in order to act as a citizen, one must be prepared to tolerate different points of view, be able to respect difference and be ready to resolve problems through debate and discussion. The sine qua non of the new conservatism is the idea that the condition of citizenship is a culture in which such values are the substance. It so happens, goes the argument of Huntington and also Roger Scruton, that the culture in question is Western.

It is this sentiment that informs the growing intolerance of cultural diversity, multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism. It is often allied with assaults on the poor and the working class, which today is more and more composed of migrants.

This is the importance of the South African revolution as a world-historical event. It is increasingly the major test of cosmopolitanism in the world.

Ivor Chipkin is a senior research fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand and a chief research specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council


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