/ 28 October 2009

Community is the new state

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or a postmodernist to understand the profound changes that have happened since the Berlin Wall came down 20 years ago next month.

But where these times of trouble will end remains a puzzle. This is not some far-off idea, however.

The failure of the second of two nationalisms in South Africa — one Afrikaner, the other African — suggests that this global conundrum is closer to hand than we may be encouraged to believe.

Any hope that economic globalisation would provide a kind of glue to hold the world together ended with the financial meltdown and also because of the undisguised fact that the gap between rich and poor has grown to dangerous levels not only in this country but also in most other places. And yet, as these impressions turn into facts, the annual routines of international society continue unaffected.

So, in New York, the United Nations holds its General Assembly meeting; at this, heads of state mouth ritual messages but, as we all know, things continue much as before.

What are we to make of this?

The first, and certainly the most important, issue is to understand that, for all the hype around the idea of change, social transformation is painfully slow. And for all the passion around endings, there is often too little thought given to continuities.

So, this conclusion is undeniable: the facts that make for the social world, as the sociologists insist, are stubborn. This explains why, in recent years, much attention has been given to the mechanical idea of ‘statemaking”.

Most visibly this has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan where respective invasions have struggled to create the conditions necessary for viable states. This is a return to the 19th-century idea that states could be hacked out of often adverse social conditions if the necessary force were brought to bear on the social world.

In other places the idea of states as a means to social organisation — let alone social discipline — has simply disappeared. It is not difficult to understand why Somalia is said to be a ‘failed state”.

And when New Orleans almost drowned three years ago that little corner of the United States looked decidedly like a ‘failed state”. What this confirms is that all social formations are ‘working models” — to use a recent phase from the Indian writer, Arundhati Roy.

In South Africa these have revealed a particular pathology. It was apartheid’s infatuation with modernity and its long support by Western capital that stunted any hope that the nationalism on offer in Afrikaner-ruled South Africa could be anything but partial.

The resulting cruel horror was visited on the country’s majority, as the world knows, but apartheid left those it aimed to favour ‘filthy rich”. Sadly, this was the very phase unintentionally spoken by South Africa’s new nationalism as it learned to walk. As before, the South African state provided the (new) nationalists with treasure for their enrichment.

The technical language of BEE hid the fact that South Africa’s rapacious capital was colour-blind but, like the apartheid that had gone before, it has left unsighted a peasantry that had been excluded from the very founding of the South African state.

The deliberative democracy for which South Africans had fought never materialised; instead, the settlement delivered a non-deliberative form of democracy based on a shallow idea of representation. This was quickly surrounded by the crass trappings of an elite-driven statehood all too often characterised, shamefully, by the excesses that mark Hollywood — expensive cars, lavish parties and quiet deceit. But this is not all we face.

As Southern Africa spills across the country’s borders — often to teach our children because our own teachers have failed dismally — many might well wonder what will happen to our country. However you look at it, we are merging with — some might say, submerging under — our neighbours.

We are the generation that is rewriting the script of Southern Africa — a script, incidentally, that was hastily scribbled down when fewer than 3 000 white men in the then colonial state of Southern Rhodesia elected not to join the Union of South Africa in the 1922 referendum.

If truth be now told, an electric fence and a functioning army may not be able to stop the spillage. The electric fence and border patrols of California, Texas and Arizona will not stop the flood from Mexico (and further south) from reaching the US. Neither, indeed, can the Channel between England and France stop the destitute in Calais from reaching the prize they seek. This is the age in which the facts of borders and visa applications matter much to the rich but very little to the poor.

Is there a South Africa that lies beyond the uncertainty of the present moment?

To find it we must recognise that long before the idea of state there was the fact, not the illusion, of community. Achieving this begins with a sense of responsibility and reciprocity that does not require a formal constitution or expensive legal protocols to function. It relies, instead, on investing in the common cause rather than in the self-indulgence and deception to which we have grown curiously fond.

It was Karl Marx who told us that men make history, but not in the circumstances of their own choosing. A hundred years after the South African state was born in 1910, the burdens of the distant past weigh heavily on the country’s daily lives.

So, yes, we are stalked by the issue of race. But we are teased and terrorised by an obdurate unwillingness to understand that, more than anything, the gap between the rich and the poor is the real enemy of the community we desperately need to build a future for.

Moeletsi Mbeki is deputy national chair of the South African Institute of International Affairs and author of Architects of Poverty: Why Africa’s Capitalism Needs Changing.
Peter Vale is Nelson Mandela professor of politics, Rhodes University. His co-edited book (with Heather Jacklin), Imaging the Social in South Africa: Critique, Theory and Post-Apartheid Knowledge, is published this month by UKZN Press