South Africa, like many multicultural societies, has had to grapple with balancing various groups vying for recognition and resources to assert their identity.
This obviously contrasts with the national thrust of trying to forging a socially cohesive society — by nature, the politics of recognition are divisive. Thus there are diverging views on how to balance the issue of economic redress through redistribution from white to black South Africans, with issues surrounding the rights of groups to assert themselves as guaranteed to them in the Constitution, while at the same time South Africa grapples with how to forge a common nationhood and national identity. As witnessed in the recent ruling against Julius Malema in the “Shoot the Boer” hate-speech case, some groups are more effective in defending their rights to identity and dignity than others.
As a new multicultural democracy, South Africa’s group identities is still based on race — and justifiably so, in view of South Africa’s history. Although some (the Democratic Alliance, for instance) argue that race is a thing of the past, they discount the fact that in this era of relativism and post-modernity a people’s history and identity are intertwined; the Jews and the Holocaust are a prime example.
The history on which Africans base their identity is that of enslavement, oppression and dispossession; it is a history of losers. By contrast, white South Africans base their identity on a history of being winners. The challenge, moving forward, is for Africans to lose the burden of being losers (or their inferiority complex) and for white South Africans to lose the view of themselves as winners (or their superiority complex), and for the two to come together and negotiate a national identity based on mutual respect and recognition. This is the only basis on which a society committed to justice, freedom and equality can flourish.
Recent rhetoric hints that a more aggressive approach has to be taken if we are to provide South Africa with a common vision for the future of the country, based on shared values. It was at the launch of the book The Humanist Imperative that Desmond Tutu shared his change of attitude on how to move forward as a country. All along he had encouraged the victims of apartheid, those seeking recognition and redress, to forgive and not demand anything further from those who had benefitted from Africans being stripped of their identity, dignity and resources. He now realised, he said, that this is a two-way process. Such a view is supported by the likes of Professor Steve de Gruchy, who edited The Humanist Imperative.
De Gruchy argues that adopting the humanist philosophy is the best way to move South Africa forward; he avers that the African liberation struggles, including the struggle against apartheid, were humanist struggles because they were struggles for the affirmation of “human freedom, rights, responsibilities, dignity and economic justice”. He and other commentators call for economic redistribution as a means to address the past indignity suffered by black people, and thus Tutu’s call for a wealth tax.
The assumption seems to be that if wealth is redistributed, and all South Africans agree that their basic material needs are being met, the result will be a South Africa with a shared view of humanity, a South Africa able to live in a way that promotes the wellbeing of all. Basically, the dream is that the interests of the individual and of groups will be superseded by the interests of the country.
Casting a glance over South Africa today, as well as the rest of Africa after independence, it is clear that humanist principles do not prevail. If they did, corruption, weak economies and weak democracies would not characterise this continent. It is a common characteristic, throughout the history of the nation-state, and as shown by the September 11 2001 incident in the US, that when a nation faces a challenge or crisis it can and does find a common identity in the face of that challenge — just as Africans put aside ethnic differences and worked together against colonial oppression.
Yet, once that challenge has been overcome, individuals and groups revert to pursuits based on their individual and group identities. Humans are not born with an inherent understanding of justice, equality and freedom, let alone a common understanding of these concepts; these concepts are taught and learned; they evolve over time and in specific contexts.
Sociology professor Frank Furendi has conducted research in countries where processes of “truth and reconciliation” were followed in an attempt to right the wrongs of the past and to give recognition to previously disadvantaged groups. He concludes, however, that such processes do not make a real difference to the people who were wronged.
So, even when recognition is institutionalised, as it is in South Africa (through the Constitution and other institutions that protect rights), it do not necessarily engage with individual personalities. People remain disengaged from the new identity they are forced to adopt. As a group they continue to hold on to their negative identities, meaning that if black South Africans do eventually move from a negative group identity, based on being losers in history, they are likely to find another sore point on which to base their identity.
Without shedding group associations with history, such as the schema of Africans as “losers” and whites as “winners”, there can be no real hope of an “Enlightenment” or the growth of humanist philosophies in South Africa. And as long as there are institutions to forge nationhood, the voices of those who need recognition will remain muted, and anger will persist; importantly, identities based on history will persist. This means that no matter how many social interventions government makes, no matter how many economic resources are redistributed, the dominant view of Africans of themselves (and in the eyes of other racial groups) will be one of Africans as losers. This will not lead to a society that values justice, equality and fairness.
The “African renaissance” project had the right idea: the idea that Africans need to find positives with which to affirm their identity, instead of an identity based on a history of being conquered and dispossessed. This would include elevating aspects of history in which Africans were “winners”. The portrayal of Africans as winners would eventually be seen in media, in schools, in business and in politics. This is important if all South Africans are to see each other as equal and deserving of respect, in a way that goes beyond the forced respect induced by legal prescripts. This is the best way to transform society and to avoid situations such as those that led to outcries recently over the lack of black faces in the management structures of white-owned big business. White business owners still seem to hold the view of Africans as losers, undeserving of equal treatment and opportunity.
I mentioned earlier how history is intertwined with identity, and made a link with how Jewish identity has used the Holocaust in the same way African identity in this country is intertwined with apartheid. Yet there is important difference between how Jews relate to the Holocaust, which they commemorate every year and which is commemorated in museums all over the world, and how Africans relate to their history enslavement and oppression. Jews have an identity that is older than the Holocaust, an identity linked to spirituality and tradition.
Jews have a positive history of themselves that affirms them from a young age. Africans, on the other hand, lost everything during colonialism and apartheid; they lost contact with their history prior to the arrival of the white man, lost all the aspects that constitute a human identity, and were forced to adopt a different spiritual world view and religion. African history was rewritten for them after the white settlers destroyed what they found of African civilisations. Only recently have there been revelations about the history of Africans and the achievements made such as writing and scientific advancement. Yet, still, the self-image of the present-day African is so negative that Africans will probably find it difficult to believe that such greatness once existed in Africa and that, for us as Africans, that greatness can be achieved again.
In the South African context it is sad that a majority group still relies on a minority group for affirmation, upliftment and empowerment. This injustice inspired an array of possible solutions, including those advanced in The Humanist Imperative and the call for nationalisation made by the ANC Youth League. The white minority will not affirm Africans, because that minority is seeking to hold on to the power they have accumulated.
It is possible that, even if economic redistribution does take place in South Africa, the redistributed wealth will revert back to white capital. Wealth creation is based on values. If Africans have a low value of themselves, redistributed wealth will probably land back in the hands of whites. This is not a far-fetched possibility: white business still benefits from government procurement, even though contracts are being given to black-owned businesses.
If Africans had a winner’s attitude in the present economy, African business people would work together and build businesses to compete with white businesses reluctant to hire black managers. The high-spending African consumer could be the driving force of new African businesses instead of growing white businesses that reject Africans in leadership positions.
Ntombenhle Khathwane is a businesswoman and social activist from Nelspruit, Mpumalanga.
Academic Samantha Vice has caused a storm of controversy with her thoughts on white shame in South Africa. Read the reactions. View our special report.