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History, symbolism and nationhood

This year South Africa is celebrating 60 years of the Freedom Charter, which made the topics at the 2015 roundtable on nation-building and social cohesion — organised by Unisa’s Archie Mafeje Research Institute in conjunction with the Mail & Guardian on August 12 in Pretoria — particularly relevant.

In his opening address, Executive Dean of Graduate Studies at Unisa Greg Cuthbertson said: “Claims to power have often rested on narrowing definitions of history, symbols and nation rather than the expansive ones hoped for in the National Development Plan or Freedom Charter, which many celebrate as a founding democratic document. It is perhaps time to historicise our democratic nation, rather than playing at the edges of heritage and symbol.”

Keynote speaker Finex Ndhlovu, senior lecturer at the School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences, University of New England, Australia said: “Notions of social cohesion and nation-building, together with their associated meta-languages and discursive regimes have for some time now become a concern of national importance in identity debates among both academic and non-academic communities in South Africa and elsewhere on the African continent.”

He added that the concepts of social cohesion and nation building mean different things to different people, different interest groups and in different contexts.

“Nation building and social cohesion in South Africa are not a post-apartheid invention, because even when the apartheid social and political system was introduced in 1948, the governing authorities of that time were undertaking a social cohesion and nation-building project,” said Ndhlovu.

Social capital refers to forms of interaction that enable people to build communities, commit themselves to each other, and develop a strong social fabric, and this was something the apartheid government was striving to do.

“There is bridging capital, which sustains socially inclusive networks that are outward-looking and seeking to tap into resources provided by a much wider circle of acquaintances or common interest groups and there is bonding capital, mediated by intimately supportive networks couched in terms of the language of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’.

“I see bonding capital as having been at the heart of the social cohesion and nation-building project in apartheid South Africa, operationalised through the cultivation of separate development of people deemed to have a common linguistic, ethnic or cultural heritage.

“As we all know, this was a very bad social and political policy with pervasive consequences but, nevertheless, it was a form of building social cohesion.”

In today’s political context, Ndhlovu says: “The social cohesion and nation-building agenda is underpinned by bridging capital and the foundational myths of inter-racial, inter-ethnic, cross-linguistic and cross-cultural integration. In this new context, social cohesion is the degree of social integration and inclusion in communities and society at large, and the extent to which mutual solidarity finds expression among individuals and communities.


“In the context of post-apartheid South Africa, social cohesion is conceived in terms that seek to overcome or reverse the historical legacies of racial and social class hierarchies of the apartheid past that were rooted in primordial or ethnically-engineered notions of nationhood whereby prejudice, discrimination and exclusion were legitimised.

“In terms of its foundational principles and aspirational goals, the post-apartheid idea strives for a rethink of imperatives in ways that lead to the practical actualisation of democracy, access, participation and equality of all who call South Africa home.

“A much closer analysis reveals that the current nation-building enterprise in South Africa has come to mirror the political aspirations of fashioning a uniform national identity, while at the same time ignoring and denigrating the social and economic aspirations of socio-politically weak or marginal polities — namely ordinary people, whose views about being and becoming South African are not in tandem with elitist, state-centric perspectives.

“Two contending questions remain unanswered: Whose interests are at the heart of social cohesion and nation-building initiatives in post-apartheid South Africa? Why is it that the general public does not seem to buy into the current social cohesion and nation-building initiatives?”

Ndhlovu argued that as was the case in the apartheid era, current social cohesion initiatives have their own foundational myths and political goals that do not seem to resonate with societal and community perspectives about what it means to be South African.

“I see the current South African nation-building project as problematic, in that it proceeds by highlighting what are perceived to be authentic or indigenous linguistic, cultural and other symbols of being South African in ways that are anachronistic to the realities of global transnational migration. 

Contemporary conditions of unprecedented human population movement mean that nation building premised on modernist, state-centric understandings of belonging are no longer tenable.

“Hollow and skewed constructs of social cohesion have not fully accommodated the diverse identities of immigrant and some reticent indigenous groups. 

“We continue to witness a situation whereby ordinary people resist, in both overt and subtle ways, the normatively constructed post-apartheid identity of a rainbow nation that belongs to all who live in it, in just the same way they resisted the imposed apartheid fragmentation.

“It is my view that a paradigm shift is needed and nation-building and cohesion are conceptualised in much broader terms that transcend the traditional straitjackets of simply saying ‘let us all come together and be proudly South African’. Politicians, bureaucrats, academic practitioners and civic organisations must reach out to the people, ask, listen to them, document their stories and integrate them into the agenda of building a cohesive South African society.”

Ndhlovu said that the importance of everyday small-talk cannot be understated; the cultural and political discourses used to describe others shape popular thinking about what it means to be a South African in a post-colonial and democractic country.

Vernacular discourses

“Vernacular discourses are less powerful texts or conversations that have profound effects on communities. Although not a central component of powerful or institutional voices, they tend to appropriate, mimic, reproduce and reinforce the mainstream identity imaginings of the political elite.”

Emergent political languages are vocabularies that come out of small talk in micro-social settings such as the street corner, local bar, taxi rank, buses, trains and other public spaces, which are subsequently appropriated and used to inform popular thinking and perceptions about identities. Ndhlovu said they have taken various forms of powerful, discursive clichés, including ethno-nationalist, racial, xenophobic, rebellious, emancipatory and cultural-nationalistic.

“It appears the vestiges of apartheid citizenship ideologies are still firmly ensconced in the body politic of South Africa. Local research indicates the failure to forge cross cutting and meaningful relationships, and racial groups continue to exist as isolated enclaves.”

While there is no doubt that the majority of black South Africans are living in poverty and have very limited employment opportunities, Ndhlovu contested that this has anything to do with the influx of immigrant labour. He said that apart from the political elite and those who are “fortunate enough to be connected to them” the majority of ordinary black South Africans have not benefitted much from the new post-apartheid political system. “They have remained as poor as they were during the apartheid period — if not worse off.”

He also highlighted that most black South Africans “have been left behind educationally as they cannot afford the cost of quality education offered by former Model C schools. Consequently, they continue to receive sub-standard education provided through poorly funded and under-resourced township and rural schools.

“[The] wider societal implication of depressing statistics on FET (Further Education and Training) college completions is that we have many unemployed young people with few skills roaming the streets. On the other hand, we have immigrants with both entrepreneurial skills and very good tertiary and post-school education that lend them [access] to the formal job market.”

“What we seeing is misdirected anger and frustration at soft targets by black South Africans who have, for over two decades, been let down by their very own black government, as they still have very limited educational and entrepreneurial skills.”

Ndhlovu said there is a failure to understand that this country has some of the stringent employment regulations in the world, whereby employers are compelled by law to consider black South African citizens before offering positions to foreign nationals, who constitute only 3% to 4% of the total population of South Africa.

In summing up, he says there is refusal by white South Africans and transnational corporations to shed some of the economic benefits they gained from apartheid policies, and all the factors discussed “point at an economic and political war being directed at the soft targets, due to a combination of fear and lack of a clue of how to confront and engage the real targets, who happen to be very powerful, influential, global and way beyond the reach of the ordinary black men and women of South Africa, who are doing it tough”.

Of political amnesia and nostalgia

The South African Constitution established a new social order; a utopia of a new unified and cohesive South Africa, according to Professor Jo-Ansie van Wyk, Department of Political Sciences, Unisa.

“Societies emerging from a violent past are often fragile and oscillate between resignation and restoration of the political past, and an idealisation of and selectively remembering the past,” said Van Wyk. “South Africa is no exception in this regard. Like the citizenry of the Soviet Union and the Arab Spring, South Africans are not only grappling with future challenges, but are also seducing and are seduced by the past. History as memory is Janus-faced, a binary between now and then, remembering and forgetting, nostalgia and amnesia.”

Van Wyk said memory serves protective, productive, prescriptive and restraining functions. It enables socialisation, confirms identity and enhances unity. “Memory also serves the purpose of not remembering,” she continued. “It is memory’s status — formalised, institutionalised, or not — that underlies the political nature and contestation thereof.

“From art to xenophobic attacks, political amnesia and nostalgia dominate South African socialscapes, and outbreaks of nostalgia and amnesia often follow revolutions.”

Van Wyk said that seduced by memory loss, societies conveniently forget that which is bad and uncomfortable about their past, such as colonialism and racially-based structural and physical violence. Societies also forget due to defeat, trauma or simply due to the passage of time.

She said one example of a societal expression of political amnesia is the refusal to recognise and comply with legislation aimed at redressing past injustices. “Responses to the South African government’s policies on affirmative action and broad-based black economic empowerment have included fronting or window dressing and so-called ‘tenderpreneurship’, which refers to the practice of a government official abusing power, influence and position to award government tenders and contracts, thus denying and forgetting the historical struggle for a just and equal society.

“Complex, contested and dynamic, political amnesia is a political reality undermining inter- and intra-group cohesion in South Africa. It is about remembering the past, but in a particular way usually associated with a sense of alienation from the present, loss and displacement. Both political amnesia and political nostalgia, as aspects of history and memory, are functional and seductive.” 

In South Africa, where citizens remember and forget differently, the link manifests in social incoherence and distrust, which undermine identity formation, democracy, national unity and prosperity, said Van Wyk.

“State-sponsored efforts to achieve social cohesion are not ideal, as it is inevitably done to achieve political gains. Memory manifesting in political amnesia or nostalgia should be met with ‘loyal resistance’. 

“The instruments to remember and forget are both important in a society, as loyal resistance to state-sponsored memory and forgetting can enable and institutionalise social cohesion through a critical individual, collection and state-sponsored examination of history, memory, and its related symbols and the notion of ‘nationhood’ in South Africa,” she said.

Is post-apartheid South Africa post-racial?

Professor Theodore Petrus, University of Fort Hare, said: “In contemporary South Africa the street gang phenomenon has become heavily concentrated in certain coloured communities, most notably the Western and Eastern Cape provinces. In most cases these street gangs are treated as a law enforcement problem that forms part of the general national concern with high crime levels that have become a feature of the post-apartheid condition. 

“However, while street gangs can occur in almost any community, the coloured street gangs represent a far more complex phenomenon than mere criminal formations. I argue that coloured street gangs are a form of resistance identities that change the marginality of coloured identities and that the gangs take on this identity as a possible response to the neglect or ignorance of coloured heritage, heroes and history, both within and outside of coloured communities themselves.” 

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Rebecca Haynes
Guest Author

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