/ 9 May 2024

South African society is fractured: Our imagination must come home

Poverty On The Decline In Sa
South African society is fractured. Of course, economic inequality is a major contributing factor to the widening cracks in our society, but there is more than that.

A nation is an imagined community. This point was made in the early 1980s by political scientist Benedict Anderson, as he reflected on the origin and spread of nationalism in the modern world. In emphasising that a nation is an imagined community, Anderson was on the one hand rejecting a shallow biological or ethnocentric basis for nationalism that can easily degenerate into fascism, as manifested in the Nazism in World War II. On the other hand, he was pointing out that nationhood is an intangible reality that exists in the minds and the hearts of a large and diverse body of people. 

Even though there may be concrete symbols of a nation, such as a flag or the person of a founding father such as Nelson Mandela, no one can actually “see” a nation; it is not a “thing” out there, for it exists as partially overlapping ideas and ideals of a great number of people.

It is for this reason that nationhood remains an open question and a task for citizens’ imagination. Through storytelling, popular culture, the media as well as the words and actions of leaders, the collective imagination of people can discern possibilities for living together beyond the constraints of the present. That is how the imagination works: it can see possibilities for connecting the dots in a different way so that a better story may be told and better conditions for living together may open up. Of course, the converse is also true in that the imagination can unlock new fears and dream up new horrors to inflict upon others. But let us leave these possibilities aside and work with the assumption that violence results from a failure of the imagination when dealing with conflict.

It is clear that the exercise of our collective imagination is an important task for the people of South Africa. Situated as it is at the southern tip of the African continent, and with its history as it is, South Africa is a society where major worldviews meet and rub shoulders. Western colonisation has, often violently, imposed a Western worldview here and it is undeniable that many aspects of the South African society remain Western looking, perhaps more so than in any other part of Africa. Yet South Africa is part of Africa, and African worldviews shine through and rise up in many ways as the people of South Africa participate in the process of coming to terms and shrugging off the traumas of colonisation and apartheid. The presence of worldviews from cultures surrounding the Indian Ocean must also be recognised. Arabic influence along the east coast and at the Cape, Indian settlement since about the 19th century, and increasing cultural influence from China and the Asian continent all contribute to the contemporary South African landscape.

Yet, at this point the South African society is fractured. Of course, economic inequality is a major contributing factor to the widening cracks in our society, but there is more than that. It is as if so many people do not regard this society as their home. So many people are living here, but they are not at home here. A significant portion of South Africans, primarily among the wealthier classes, are living here but their point of reference is the West and the Global North. These are the people who want South Africa to be a little England or a little America, and many in fact leave for these and other “Western” countries when they have the chance because South Africa isn’t going the way they want it to go. 

Perhaps even a greater part of the South African population is finding it difficult to be at home because symbolically they have to live in various “houses” at once. They are people of Africa and yet they have to live in institutions and according to rules imported from elsewhere resulting in an experience of extraordinary dissonance. This is the situation of the postcolony, poignantly described by the Cameroonian born, Wits-based philosopher, Achille Mbembe. 

To this should be added the fact that many people work in South Africa while their families remain “back home” in neighbouring countries. Such people stay in South Africa for the greater part of the year, but their point of reference is with their families and where they send much of their hard-earned money. How is it possible to be really at home in such a situation? 

In many respects the reality of the whole of South African society is that of an airport: anonymous people passing by one another, each on the way to their own destination somewhere else.

What is called for is an urgent and sustained exercise of our collective imagination. Collectively we must begin to imagine South Africa as our home. In this regard, perhaps the first that is needed is a homecoming towards our own perspective. For a large part our imagination remains captured, beholden to the political, economic and cultural sensibilities of the Global North. 

It is not that these should be rejected out of hand. We live, after all, in an ever more connected and interdependent world. But our point of reference in weighing up and engaging with these influences should be our own. The centre of gravity of our collective imagination should be here. This is what it means to come home to ourselves.

How could such a homecoming to our own collective imagination happen? What is to be done? The famous 11th thesis of Karl Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach says: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Although it is true that concrete societal change is the only option, the problem is that if we do not imaginatively think about our world and simply throw ourselves into action we are doomed to follow the scripts — economically, politically, culturally — prescribed by the dominant powers in the world. 

Sociologist and philosopher Boaventura de Sousa Santos’s proposal that a 12th thesis should be added to Marx’s theses, therefore makes a lot of sense. According to Santos “We must change the world while constantly reinterpreting it.” 

This thesis should be taken as a call for the activation of the collective imagination even as we go about building and rebuilding our society. In this regard education, both primary and higher education, becomes of the utmost importance. Education is precisely the sphere where we imagine our world even while building it. 

The stories that we tell as we educate ourselves must be exercises of a collective imagination that is coming home to itself, and more and more being at home with itself. This can only happen through the intentional acts of many people at all levels of society. We have to be intentional in the way we imaginatively remember the past and imaginatively discern the possibilities for connecting the dots in different ways for the future. 

Let us not allow others to connect the many parts of our story on our behalf. The task of imagining the South African nation is ours.

Jaco Kruger is the academic dean of St Augustine College of South Africa, where he also teaches philosophy and applied ethics.