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In less than two years we will mark two decades since South Africa became a democracy. While much reflection will focus on the democratic gains or losses of that period, we are unlikely to examine our success in the journey towards nationhood. Beyond rhetoric, nation-building remains stillborn.
Our present national reality is a construction premised on what we were against, rather than what we desire. The aspiration was and continues to be that of a society whose people are not racist or not sexist. The fixation is with the negativity that arose out of our apartheid and colonial past.
While we have been successful at trying to change laws to prevent a recurrence of past injustices, we have not been successful in influencing voluntary individual behaviour.
There are no signs that there are conversations happening in the realm of the private spaces, in communities, and other close-knit social networks about what at that level needs to be done to attain a different future, positively stated. It is as if we are a people with no fresh dreams and courage to make them happen.
Despite excellent gender equality policies, patriarchy is still dominant, and to date the task of responding to it has been left to feminists. Privately they are much-despised by a lot of men who dishonestly claim to be ‘progressive’.
Racism was supposed to have been banished in 1994 but it is still very much alive today. Gender discrimination against women, in many spheres of South African life is still very common.
We have claimed all these aspirations and in reality failed dismally at progress in realising them.
Most disconcerting is the realisation that the worst culprits appear to be those who belong to a generation that ushered in the democratic change in South Africa.
In some ways this demonstrates the extent to which our transition was more a convergence of circumstances than a voluntary realisation on both sides that a better society was needed. The astonishing hypocrisy that has characterised our public space since, in respect to racism and gender equality for instance, is partly indicative of this.
To date not a single person has publicly attempted to construct an image of an archetypal South African. What kind of traits do outsiders see in us that mark us out as South Africans?
While it cannot be universal and applicable to every citizen, such a construction would be a powerful instrument for nation building. In simple language it describes the individual and collective characteristics that form the pillars of national identity. Instead we have a baffling celebration of non-hood.
This is the result of a missing social theory that makes sense of our unique circumstances and responds to the realities of our divided past. It is indicative of our tendency to celebrate mediocre leadership that is unable to paint a picture of a future people across social fissures can be excited about. Freedom, democracy such as we have do not constitute nationhood.
So who are we? To foreigners, what other than being “Mandela’s people” constitutes a typical South African? What do parents inculcate as national values and characteristics to their children? And how do they explain to their children what being a South African means?
The Germans are known for their discipline, the British for the so-called “stiff upper lip”, the Japanese for a strong moral code, Koreans for a frenetic work ethic and so on. The South African on the other hand remains a hugely abstract phenomenon that is only given meaning by the existence of a passport. We seem to be a people with no national identity.
The ANC has numerous times attempted to define in granular terms the characteristics of an ideal “cadre” and a vague notion of a national democratic society. Both are elusive concepts despite many discussion documents and resolutions. Unfortunately a similar attempt for the rest of society has been omitted. One can only hope it is not out of the belief that the rest of society, diverse as it is, will model itself on this cadre who is an extremely rare species.
The DA has also constructed a superficial image of the future society it wants to build called the “open opportunity society”.
While forward-looking in many respects, it is unfortunately devoid of the uncomfortable conversation it needs to have with a sceptical public about the many in its ranks who appear to believe SA’s past is best dealt with by collective amnesia.
Some will claim South African nationhood is often evident when our national sports teams take part in international competitions.
They will point to the thousands of black South Africans who support the Springboks, or whites who wear Bafana jerseys. But these are the same South Africans who do not speak out in unison against racism directed at fellow South Africans.
They would also find it uncomfortable to hold a conversation about each other’s fears or hopes.
They do not privately behave in a manner that reflects the ideals they advocate in public.
It is time we started defining the characteristics and behaviours whose moral appeal transcends group identities. Far greater than non-racialism should be the preservation of human dignity. We must start identifying the seemingly insignificant behaviours that characterise the continuing dehumanisation of fellow South Africans, and not only speak out against them, but define alternative behaviours.
This is an attitude that must guide how South Africans individually treat one another, how various sectors of society relate to one another and how we treat those who are not South African.
It is in this context that the respect for property, prevention of abusive behaviours against women, children and others can be entrenched. All and many similar actions arise out of a lack of respect for the dignity of fellow human beings. The second pillar of a national identity must be work ethic, a single-minded dedication to hard work and success that forms the core of many of our endeavours as individuals and as a collective.
We must become a nation of big dreamers who look beyond the temporary glory of short-term successes.
It appears many of us have grown to believe that success can be built while maintaining the statutory 40-hour working week or without making sacrifices. It is not enough to get ahead. The level of global competition is such that there are not enough hours in a day to conceive and realise ideas, inventions and products which beat competition from elsewhere in the world.
Third, we must define a simple moral code which easily relates to individual and institutional behaviours. Far too many of us take short cuts, readily give the traffic official a little cash to ignore a transgression or provide incentives or rewards where none are deserved.
These behaviours commodify morals and ethics, and make them easily exchangeable for cash. No nation can be built on the basis of general graft and dishonesty like we have been attempting to do.
We must identify personal behaviours and values which should characterise our highest aspirations. These must form the basis for electing individuals who wish to lead.
Our regular lamentation of the absence of leaders who have since died results from failure to apply the necessary rigour while selecting leaders.
At its noblest, voting should be a convergence of rational and moral choices for greater good.
How poorly leaders behave or perform is a reflection of the morals informing our political choices.
Finally we must cultivate a culture of personal responsibility which is so lacking in our public life, and is a reflection of a culture of blame-shifting even in public.
There are far too many instances where public officials overstay their welcome after having failed, or individuals who always have a convenient excuse for failing to perform or achieve. The most common of these are either a media conspiracy, racism or the disadvantages of being white in the “new” South Africa.
SA can no longer continue being a geographical area populated by people who cling to their differences but claim to be united and think they are a nation but are just a collection of different interests.
The first step is admitting that what we have been doing the past 18 years has been devoid of honesty, leadership and imagination.
n Zibi is a member of the Midrand Group.