President Zuma among African Union Heads of State gather at the opening of the Nineteenth Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the union in Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia in 2012. The writer says when the African elites assumed power, they expected citizens to continue acting like a herd, driven by national consciousness in support of their new rulers. Photo: GCIS

Criticism of the ruling class is regarded as a treacherous affair, motivated by rebellious tendencies, writes Prince Mashele.

In his classic, The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon laments, “National consciousness… will be in any case only an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what might have been.”

It is as if Fanon had post-apartheid South Africa in mind, a country where African nationalism has been used to blackmail whole masses of black people.

Have we not heard politicians utter phrases like “the masses of our people”, “we black people” or “black people will not tolerate this and that”?

Once a politician speaks like this, we are all expected to shut up, lest we be accused of being unpatriotic.

A black person who dares to question the notion of African nationalism is dismissed as a sell-out. If it is a white person, the label of racist is quickly thrown at him.

Maybe we must begin by defining the phenomenon. Simply put, African nationalism is the ideology constructed out of the slogan “Africa belongs to Africans”.

This ideology was born out of the colonial experience; it was used by liberation fighters to mobilise black people to be part of the quest for political freedom.

In the context of the fight against colonialism and apartheid, African nationalism was indeed an emancipatory instrument.

The mistake of ordinary Africans was to think that this would last forever.

Post-independence, nationalism has in most African countries been used by the ruling elites to blackmail citizens.

When the African elites assumed power, they expected citizens to continue acting like a herd, driven by national consciousness in support of their new rulers.

In the new political atmosphere, criticism of the ruling class is regarded as a treacherous affair, motivated by rebellious tendencies.

In other words, we are all expected to sing one nationalistic tune, composed by our African leaders, who claim to act in the interests of our “group”.

According to this ideology, Africans are a mere nationalistic mass, devoid of individuality; what is good for the group is good for all the individuals in it.

This is why we often hear politicians in South Africa say, “the masses of our people”, “we black people”, and so on.

According to this thinking, if you are black you are not supposed to have an individual identity; you simply dissolve into a mass.

But why do our politicians do this?

They use nationalism as an instrument of control. The objective is to create conditions of social docility, to ensure that the “masses” do not question what politicians do.

The ANC being a nationalist party, as its name confirms, would be very happy if all black people simply sang praise songs for “their” African national party. The party does not understand why some black people ask questions about the wasting of more than R200 million of taxpayers’ money to build one man’s home in Nkandla.

According to the ANC, the “masses of our people” should understand. They must not be misled by neo-liberals.

In other words, they must not embarrass their black leaders.

Imagine what our country would be like if all black people folded their nationalistic arms and simply watched black politicians loot money from the state.

This is how dangerous African nationalism is. Beyond colonialism and apartheid, it lost its emancipatory character, and took on a new, disempowering form.

It disempowers because it perverts the humanity of black people. Normal human beings, endowed with brains by God, are supposed to think.

People who think cannot be reduced to a mass. Even in their common identity as a unique nation, they retain a fundamental dynamism, rooted in the individuality of their fellows.

From time to time, individuals do agree or disagree, depending on the issue at hand. By virtue of their being human, they ought to hold divergent world views.

The richness of human life lies in the diversity of thoughts, manifested in the divergence of human actions, which is a function of individuality.

This does not mean that individuals are by nature incapable of engaging in solidaristic pursuits. They are indeed capable.

Such pursuits should, however, not be misconstrued to mark a deviation from man’s fundamental individuality, nor should they be used to reconstruct man into an incomplete constitutive element of the mass.

Man is complete on his own. It is his choice and discretion to collaborate with others. It must also be his choice to withdraw from pursuits he disagrees with.

Fortunately, nationalists are not the authors of human life. Were that the case, we would all be eating grass like a nationalistic herd without room to be free.

To reduce Africans into a nationalistic mass is to assault their basic humanity. It is to imply that, outside the mass, blacks are not normal human beings – they cannot think.

In other words, African nationalism assigns animalism to blackness; it treats blacks as if, like beasts, they lack consciousness – the mental capability to be aware of one’s surroundings, and to decide.

All this has devastating consequences for black people. It at the same time renders them victims of their rulers, and vulnerable to all manner of racists.

When blacks succumb to notions of African nationalism, their ruling elites find easy room to manipulate citizens, who always fear to be ostracised by the group.

The ruling elites manipulate in order to extract material gain. Beware of politicians who say the “masses of our people”; they mean to manipulate and to extract gain.

On their part, racists do take advantage when blacks behave like a nationalistic herd. They concoct all kinds of stereotypes to project blacks as a peculiar mass.

Have we not heard racists making sweeping generalisations about black people? How can we say they are wrong when we view ourselves as a nationalistic mass?

Indeed, we must not only blame others; even ordinary black people do succumb voluntarily to national consciousness, by claiming that what they say or do represents blackness.

If black people allow other individual black people to misrepresent them, they must not blame racists when they manufacture stereotypes about black people in general.

It ought to be the duty of every thinking black person to speak for his own jacket. Never pretend to be the representative of another person’s skirt. You are you, not others.

Never allow people with their own ideas to claim that they are speaking on your behalf, simply because they are black.

If you allow them, individuals like Jacob Zuma will claim that they have many wives on behalf of black people, or that all black people are corruptible.

What, then, must black people do?

They must refuse to be dissolved into a nationalistic mass, ready to be manipulated by opportunistic black politicians.

Africans must act to demonstrate that their individuality is as important as the society they live in.

This can be achieved through the total abandonment of notions of African nationalism that disempower rather than emancipate.

None must make black people lose sight of the fundamental truth that the dynamism of man lies in the agency and potency of his individuality.

Today we say there is none like Nelson Mandela, because even as we know that he operated in the ANC, he possessed a certain uniqueness that set him apart.

Mandela was not an indistinct particle in a large black mass; he was a visible colour on a kaleidoscope that afforded all colours equal opportunity to shine.

It is the distinctiveness of the colours that lend totality to the kaleidoscope. Nationalists would like us to believe the obverse.

If we fall into this trap, we would be allowing the empty shell of national consciousness to become the crude and fragile travesty of which Frantz Fanon warned us.

* Mashele is the co-author of The Fall of the ANC: What Next?

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent