How do we define unity and nation?

Published Jun 19, 2024


Mabila Mathebula

Millennials will find it increasingly difficult to comprehend that once upon a time, there was a half-cent coin that was used as a medium of exchange in South Africa.

My sister and I once visited our father at his workplace where his employer ordered one of her female employees to go the kitchen to solicitously facilitate some culinary arrangements.

To us, a hot meal during winter was a veritable feast, my sister and I had expected to receive a R10 note from our father’s employer as our free lunch. After we waved goodbye to her with great expectations, we were dismayed when she gave each of us a half-cent coin. Our expectations turned into poor dreams immediately.

The coin was of a bigger size and it was made out of bronze but its value was at a low ebb. Our father took a short interlude from work and escorted us to Jeppe station to take the train to Soweto.

On the train, we read the inscription on the the coin: “Unity is strength.” English was not our first language. We neither understood the meaning nor the weight of the powerful words because we went to a Bantu education primary school.

The words inscribed on the coin were ironic since there was disharmony among the races of South Africa during the dark days. The Nationalist government proclaimed unity like the Pharisees but their hearts were opposed to racial unity with a passion.

Leaders such as Steve Biko realised that palpable hypocrisy and forged racial unity among the oppressed masses, hence he came up with the concept of Black Consciousness as a reaction to artificial unity. He realised that the chief aim of the Nationalist government was the oppression of man by man.

The Black Consciousness Movement was a clarion call among the oppressed masses to oppose racial discrimination. Embedded in the Black Consciousness philosophy was unity.

For example, water gives a crocodile more traction. The same applies to unity – our progress as human beings is propelled by unity. Without unity, there won’t be human progress.

When I was at boarding school, our language teacher would chant the following mantra daily: “United we stand and divided we fall.” From time immemorial, South Africa has been struggling with the sticky issue of unity. Even after the Anglo-Boer War, Vereeniging did nothing to bring about national unity, hence the ANC was formed after the Union of South Africa.

If unity is strength, it is on the cards that disunity is the weakest link in the chain of national progress. As the Kenyan proverb aptly says: “Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable.”

It would be difficult for South African of all races to admit that artificial unity for your own race or political party was not unity. Uniting against an opposing force or an enemy is not unity. For example, the DA has been uniting against the ANC and the ANC has been uniting against the DA.

As a country, we have not learnt to unite against a common goal; we have mastered to rally against a common enemy. When a common enemy serves as a binding force for a political party, the unity will crumble like clay over time. South Africans must understand the deeper meaning of democracy.

As South Africans, we happen to be in the same boat and if the boat sinks, we will all sink. Our politicians are deliberately sinking the boat because they are not used to uniting against a common goal; they are used to uniting against a common enemy. We can only stand firm as a nation when we are united to pursue a common national goal.

All our leaders must come up with workable solutions to fight the following social problems: crime, youth unemployment, poverty and inequality. The reason why political parties must unite is to find collective workable solutions to the challenges.

If political parties really cared about the welfare of the people, they would galvanise into action and unite and start to work towards workable solutions for the common good of society. Political parties have recently campaigned throughout the breath and length of our country in poetry it is time they started leading the nation in prose.

To be solution-driven, you do not have to lose your political identity. Instead, when you participate in collaborate governance, you acknowledge that our challenges cannot be subjected to a one-stream solution but to a multistream solution. A leader who believes in a one-stream solution is not fit to lead any nation.

What is a nation? All South Africans are a national tapestry to be treasured. The Government of National Unity (GNU) could be formed only by people who understood that unity was strength and divisions were a colossal weakness.

People who understood that we collectively formed a nation irrespective of colour, religion, political affiliation or creed. Diversity simply means that people acknowledge their differences but do not fight about being different. Napoleon once fired 25 of his generals because they always agreed with him. He could not tolerate blind consensus because he embraced diversity as his guiding star.

Some political parties approach national unity from a “rear view mirror perspective”, by taking a solemn oath of not working co-operatively with specific political parties. That was not what the electorates wanted. The electorate wanted a crime free society, employment, food security, health care, decent education, service delivery and shelter.

The GNU of 2024 will be different from the GNU of 1994. In 1994, people had full confidence in the ANC and we breathed a virgin atmosphere throughout a nation. In more than 400 years of oppressive regimes, a new nation was born.

Tutu called it a “rainbow nation”. The democratisation of South Africa conferred a pleasure compared with which other pleasures are tame and commonplace, others ecstasies cheap and trivial. People never thought that their glorious movement could be retrogressive and be tainted with corruption like other liberation movements on the continent.

The emphasis in 1994 was on reconstruction and development, forgiveness and reconciliation. When one forgives, there are no conditions but when one reconciles, there are conditions.

President Nelson Mandela was a master builder of our democracy and a symbol of national unity. He was like the biblical Samuel who never stole anything from his people. He gave his people national pride. It is notable that our national pride has been eroded by corruption and mistrust over the years.

Hitherto the morale of most South Africa has taken a nose drive due to social problems such as violent crime, unemployment and abject poverty. The social problems are national problems. All political parties must work together in this melting pot for the collective good of the nation.

There are those political parties that behave like a cancerous rogue cell that ends up destroying the body it feeds. If you want to build a nation, you cannot be choosy, all political parties must work together and come up with national solutions.

A party such as the ANC has lost its credibility because it deployed incompetent cadres to occupy government office. On the other hand, the DA has also lost some credibility by not looking at a national agenda but looking at sectional interests of the people.

All political parties must work together and educate one another about social dynamics. Who knows maybe the DA leader might become like Zaccheus who never saw crime anymore in Jericho but after his sight was restored, he saw poverty and he wanted to do something to eradicate it in his city.

The notion of creating boundaries and telling yourself that you do not want to negotiate with some specific political parties is a reactionary approach and has nothing to do with national advancement. Let all those who campaigned during the elections and visited our homes prove to us that unity is strength.

We will not judge you based on your lofty manifestos, but we will judge you on your unity in diversity. We do not want you to be like the Nationalist government that faked unity, we need authentic unity. The government of the future must not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Author and life coach Mathebula has a PhD in construction management