Creating a unified South Africa has been on the agenda of liberals for a century and (ostensibly) on that of the South African government since 1994. This ideal has been illusive, particularly considering how government has been trying to attain this end through force and social engineering. This can be referred to as Transformationism. But solid nation-building is something that happens organically from the ground up, not from the top down.
The United States of America has been a great example of a society united by what could be referred to as Americanism, but with different cultures and viewpoints thriving as well. This is a far cry away from a socially engineered society where everyone marches to the tune of the ruling ideology. The exclamations that America is polarised to the point of destruction are exaggerated.
Without discounting the possibility of other solutions to social conflict, like secession or groups retreating inward, I think the ideal remains a united South Africa where no group dominates the other, and where mutual respect and liberty is at the order of the day. Many would say this is hopelessly naïve, but in my view, there is already a shared South Africanism that cuts across all traditions. This shared tradition ought to be harnessed.
What is this shared tradition? Allow me to make three examples of it appearing throughout our history among each of the three dominant groups that characterise the South African tale.
In my recent historical research, I read about a phenomenon in the erstwhile South African Republic, or the Transvaal, that existed in the northeast of South Africa in the late nineteenth century. The State President at one time, Thomas Francois Burgers, was rallying his countrymen to defend against an invasion by the Pedi king Sekhukhune. Some of his burgers, however, regarded the entire affair as an inconvenient waste of time. In the midst of battle, they returned home without apology or ceremony. They abandoned their president and his political goals at the worst possible moment, because there was work to be done at home on their farms. There is much more to be said for the fiercely individualistic, apolitical nature of the early Afrikaners. These were white, ultra-conservative Dutch-Afrikaans men.
About a century later, in the later years of Apartheid, large South African corporations began summarily ignoring the racist laws of the land because they were economically unworkable. Blacks were appointed and advanced, and racial barriers were broken down despite government’s protests. Even before Apartheid, during the early years of the Union of South Africa, big mining companies had no time for racial considerations, and were only too happy to appoint and advance black workers. Social engineering by government intervened and stopped them from doing this, but later they did it anyway. These were white, often liberal English South Africans.
Today, after twenty-five years of overzealous government intervention in the economy, the vast majority of South Africans are anything but passively ‘law-abiding’. COVID-19 lockdown regulations go totally unobserved in the townships, and even before the lockdown, most poor South Africans did not give a hoot about the dictates of some faraway government officials. In fact, the threat that officials will be attacked by the community if they show their faces is often expressed. This does not even mention the civil disobedience from the 1960s onward during Apartheid. These are black, mostly moderate South Africans.
It would be unfair to label any of these three examples as instances of ‘lawlessness’, as the political and chattering classes are wont to do. If anything was lawless in each of these examples, it was government, not the people, because government had strayed significantly from respecting the boundaries that the so-called social contract constructed around it. The people were, and are, acting in a perfectly foreseeable, justifiable, and fundamentally rational fashion, whereas government is deviating significantly from what is decent and humanely acceptable. Even if the resistance to government was not always articulated in these terms, one can always find the source of the contention in some unfair or illegitimate government action. This is the nature of government, after all.
South Africans of all classes, races, and backgrounds should unite around our true common heritage. This common heritage is not the land we stand on, the air we breathe, the flag we live under, or the economic interdependence we have in one another. Instead, this common heritage is a fierce individualism of character, a resistance to unreasonable or unwelcome authority, and an insistence on the freedom to provide for our own livelihoods. There have been (significant and destructive) exceptions to this phenomenon, but within the history and tradition of each cultural and ethnic group permanently present in South Africa, one finds the seed of anti-statism, of a non-ideological libertarianism.
People are perhaps justifiably uneasy about the idea of uniting around civil disobedience. The middle- and upper-classes of South Africa have become so conditioned to blindly follow parliamentary diktat wherever it might go that they react with great anger when, for instance, they see people going about their business in the townships during the COVID-19 lockdown. They regard this ‘lawlessness’ as a threat to their own prosperity, when it is anything but. Most South Africans simply want to go unmolested about their business. There is no grand social conspiracy out there to drive the rich into the sea, to destroy the whites, or to undermine the blacks. These are all features of the ideology of a small, but charismatic, political elite throughout our history. Successive research by the Institute of Race Relations confirms that there is no great animosity between the classes or races.
I am not encouraging South Africans to hold hands and sing kumbaya. The present – arguably emergency – economic and social context does perhaps demand a slight retreat away from the South African idea, but only to the extent that that idea involves uniting around a central government. The government in South Africa has always, without exception, been a great enemy of the people. In this respect, I am a huge supporter of the Solidarity Movement’s self-determination agenda, and I hope more communities, particularly in townships, do the same.
What I do hope comes to pass, however, is that while we celebrate our differences – and most importantly, our individuality – we also recognise that we have a shared tradition, however limited that might be, and that we can harness this tradition into what might eventually become an authentic South Africanism. This would allow our society to respect the rights of groups, cultures, and individuals, while at the same time being united toward a common purpose: The suppression, limitation, and control of political power.