What can we learn from our democratic presidents and their understanding of identity for South Africa?
The problem of race is not going away and apartheid racial classification appears stubbornly immortalized in this claimed non-racial society. South Africa despite having made bold a celebrated egalitarian constitution that points to non-racialism and the non-racial identity in future of pursuit, have held on since 1994 and all post-democracy presidencies to the very race descriptions in claim of necessary economic redress.
I have deliberately sought to understand the subject of identity in this note with the Presidential Leadership as base. We therefore look at our three elected presidents namely Mandela, Mbeki and Zuma to see if we can understand their interpretation of race in our long walk to a non-racial identity as contained in our constitution. The primary reason for this is to learn lessons and to see how the discourse on race even identity beyond apartheid is shaped, articulated, reasoned, modelled and perhaps made a lived experience for these presidents.
Looking back through our shaded lens of 21 years of democracy and political freedom, it is perhaps time to understand the subject of race as experienced in definition of our presidential leaderships.
- Nelson R. Mandela, iconic one-nation reconciler pragmatist
No one will falter one for arguing the Nelson Mandela era of presidential leadership imbibed the idea of reconciliation and nation building. So dramatic was this era that we quickly became defined by the mouth of Archbishop Desmond Tutu as the ‘rainbow nation’. Efforts during Mandela’s tenure were essentially about building a common nationality defined by an acknowledged and reconciled past. The symbolism of this era comes exemplified in what some consider watershed moments such as off cause our first democratic elections (national in 1994 and municipal in 1995). The act that gave rise to the establishment of the Truth Reconciliation Commission. On the sporting front the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the 1996 African Nations Cup. Mandela’s visit to Betsie Verwoerd, wife of the architect of apartheid in Orania.
These moments attempted hegemony of unity in euphoria and the birth of a one nation although one can easily tear this apart as a unity for some at the expense of others. Yes, reconciliation at the expense of truth and a euphoric oneness in challenge of a real dividedness underpinned by race consciousness evidences for identity.
It is difficult to distinguish Mandela in his post-prison epistemology on race. Mandela though acknowledges race as a defining reality for identity but he does so as an apartheid sin. It does not appear that he spends much time as president on focusing on the chasms of this race classification as an experiential reality for he is persuaded that South Africa is one nation weaved together in proverbial quilt of diversity.
His aim thus is to locate the race classifications in the toolbox of diversity, yet a diversity of necessity, suggesting South Africa needs this diversity if we have any hope of a future of living together.
He therefore as a pragmatist is comfortable to accept Tutu’s ‘Rainbow Nation’ cliché for it bodes well for his prism of diversity in oneness. It can thus be argued that if Mandela ever defined the South African society he led, he did so with an epistemology of a diversity and not an emphasis of race classification of ‘black’ and ‘white’ overt sense. It was therefore possible to be convinced that we had under his presidential leadership touched the intangible of a non-racial identity though in my assessment in a superfluous way and on white terms. Less critically engaged, not consciously deconstructed wrapped in a romanticism given content in euphoria.
If those with the denotation of white for their human agency today bemoan that era, it is because they felt they got away and were no more guilty for either colonialism or apartheid, the latter the second coming of the first in what Joe Slovo called ‘colonialism of a special kind’.
Mandela was clearly pregnant with this one nation in diversity making it work society notion. The symbolism of Mandela as a beyond race president is the venerated place he assumed in global sense. It was thus not possible for him to be overtly race conscious in descriptions of ‘white’ and ‘black’ when these celebrated him with the same almost dead-beat contesting intensities.
We must also hasten to add that Mandela was an iconic global leader and thus did not spend much time with SA as its president. The world thus becomes the proverbial theatre for this Mandela miracle of careful choreographic display – the glue that keeps together what in apartheid could never be kept together. I have elsewhere dared to contend we have never had a domestic president until the current incumbent.
The sum total of Mandela’s utterances is perhaps best articulated in his own words not in 1994 or beyond but in 1963 at his famous Rivonia Treason Trial when he categorically asserts, ‘…I have fought against white domination, I will fight against black domination, …” This historic perhaps unique articulation comes closest to Mandela on identity measurable in power of race definition.
This summarizes Mandela in his epistemology on race which later on became actualised when he became the first democratic president of a politically free South Africa as a pragmatist, hardly fixated on race in articulation. The acceptance of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ notion which obtained its own identity and meaning under the Mandela leadership, may in a romantic sense speak to the accepted diversity component, yet it really sandwiches the ANC’s belief in multi-racialism, from which struggles to untie, thus struggle to give direction on non-racial identity as committed to in the constitution
- Thabo M. Mbeki – the nationalist postulates a ‘two-nations’ African society
Mandela’s successor was Thabo M. Mbeki, who makes his introduction to what we will call his legacy not in his own time but already in Mandela’s time. When he presents his now most famous I AM AN AFRICAN speech in 1997.
Nothing will be more distinct in defining the Mbeki presidential leadership but his pregnancy with a long-brewed philosophical African Renaissance vision. This posits him in the same space as others before him like Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba and even Julius Nyerere to some extent.
South Africa was now violently pulled out of its euphoric dream, when Mbeki began to talk about his ‘two nations’ in one geographic space notion. He made it bold when he cites, when you in a helicopter ride over Pretoria you are confronted with the two nations that defines South Africa even at the time of its celebration of a rainbow nation status. He goes further and identifies these ‘two nations’ along clear racial identities of white and black economically empowered and those not disempowered, privileged and denied.
Thus he sees these structural inequalities in what I shall choose to call the dialectic tensions that continue to be associated with these identities.
Not only did Mbeki distinguish ‘two nations’ as that which makes up the diaphragm of the South African society but he also added a further distinction of African. This sets the tone for some to argue that he drew even a conscious and perhaps unnecessary distinction among the Biko cohort of black (African, Coloured and Indian), thus polarizing the context of this black definition, which later exposes chasms of divide, when Indians become the true signpost of economic freedom and Coloureds registers victims of a new economic oppression only because they not ‘black’ enough in this epoch.
To interpret Mbeki than and SA at that point in our meandering coursing of a democratic path with non-racial as the destination is to see he recognizes identity through the lens of race measurable in economic opportunity. He consciously sees a white identity for their undue and illegitimate privileges shared under apartheid that continues uncontested in a constitutional democracy. He registers dissatisfaction with this and throws down the gauntlet that he will work for the eradication of this anomaly. Mbeki’s tools for working will be the very apartheid economy- the means policy and a state fiscus, which becomes the means of redress.
He identifies the black identity in suffering, disenfranchisement and bereft of economic empowerment but he captures this identity in description of African, a distinction in being-apart-of-yet-a separate-to-distinct-from the general ‘black’ composite, which the constitution in footnote status gives content to.
We not sure at this point of our unfolding democracy if the aim is an attempt at a race- free end-product if and whenever that end is, or the conscious acceptance of apartheid race classification categories in which racism is isolated as the element this consciously racial society must do without.
This is clearly a conundrum and at least suggests a dualism, for how is it possible to acknowledge race in distinction of others yet find coherence of embrace where racism will be not present, particularly when we consider firstly that race remains a myth at theoretical level and secondly our chequered past attest the fullness of this heresy.
Was it therefore a fateful exercise to even attempt to argue for a non-racial future, where race is an accepted reality? Certainly Mbeki as an avid reader and scholar on wider than economics research definition must have come across the denunciations of race as true reality of being as articulated by the theories on race. For we know that race may exist in a cultural sense, however the existence of race cannot be supported by a scientific evidence. Mbeki must have known fallacy of Eugenics as an out-dated paradigm declared so by the end of World War 2.
One fully understand why Mbeki stood firm on his ‘two nations’ and even a African preposition, for the class divide of SA speaks directly to the past reality of advantage under apartheid in variance of racial classification leaving the African as the scorn of benefit in that historical trajectory.
It is than under his leadership that the first stage of black economic empowerment emerges as a conscious and unequivocal tool for redress of such historic and prevailing circumstances meted out in race of ‘black’ and ‘white’ denotations for identity. The subject of class inequality weighed heavier for Mbeki. It defines his prism of race and thus race becomes a class defined reality, that when one deals with the class disparity you would have dealt with the real divide, and therefore the race problem, the reason for discrimination will not continue to exist once the economic divide is dealt with. It appears from this my conclusion on reading Mbeki that race exists and should coexist yet so without racism which is caused by the helping hand of an imbalanced economy.
In resurgence of an asserted black identity akin to the late 60’ and early 70’s black began to ring loader and louder in the corridors of economic opportunity – yet whilst this was undergirded by a clear policy position of the ANC to build an undeniable and unapologetic middle class, that middle class is identified with the denotation of black. Needless to say black economic empowerment soon manifested in androgyny and distortion where the black composite articulates a real discrimination of degrees of black identity.
‘Black’ thus have traction, and is given content as a part of an economic power matrix with legitimate justification as speaking to the historical past of disempowerment for those who share a description in denotation of their human agency as black.
So unwelcoming and less palatable for some Mbeki’s analysis of ‘two nations’ society was that he never was celebrated for holding aloft the 2007 Ellis Webb Rugby Trophy despite South Africa winning the cup, unlike Mandela who is eternalized for donning the green and gold in 1995. Thus with the advent and throughout the tenure of Mbeki we saw a shift on what identity means if compared to Mandela.
- Jacob G. Zuma: Cultural – Traditionalist even Drumbeat Society
The Zuma presidency enables another shift in what constitutes identity. The ANC’s policy of Black Economic Empowerment after rethink when only a handful of close in proximity to political power benefits in continuance of kinship however defined now becomes BBEE broad based Black economic empowerment.
The key point here is that the empowerment remained black with and added preposition of broad. However identity for the Zuma administration takes a cultural- traditionalist notion. Therefore whilst identities as uncovered by Mbeki in his two nations state analysis still holds, Zuma drops the muddled African dynamic of Mbeki and gives identity a cultural presence if not cloak.
He at first does not focus on the created fissure in the collective identity of the South African society as postulated by Mbeki in his two nation state analysis. Zuma opts to consciously link back to Mandela as maximum symbol and a nation built on reconciliation, dealing with the triplets of unemployment, inequality and poverty. This he shows when he goes to the Gauteng Westrand and hand out houses to whites who are poor and destitute. Another example of this is him immediately responding to the desperate mother of a drug addict son in Eldorado Park who writes to him as a father figure.
Zuma articulated the ever-pervasive dream of a society free from class, race and gender description, not overtly in denotations of black and white casts.
Zuma for his part has not come to the nation’s presidency and became overnight cultural – no he was always a traditionalist and therefore his understanding of that traditionalist notion is cloaked in what I choose to call a cultural means. We must distinguish between the academic school of cultural studies for identity, and Zuma’s rudimentary African cultural experience that has a tribal context to it.
Identity thus for Zuma, in his leadership is made plain in a tribal context, not narrowly but experientially. It is then no surprise that this presidency proved brave to conclude on the challenges of chieftaincies and claims of kingships of many South African groupings. Mbeki set the commission on this in motion, but Zuma made the pronouncements. He did no different on the KhoiSan issue of identity when he made overtures to these groupings from a traditionalist cultural and tribal context. He acknowledged the Adam Kok V as Griqua King and has set in motion a number of initiatives to build on this cultural identity of KhoiSan people in South Africa. Yet Zuma does not shy away from comfortably lecturing whites on their privileges; however he makes a distinction on his prism of this white identity and contains it in an Afrikaner – Dutch description.
It becomes important to hear how Zuma look at the prism of Zuma’s race interpretation. It is perhaps important to note from the onset Zuma does not deny race, but he is not overtly trapped in unless it has a traditionalist context Firstly he does not deny race description for identity, yet he prefers the identity in traditional context.
However, he delineates ‘white’ in pockets of Afrikaner –Boer- Dutch description. He made it emphatic when he at the January 8 statement in Cape Town made bold that “South Africa’s problems started when Van Riebeek came here. It must also be said the Zuma very seldom if ever addresses the ‘white’ Anglo- Sexan or those from English description. Thus he does not address white capital unless it has an Afrikaner face.
Zuma’s epistemology on those who share the denotation of those defined as black is neither filled with romanticism or philosophical content, but this president identifies those with the denotation black for their identity marker as Tribal – Africans with a rural dimension of history. It as if the president has concluded there are no blacks in SA unless they come from these rural hinterlands, he is prepared to engage them not in their western attire but in their traditional setting.
He sees those that Act 30 of 1950 denote as Coloureds as the derivatives and descendants of the Khoi-San ancestry and thus they must find their space and claim it for he will engage them when they have made the identity marker as historical in ancestry.
Zuma sees Indians as from an Indian ancestry perhaps with Ghandi as maximum symbol.
We again saw this traditionalist cultural notion with our last instalment of very unfortunate xenophobic violence incidents where the presence of the King Goodwill Zwelithini took centre stage and ultimately exerted himself in articulating the SA foreign policy on migration. One could not help but see Zuma as a subject of the King and thus affording the Zulu Royalty to have that latitude. This again points to this presidency as one with an epicentre as a traditionalist in uphold of tribal cultural identity.
May, I hasten to add, is this another reason why he in South Africa is perhaps looked down upon as backward, uneducated and simply not fit for the presidency, many cannot find resonance with this traditionalist who sees identity through cultural meaning.
We can also say under the Zuma presidency we have seen the subjects of polygamy flourish where an increasing number of men across all class divides and from the ruling elites have opted for more than one spouse.
It is interesting that Zuma’s trajectory of a cultural – traditionalist spin on identity is not unique in this era, but an increasing global phenomenon. The whole of Europe is re-discovering and restating its celebration of their monarchies and dynasties. The British Monarchy has never been this buoyant and celebrated when it was at its weakest in an around September 1997, at the time of the death of Princess Diana when there were threats of the people storming Buckingham Palace.
However the challenge of race in South Africa seems embolden in this epoch. The challenge is these identifiers to define people are archaic and militates against the future we talk about of a non-racial identity. You know we are in trouble when my son at the tender age of seventeen upon enrolling at Wits in 2015 for the 2016 academic year intake, is confronted with an official application form that has defined him already, as either black, Coloured, White or Indian or Chinese without his permission.
Thus continuing the long nights of the 1910 and 1948 States defined its client. Which respectively comes embodied in the 1913 Land Act and the 193 Land Act is the embodiment of this race identifier and Act 30 of 1950 that defined people as Coloured.
We have a serious challenge to give content to this aspect of identity and its concomitant identifiers for construction let alone reconfiguring in a non-racial society.
The denotations to describe the human agency under apartheid had specific and conscious meaning. None of these descriptions stand in its own shadow neither is any free from contamination of the power and class politics of our history, present and future.
Recognizing the need to keep colonialism and apartheid accountable in redress and the unequivocal necessity for this redress, we cannot escape the reality of an elongated presence of race classification the same we work against and fight for in our stance of non-racialism.
Thus the very means by which apartheid was given life – at the hand of a fallacious racial classification – is in democracy becoming the narrow means by which redress is negotiated, expressed and made a living coursed experience.
Clyde N. S. Ramalaine