South Africa celebrates the 26th edition of Heritage Day on the 24th of September 2020. This is a public holiday in which the country’s citizens are expected to reflect on the common thread that binds the diverse cultures that came together to form the South African nation. Since Heritage Day is celebrated in September, the whole month has been dedicated to celebration of South Africa’s rich and diverse cultures. The celebration and reflections on Heritage Month depict a lot of commonalities among South Africans. However, the month does offer a moment of reflection on the differences and tensions that still exist in this young democracy and nation. South Africa’s nation building and state formation rests on the ability to carefully navigate the country’s diversity, including healing the historically induced wounds. This is because South Africa is a nation that was founded through the exploitation of people’s diversity instead of celebrating such differences.
Roots of Diversity
As the country celebrates Heritage Month, this September, it is important to reflect on some of the differences that exist among South Africans. Such a reflection considers how the various heritages are being brought together to form one unique heritage. Overall, any progress or regression on bringing together the various heritages towards one common nation are an indictment on the social cohesion and nation building project. Some of the main differences that connect to form a common heritage include: race, language, history, class, national origin, and individual rights. An analysis will be made of how the political elites both in government and opposition have approached these differences, either to advance or derail the nation building project.
Differing pathways on heritage
One of the clear indications of the tension around heritage in South Africa is on something that on what Heritage Day itself means. Some sections of South African society, especially from the Afrikaans community refer to the holiday as Braai Day. In this regard, families and friends gather over a braai and some refreshments. Zulu speaking South Africans have historically known the day as Shaka’s Day, in owner of one of world’s nation builders and military strategists. Other African nations within South Africa such as the VhaVenda, BaSotho, BaTswana have no historical connection to the day. However, Heritage Day and month have been associated with the wearing of traditional attire. Ultimately, when the different nations that exist within South African society come together and focus on their similarities, a socially cohesive society emerges.
Constitutional underpinnings of a socially cohesive society
The South African Constitution is in itself the primary source of a social cohesion and nation building project in South Africa. Its preamble makes clarion call for building a socially cohesive and unitary society. The preamble creates a symbol of a people holding hands and recognizing their historical tensions as it opens by stating: ‘we, the people.’. Perhaps the masterstroke that talks to social cohesion in the preamble is the declaration that; ‘South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity’. There is no doubt that the crafters of the Constitution were conscious of the mammoth task that lay ahead with regards to healing and uniting a hitherto divided society.
Balancing the right to be Venda with being South African
One of the most important features of the South African Constitution is its entrenchment of diversity. An entrenchment that goes a long way in enhancing social cohesion and co-existence among the various nations that make up the broader South African nation. It is a provision whose absence and lack of application has led to wars and civil strife in some African countries. This is because most countries in Africa sacrificed self-determination of their building nations, and replaced with so called state sovereignty. Most of the times, the nation’s constitution the post-colonial nation state would assume the identity and posture of the dominant group. However, Section 234 of the South African Constitution is unique in that it preserves the country’s diversity. It is a section that deserves to be reproduced in full. It reads:
‘The right of the South African people as a whole to self-determination, as manifested in this Constitution, does not preclude, within the framework of this right, recognition of the notion of the right of self-determination of any community sharing a common cultural and language heritage…’.
This provision and the spirit it embodies is reflected on how most South Africans identify with their linguistic and cultural affinity before the nation state. It is an irony of history that this key tenet of the Constitution finds easier implementation due to the history of Bantustans. There is no doubt that while the balkanization of South Africa into Bantustans was a crime against humanity, on the positive side, it reinforced various identities within the country. This was because the balkanization was not based on elevating one nation over another.
Institutions supporting social cohesion
As indicated, social cohesion in South Africa is broadly a function of constitutional rights and how they are fulfilled in reality. Social cohesion talks to the bringing together of individuals as well as groups to form one society. This includes their ability to co-exist. In this regard, the Constitution establishes, for instance, the Commission for Religious, Cultural and Linguistic rights. The CRL is a Chapter 9 institution and has a lot of powers to advance the cultural, linguistic and religious rights of various communities. Another institution is the Pan South African Language Board, an entity dedicated at promoting language rights. There is a general sense that not all languages are being given equal prominence. For instance, the Khoi, Nama and San people hold a view that their languages deserve more recognition. The public broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation plays a pivotal role in social cohesion. It is one of the key implementing agencies by having radio stations that broadcast through all the official languages.
Sport as a vehicle for social cohesion
Sport is a tool that has been previously used as a vehicle for social cohesion in South Africa. Apartheid had generally divided South Africans along sporting codes. White South Africans were linked with rugby and cricket while blacks supported soccer. The apartheid government policy excluded blacks from rugby and cricket. When apartheid ended, there was a deliberate approach by the democratic government to utilize sport for social cohesion. However, the recent past has shown that instead of playing a unifying role, sport is still a contested terrain. This was evidenced by allegations of racism within cricket and rugby. In addition to that, 26 years into democracy, historically black dominated disciplines such as boxing and football have not succeeded in attracting white South Africans.
The role of social media
The rise of social media has had a direct effect on social cohesion. Social media has offered a platform for polarized communities and polarizing voices in society. The availability of such a platform via fora such as Twitter and Facebook have further deepened polarity in society. While the proliferation of social media platforms has enhanced freedom of expression, it has inadvertently been hijacked by those that seek to further their narrow parochial interests. In South Africa, this polarization is in the main along racial and political lines. In the recent past there has been parody twitter accounts that are aimed at sowing divisions in society.
The crafters of the Constitution had anticipated that the social cohesion and nation building project could be derailed through hate speech. This would have been inevitable given the country’s history. Thus section 8(2) of the Constitution prohibits hate speech. However, they is no strong law that prohibits such. This notwithstanding, there has been a couple of convictions around the use of the ‘k’ word and making of racist remarks. However, the fact that former President FW De Klerk denialism of apartheid as a crime against humanity could not be prosecuted reflects a weakness in the law.
Barriers to Social Cohesion
While South Africa boosts some of the best constitutional and policy frameworks that favor social cohesion, the last 26 years has exposed some of the main obstacles to social cohesion. These include enduring entrenched racist attitudes, economic inequality, rise of populist politics and transformative policies.
Enduring racist attitudes
South Africa is a nation that has been founded on racism and white supremacy. This framework has had a lasting social, psychological and material effects on the majority of the population. In order to build a racially cohesive society, it is important that racial and racist attitudes are dealt with. However, it is clear that 26 years into democracy, race is still a polarizing factor in society. This is reflected in racist remarks on social media and the anecdotal evidence of racism being suffered by black people in the workplace and other spaces. The state seems to be ill equipped to deal with cases of racism. This is compounded by the fact that most acts of racism are difficult to prove as they are subtle and manifest in the form of micro aggressions.
Economic inequality as a source and guarantor of division
Economic inequality that has continued to dog South African society so many years after the end of official apartheid acts as a guarantor to divisions in the country. Black people’s social and economic progression has been very slow if not regressive in some instances. This has maintained the apartheid legacy in which black people are at the fringes of the country’s economy. The World Bank has ranked South Africa as the most unequal society in the world. Such inequality does not bode well for social cohesion. It creates resentment among groups in society. Whereas in other societies the tensions would be of a class nature, in South Africa, class and race are intertwined. They will be no racial harmony if the economic inequality is not addressed. Currently, the inequality guarantees the apartheid geographical and spatial planning. In essence, economic inequality maintains the physical and social separation among racial groups. As a result, little trust can be established and maintained.
Economic transformation policies
The South African constitution establishes the concept of positive discrimination as a way of dealing with historical economic disparities. For instance, Section 9(2) provides that the state may take measures that are discriminatory in nature as a way of addressing historical injustices. These measures have come to include laws and policies around affirmative action, broad based black economic empowerment and employment equity. However, for some reason, a section of the white population has come to view the measures as reverse racism. This has had a polarizing effect in society with white people having a sense of alienation. There is no doubt that the application of these policies in a way that has only benefited the black elite has contributed to the negative perceptions of the policy.
South Africa has always attracted immigrants, from both the global north and the rest of the African continent. The immigrants are usually attracted by the lure of potential economic opportunities. Since 1994, the economy has not delivered the promise of freedom that the majority of black South Africans had anticipated. Poor quality of education has resulted in low outcomes and skills acquisition among the black population. This has resulted in an inability to access even the available economic opportunities. Immigrants tend to have better job skills and opportunity seeking methods than locals. Over time, the inequality of opportunity between black South Africans fellow African immigrants has created a tension that has manifested in xenophobic attitudes. These attitudes have at times resulted in violence that has led to loss of lives. Xenophobia has been one of that factors undermining social cohesion and nation building in post-apartheid South Africa.
Rise of populist politics
The above failures in social cohesion and nation building efforts has ultimately led to the rise of populist politics. This is both on the left and right of the country’s political formations. The left leaning Economic Freedom Fighters has adopted a posture that has been characterized as fascist and anti-white. This is because the EFF has a hardline rhetoric that focuses on economic redistribution with racial and sometimes racist overtones. However, the party has found resonance with the country’s poorest of the poor who endure the worst of economic inequality. On the right of the political spectrum is the Freedom Front Plus whom together with Afriforum and Solidarity advance the rights of Afrikaners. These organizations view the Afrikaaner community in South Africa as marginalized and under attack from a black government. The rise of populist politics has led to traditionally non populist parties like the Democratic Alliance and the African National Congress adopting populist approaches. For instance, the DA which has generally been known as a liberal party has shifted to the right while the ANC has become more Africanist in its positions. Recently, South Africa has, for the first time, witnessed political parties that campaign on immigration matters.
Salvation still lies within the Constitution
It is evident that the social cohesion project has faced a lot of challenges and headwinds post 1994. This was to be expected considering the inherited divisions that had sustained apartheid. Economic equality would have gone a long way in lubricating social cohesion and nation building. However, governance failures on the government side, coupled with a reluctance to come to the party by corporate South Africa has resulted in minimal distribution of economic dividends. The enduring economic inequality has led to a distrust among communities thereby undermining social cohesion. Political parties have latched on this mistrust leading to the rise of populist politics. Addressing economic inequality will go a long way in building a society that is cohesive, inclusive and at peace with itself. This Heritage Month comes at a time when the country has been made to face some of its worst divisions due to the coronavirus pandemic. They is no better time to take stock on the social cohesion and nation building project
Mr Azwimpheleli Langalanga is a Senior Associate: International Trade and Investment Policy at Tutwa Consulting Group. He writes in his personal capacity.