What does it mean to be South African?

The enrolment of South Africa’s first “born-frees” at higher-education institutions earlier this year has brought the issue of our national identity into sharp focus again. Having grown up in a post-apartheid society, their experiences have been different to that of previous generations. As we enter a future that will ultimately be shaped by the next generation, we need to review our progress as a nation and look again at where we are heading.

Taking identity as a starting point is useful in the process of re-evaluating our past and future. I regularly experience this in engaging with students. Most of them they say that what binds us together is the ideal of embracing everyone’s human dignity in the context of our diversity as a nation. (Find video below, or visit http://bit.ly/LLL_SA_ID). And judging from the response to a recent radio discussion on this issue (on the programme “Praat Saam”, presented by Lynette Francis, on the SABC station RSG, 2 August 2013 – find podcast below), national identity is an issue of interest to all South Africans.

Sociologists and anthropologists tell us that identity is not a given; it is constructed. It comes about when an individual or group identifies with certain values or actions. It is a form of consciousness, an awareness of how you define yourself and others, and how society sees you and others – with constant interaction between the self and the other, the personal and the social.

The concept of identity is multi-faceted, complex and contested. It has both personal and group dimensions. It is a powerful phenomenon that can act as a force for good, but can also have destructive effects. These were some of the initial inputs made at an initial thought-leader discussion that I recently convened on the South African identity.

A useful point of reference in the argument that the idea of a South African identity serves a good purpose is the country’s 1996 Constitution. The preamble reads that “We, the People of South Africa, recognise the injustices of the past.” A few lines further we see that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it” – and then comes an important phrase – “united in our diversity”.

In the process of constructing a post-apartheid South African identity, our first instinct seemed to be to link this to our diversity. This would be the one thing that we could agree on – the existence of various groups in the country, whether defined in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, etc. So why not make a benefit of our diversity instead of a burden?

But for this to work, the South African identity constructed in such a way that it embraces diversity has to contain a further notion: Inclusivity. Again we find support in the Constitution for this position. In its founding provisions we come across such values as human dignity, equality, human rights and freedoms, non-racialism and non-sexism, as well as democracy. One cannot speak of these values without interpreting them in an inclusive way.

The emphasis on inclusivity is echoed in another key document – the National Development Plan (NDP). It was drawn up by the National Development Commission (NPC) appointed by the President in 2009, and was published last year. The NDP also links the South African identity to the values contained in the Constitution: “We [South Africans] have made the rules by which we want ourselves to live.”

I think the strong emphasis on diversity and inclusivity, on democracy and human rights in these two important documents can best be seen as both a reaction to our history and a yearning for a better future. On the one hand, this entails a rejection of the discriminatory, oppressive and exploitative practices of our apartheid and colonial past. And on the other, it entails striving for such ideals as equality, freedom and justice for all.

If identity is a social construct, the question is do we need an on-going construction of the “South African” identity? I think that in light of the history of apartheid and its legacy still dragging on, we cannot sidestep it. And we should particularly emphasise diversity and inclusivity and the other values of our Constitution as part of our identity.

The South African identity may not sufficiently capture the full complexity of our humanity, but it is probably necessary to use it to achieve the goal of uniting us in the fight for our ideals and against the legacy of the past.

And perhaps a useful starting point for our South African identity is to think of ourselves first and foremost as African. That would mean we consider ourselves part of Africa and we identify with all of our continent’s people in their full diversity.

  • What does being South African mean to you? Please feel free to comment below (click on the title above to activate function if necessary), or tweet me @RusselBotman. I am looking forward to hearing from you.
  • Click here for a video of students of the “Critical Thinking” LLL House at Stellenbosch University talking about their experiences.
  • Click here for a podcast of the programme “Praat Saam”, presented by Lynette Francis, on RSG, 2 August 2013.
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4 Responses to What does it mean to be South African?

  1. Eerste tree says:

    Ek wil ook graag ‘n Afrikaan wees, maar ek is wit en ek is onseker of ek welkom is om dit in hierdie land te kan wees. Ek wil graag ook ‘n identiteit help bou. Daarom vra ek: laat my toe om grond te besit en kos te te help voorsien, laat my toe om werk te kry, laat my toe om, ‘n onderneming te bedryf wat werk verskaf sonder dat ek blameer word omdat ek geld maak, doen ook vir my moeite om aan die US te kan studeer. As ek hoor dat die statistiek vereis dat die getalle van wit studente in die toekoms by die US verminder moet word, voel ek uitgesluit, as ek hoor hoe daar klem gelê word op diversiteit wonder ek hoe versoen ek eenheid met diversiteit?. Ek is wanhopig, want dit voel of ek alles verloor, maar die Hoopprojek sluit my nie in nie, ek kom nie in aanmerking vir werwingsbeurse nie. Ek vra : Gee my ook ‘n kans om ‘n toekoms hier te hê en te bou, gee my ‘n kans om ‘n Afrikaan te wees.

  2. P Fourie says:

    Prof Botman en Wouter het albei geldige stellings gemaak. Ek wil dit soos volg saamvat:
    “Die langste reis begin met ‘n enkele tree”. Kom ons neem voor die einde van 2013 elkeen ‘n enkele tree; kom ons skryf elkeen ‘n enkele paragraaf oor wat ek weet van die geskiedenis van Afrika, hoe ek myself sien as ‘n Afrikaan, en wat ek kan doen om ‘n Suid-Afrikaanse identiteit te help bou.
    Afrikaan.

  3. Wouter says:

    Ek dink dit is hoogtyd dat ons aanbeweeg om na ons probleme wat geskep is agv Apartheid en kolonialisme na dit te verwys. Omdat ongeleikheid vir 300 jaar was beteken nie dit hoef dieselfde tyd te neem om dit op te los nie. In teendeel behoort dit baie gouer te neem om op te los.

    Om dit probleme van Apartheid te noem is om nie verantwoordelik heid te neem vir die stand van sake nie. Dit is net soos Trevor Manual en die President se planne wat hulle een of ander probleem gaan oplos teen 2020, 2025 en die NDP teen 2030. Dit beteken dit is nie meer hulle verantwoordelikheid om die teikens te haal nie. Dit is die probleem van ‘n kabinet ‘n president wat nog in bewind moet kom! Dit is net soos die human development goals. Niemand wil verantwoodelikheid neem wat tans die mags posisies beklee nie, en doen nog wat hulle kan om die blaam te skuif. En Aparheid en kolonialisme is hulle beste ‘scape-goat’.

    Toe Amerika maan toe wou gaan het die president Kennedy gesê daar sal ‘n man op die maan wees voor die einde van my termyn. Kennedy het verantwoordelikheid geneem en die program suksesvol bestuur voor sy dood. Dit was ‘n sukses en Amerika het ‘n man na die maan en terug gestuur. Dit was ook in die moeilikste tydperk van die eeu in Amerika!

    Gaan Manual en Zuma verantwoodelik wees vir planne kom 2030? Nee, Zuma is dan vir 10+ jaar nie meer in bewind nie. Kom 2020 dan gaan die nuwe NDP vervang word met iets nuut wat probleme gaan oplos teen 2040.

    Niemand wil verantwoodelikheid neem nie. Daar is geen politieke wil nie.
    Ons kort ‘n Suid Afrikaanse weergawe van Neild Degrasse Tyson:

    Terwyl Neil hier praat oor ‘n space program is dit relevant tot ons visie.
    http://youtu.be/rmKlA_UnX8c

    • Mening says:

      Ek lees die blog en die opmerking….. En al wat ek sien is dat dit wat Wouter hierbo noem ( geen verantwoordelikheid neem) beslis op die US kampus die meeste probleme veroorsaak.

      Wanneer gaan ons die filosofie en die teorie agterlaat en n slag die praktyk maak werk? Hier op die grond waar ons gewone mense elke dag betaal en werk om US se 2030 droom te bou. Hier waar kleur nie n probleem is nie want ons is almal een met groter probleme as die kleur / ras / nationaliteit.

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