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.