Friday, March 12, 2010

South African identity - morality and myths

By Eusebius McKaiser

WHAT is our common national South African identity? President Jacob Zuma reportedly wants us to debate this question and also to consider the essence of “the South African moral code”. He is worried that despite the constitution’s yearning for us to be united in diversity we are simply continuing to see things differently.

These questions are worth engaging because many of us ponder who and what we are as a nation around dinner tables but less so in the public space. This is a first bite at the president’s cherry.

The search for a common national South African identity is silly. It is conceptually dodgy. It is also practically dangerous. As for linking morality with national identity, that is a connection that is badly conceived. How, you might wonder, did I arrive at these pessimistic convictions?

The starting point is the very diversity that the president refers to. Diversity is a fact of our constitutional life. The constitution is a document that imagines a society in which there are many different life forms. It cherishes diversity, but not because diversity is pretty for its own sake like a bunch of different flowers quaintly arranged in a vase. More importantly, diversity is cherished on the basis that it is important to give individuals space to live as they see fit, short of them trampling on others’ right to the same entitlement.

This is where the conceptual headaches for nationalists come in. You cannot, on the one hand, cherish the freedom of individuals to decide their own identities and on the other hand tell them there is a list of things one must value or do in order to be more or less South African. Diversity’s value is in part derived from the premise that identities should be self-chosen.

A national identity presupposes there is an objective, singular identity that constitutes the South African identity. Promoting diversity then implies undermining the promotion of a national identity. This conceptual migraine cannot be escaped.

Practically, what does a common South African national identity refer to? Do I have to like rugby? Soccer? Cricket? Must I have a braai at least once a month? Koeksisters on Sunday? Obsess about race, perhaps? Cry while watching reruns of the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the following day threaten to leave for Sydney in a fit of seemingly typical South African mania?

The problem is obvious. If you throw too many goodies into your list of things that make us South African, then you will exclude many people. Or, rather bizarrely, it means that all of us will come out being part-time South Africans since only some stuff will apply to each of us and even then only some of the time. On the other hand, if you define the list of things rather broadly, perhaps claiming that South Africans are generous or friendly or sports-loving, the rest of the world will rightly tell us to go jump off the nearest cliff for having the audacity to claim that we have a monopoly on these feel-good values.

What is the implication of this?

When our constitution speaks of “unity in diversity” it is mercifully not to be understood as demanding that we fake unity. It should be interpreted to mean “unity” captures our willingness to respect the guy next door’s right to be who he wants to be. It is not an agreement to sing from the same hymn sheet so much as consensus that all should be allowed to decide whether and what they would like to sing.

Given our history, we should we be grateful that by and large we have gravitated towards that kind of consensus. I might not agree with your assessment of the bull’s entitlement not to be killed, but I recognise the importance of giving you the space to take part in a cultural event that might involve such killing in appropriate circumstances.

A common national South African identity is therefore clearly not possible. It is therefore also dangerous that we keep trying so awfully hard to find it. It is dangerous because as a society that loves moving between extremes of loving and hating itself, the search for something that does not exist is a good recipe for the next bout of national depression.

Indeed, many of us, especially media- ordained elders of the nation, self-flagellate for having abandoned Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s rainbow nation identity. Yet, what we should be realising now is that the early democratic motif of rainbow nation unity was a bogus notion. It was a placebo we swallowed that helped to make the transition to democracy and settling into that democracy less painful than it might otherwise have been. Now it is time to grow up and realise that nationalism is overrated and at any rate not necessary.

What is the alternative?

Recognising that there is a much smaller set of overlapping values, which we all should respect. And they have nothing to do with a national identity as such. We need to respect the cultural rights that all are entitled to, for example. We need to respect everyone’s right to speak their mind on important issues as opposed to, say, kicking them out of Parliament. In short, we should interpret the constitution as envisioning a society that is progressive in the sense that it opens up maximum space for individuals and smaller communities within its borders to live authentically chosen lives. The idea of a grand national narrative and a grand national identity is a jingoistic ideal that is, by contrast, conceptually weak, practically dangerous and increasingly dated the world over.

As for the president’s attempt to build a bridge from morality to national identity, by asking us to define “the South African moral code”, that too is a mistaken journey to embark on. Views about morality are simply too numerous and often incompatible to find expression in a code of morality unless that code is so vague and so broad in its language as to be practically useless as a guide for what we should do in this or that situation.

We are a diverse secular state that allows Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, agnostics and others to be who they want to be. Whatever morals underpin the constitution derive from those few principles that all rational beings must accept as necessary for society to be a stable entity. Any morals or principles that are more comprehensive, like a Christian view on marriage or a Buddhist view on prayer, will smack of unreasonably promoting one substantive moral outlook over another. We should rather stick to promoting and respecting the rights in the constitution that allow for different moralities to be possible within the private spheres of individual and community lives.

So, to answer the president bluntly, we must recognise that a common national identity is neither possible nor desirable. Many countries wrongly imagine otherwise, including diverse societies such as England and the US. We can set a global example by fearlessly defining a common national identity, if we really must, as the rejection of oneness and the embrace of diversity.

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