At the rainbow's end

Alex | Oct 02, 2009
With its fairytale connotations, the idea of the rainbow nation was perhaps always too good to be true.

With its fairytale connotations, the idea of the rainbow nation was perhaps always too good to be true. The idealistic vision of a multicultural, non-racial family which was first embodied in the 1955 Freedom Charter is giving way to an increasingly assertive African nationalism or, in the language of the ANC's recent discussion document on nation-building, "a continuing battle to assert African hegemony". The ruling party has looked at the end of the rainbow and realised that there is no pot of gold for it there. Quite simply, an African nationalist stance at present offers the ANC much greater political rewards.

A major contribution to this tendency is a spontaneous renaissance of African cultures and languages which was only to be expected once the dead hand of apartheid was lifted. The flowering of African cultures has been a natural process which once in power the ANC has deliberately enhanced by its language and cultural policies. It is significant in this respect that in a recent survey only a small minority of the South African population (mainly Coloureds and English-speaking whites) refer to themselves as South Africans. The majority saw themselves first and foremost in ethnic, language or cultural terms. The self-consciousness and assertiveness of the previously disadvantaged groups have grown particularly strongly.

Simultaneously, the past three years have witnessed a spectacular rise of an Africanist trend and of a self-perceived African identity. This is to be seen in a hundred different ways. We are told that the country is adopting the philosophy and lifestyle of ubantu; school and university syllabuses are being Africanised and even Cape Town's Olympic bid is to be made more African. South Africa's new ambassadors redecorate their offices in an African manner. The new elite favours dressing up in designer clothes which are closest perhaps to West African style but which are in fact foreign to local tradition. New African names are widely adopted. Eurocentric is a term of censure while Afrocentric is a term of praise.

One of the important applications and expressions of the new spirit of Africanness (and another factor to feed into the upsurge of Africanism) is the government's policy in Africa. Not only has South Africa returned to the African continent to play a prominent and energetic part in its politics, not only does it see itself, justifiably, as a decisive role player in the economy and politics of the Southern African region but it also aspires to the role of the moral leader to the continent, its moral judge and its speaker to the outside world. The first step to achieving this is Africanisation of the image of the country both in a cultural and ideological sense.

Pluralist tradition

The historical reasons for these trends and the political context within which they are developing is obvious, yet it is also clear that none of them are easily reconciled with the rainbow image or the Freedom Charter. "South Africa belongs to all who live in it, Black and White," proclaimed the charter all those years ago. "All people shall have equal rights to use their own language and to develop their own folk culture and customs." This platform, which united and mobilised anti-apartheid and democratic forces in the darkest years, also won the hearts and minds of strangers in democratic countries around the world. For this was not to be a hegemonic African nationalism but something distinctly more tolerant and pluralist. It was in this vein that the ANC's 1994 election manifesto, A Better Life for All, promised "a nation built by developing our different cultures, beliefs and languages as a source of our common strength".

In a way the new Africanism is a return to an Africanist tradition of the early ANC, when it was seen as a useful counter to tribal divisions. Later, Africanist thinking was supplemented with non-racism as a result of the ANC's close contact and then practical merger with the communist party, which introduced ideas of class solidarity across national and racial divides. However, this marxist influence did not necessarily rule out Africanism. The strong opposition to the admission of non-Africans to the ANC that emerged at the Morogoro conference in 1969 was supported by the SACR (Even though this move was defeated, admission to the national executive was confined to Africans until 1985.) Joe Slovo, the party's foremost strategist, saw the black working class as the key to the revolution and nation building. But he also wrote of "one united nation, embracing all our ethnic communities" and of a national culture shared by different ethnic groups.

In the latest ANC document on nation building ("Nation-formation and nation building. The national question in South Africa") the terms African nation and African hegemony are keywords, though in obeisance to the Freedom Charter, "in the context of a multicultural and non-racial society." It explicitly challenges the usefulness of the rainbow image, and cautions that the rainbow might consist of "black Africans who pay allegiance to Africa, whites who pay allegiance to Europe, Indians who pay allegiance to India and Coloureds somewhere in the undefined middle."

Proletariat and bourgeoisie

On class, the document rather than referring to the black working class, calls for the improvement of the quality of life of the poor, the majority of whom are "blacks in general and Africans in particular" but also for the building of the black bourgeoisie and black middle strata. This marks a very clear and sharp shift away from the language of the party's 1994 election manifesto, and at the same time from the original document discussed by the ANC parliamentary caucus in May. This argued that as transformation advances, "the culture, values and interests of the African working class and its allies will increasingly come to constitute the core of the new South Africa" and that non-racism "should be given more specific cultural and class content, reflecting primarily the position of the African working class and its allies". The change between the two documents in such a short time can only bespeak factional lobbying and heated internal debate within the ANC- not surprisingly given that this earlier proletarian Africanist draft tended to marginalise everyone who was not an African Cosatu member. It is as if somebody well versed in Marxist theory and Leninist practice has intervened to remind: "the national democratic revolution is carried out not by the proletariat, comrades, but by a broad alliance of social forces which include the petty bourgeoisie."

In other countries the sort of African nationalism now proposed has presaged the growth of a bureaucratic bourgeoisie - despite the fact that the aspiration to improve the conditions of the impoverished majority may have been as sincere as it is here. In the worst cases it has served as a smokescreen for the plundering of the national resources by the new elites. Will it be different in South Africa? After all, the ANC political elite is well aware of the continent's sorry experience of the past four decades.

Yet the pressures are there. The topic that featured most prominently during the ANC's debate on the nationality question was the distribution of positions in the public service. There is little doubt that this debate was triggered by grievances about the lack of Africanisation of the public service and the perceived predominance of the minorities in this sphere - even though they might be ANC appointees. But redistributing positions in the public service is not going to have much impact, if any on the standard of living of the masses, though it will undoubtedly help create an African bourgeoisie.

In Zimbabwe the government talks of "indigenisation" but in South Africa the push is towards black empowerment. Originally the term "black" may have been used in the old ANC manner, meaning African, Coloureds and Indians together but of late the notion is becoming more and more Africanised. It has become quite normal to see non-South African blacks given preference not only over local whites but even over Coloureds and Indians in job competition. Even in the national arena they are regarded as somehow more authentic than whites, however many generations the families of these whites may have lived here, and however impeccable their personal anti-apartheid records may have been.

The large number of Indians and Coloureds in the business world already do not count as blacks and many fear that the same will prove to be true of affirmative action policies in the labour market. Even in 1994 despite the ANC's stress on non-racism this fear led the majority of Indian and Coloured voters to back the NP. It does not help that now a top ANC official can say "there are too many Indians in cabinet" - a statement unthinkable three years ago even though he added that he "did not care about it".

Anything which undermines the sense of the African nature of the new order is bitterly resented. The prominent member of the PAC who compared the government to "a coconut - brown outside, and super-white inside" was hitting on a sensitive political nerve, for the ANC leadership is painfully aware that many of its own supporters would subscribe to this. While the overwhelming majority of the party's

African electorate will stay loyal no matter what, voter disappointment and frustrations are bound to grow. Playing the Africanist card then becomes an ideal way to trump the PAC. Even in the ANC's dealings with the IFP, Africanism is a much more powerful draw than the multicultural rainbow, Delivering the personal aspirations of its activist supporters and outflanking its rival African parties, are the prime reasons pushing the ANC towards African nationalism. It has been made easier now that the opinions and feelings of non-African South Africans can be largely ignored. The crushing moral and political defeat of the white far rightwing parties before and during the elections and their virtual disappearance from the political arena means that no danger can be expected from those quarters.

Had the National Party stayed in the government of national unity the Afrikaner mainstream would, perhaps, have to be considered. But now that the NP stands compromised by the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and weakened by defections, it can be safely ignored. Nor, despite its active role as a parliamentary opposition, is the DP an obstacle, given its small numbers.

Accusations of racism

The weakness of the non-African opposition has another advantage: it makes it easier for the government to blame the frustrations of its black electorate on white racism. This is the other side to the African nationalist coin. Indeed, the more Africans feel disappointed the more this is put down to the persistence of white resistance to change. The knee-jerk reaction of officialdom to criticism is to cry "racism". This mirrors the way that Afrikaner nationalists used to dismiss criticism of the apartheid government as Boerehaat.

The further the dismantling of apartheid structures and institutions goes and the more firmly the new order stands on its feet, the more common the accusations of racism have become and the stronger their wording. Paradoxically these accusations are not directed so much at the far right, but at "neo-liberals" (always in inverted commas) who still provide challenging opposition, both ideological and moral.

If the new policy is officially adopted by the ANC not only will the rainbow ideal be dealt a crushing blow but Mbeki's powerful "I am an African" speech on the adoption of the new constitution in 1996 -the perfect embodiment of the rainbow spirit - will have been declared redundant. The final direction of nationality policy is still unclear. Already a further ANC document has been released which is said to stress non-racism and the continuing role of the whites in the country.

In the past the ANC has often been criticised by friends and enemies alike for the lack of clarity of its position on the nationality question. This lack of clarity was, however, a very successful tactic, whether conscious or unconscious, for the party's main goal of the time, namely mobilisation. It permitted inclusiveness and pluralism of opinions and left room for a debate, the results of which were in any case not binding for they did not have to be tested against political and economic realities in practice. Now is the first time that the party's conception of the South African nation will be more than a slogan and will directly affect the government's policy and people's lives. Or will it? The new concept may again prove to be merely a useful tactic, whether conscious or unconscious, determined by the political goals of the ANC as it sees them at the moment.