Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Indigenising the Rainbow Nation: Justice or Utopian Folly?

“And so the real drama of revolutionary thought is revealed. In order to exist, man must rebel, but rebellion must respect the limits that it finds in itself – limits where minds meet, and in meeting, begin to exist. Revolutionary thought, therefore, cannot dispense with memory: it is in a perpetual state of tension. In contemplating the result of an act of rebellion, we shall have to say, each time, whether it remains faithful to its first noble promise or whether, through lassitude or folly, it forgets its purpose and plunges into a mire of tyranny or servitude.”
The Rebel, Albert Camus (emphasis added: bold)

Marginalised and impoverished youth in South Africa today face living in a post-Apartheid society that is characterised by a dominant middle class that has attempted to gloss over the enduring impacts and legacy effects of its Apartheid history and ‘sweep it under the table’. In turn, the ruling ex-liberation party – the ANC – has descended into fragmentation, corruption, self-interest and ignominy; and has lost the moral authority to provide visionary leadership. This has ensured that a disillusioned, fragmented and exclusive society still persists 21 years after the end of Apartheid. The ‘rainbow nation’ has lost its way, and finds itself devoid of a shared political vision.

Consequently, recent developments in the political spectrum in South Africa have elevated a new discursive niche to prominence. A program of indigenisation, masquerading as black consciousness, has come to dominate the politics of the marginalised black youth demographic. It has its roots in the emergence of two new radical ‘left’ political parties that seek to capture the urban youth demographic, who have been marginalised by deep racial inequalities, the failure of societal institutions to nurture and support them, as well as a dire lack of adequate basic service delivery.

When the Economic Freedom Fighter’s (EFFs) first came into existence, it touted a “Marxist-Lenninist-Fanonist” political ideology, sprinkled with black consciousness rhetoric. Later, however, the main founder of this ideology, Andile Mngxitama was unceremoniously ejected from the EFF’s ranks after being harassed and publicly humiliated (he was cornered and forced to remove his EFF shirt at a press conference). He has since formed his own political party, called Black First Land First, and now espouses a political ideology that purports to be a mixture of the ideas of Frantz Fanon and Thomas Sankara. Steve Biko’s ideas are also thrown into the mix here and there, along with the occasional Malcom X quote to boot.

In this new and emerging political ideological milieu, ideas are being mixed and matched with scant regard for their roots and premises, as well as the actual political examples that were set by latter day black consciousness leaders in Africa. Privilege theory, for example, is tactically deployed (even if theoretically incorrectly) in service of the development of this emerging political niche. To be fair, it is early days, and some room for experimentation is necessary when formulating a new politics.

Yet, even in black consciousness terms, the political ideology being espoused today presents a significant departure from historical understandings of black consciousness as a political and personal philosophy. In Steve Biko’s framing, for example, to be black was “not a matter of pigmentation” but “a reflection of a mental attitude”. Blackness, included all (non-white) oppressed peoples in South Africa. However, the boundaries of blackness have been revised to include only indigenous black South Africans. In this respect, it is not a true black consciousness movement, but is rather embarking on a programme of indigenisation i.e. the logical outcome of black consciousness is now seen as a programme of indigenisation. This flies in the face of the national project that the ‘new’ South Africa and the struggle against Apartheid, was based on, and which was central to the black consciousness movement of the 1970s in South Africa. According to Steve Biko,

“We see a completely non-racial society. We don’t believe, for instance, in the so-called guarantees for minority rights, because guaranteeing minority rights implies the recognition of portions of the community on a race basis. We believe that in our country there shall be no minority, there shall be no majority, just the people. And those people will have the same status before the law and they will have the same political rights before the law. So in a sense it will be a completely non-racial egalitarian society.”
Steve Biko, I Write What I Like, Interview with German TV

And so there is rightly, a fair amount of concern over what is emerging as an attractive revisionist political alternative for the youth of South Africa. It is questionable, given the historical context that the democratic South Africa has emerged from, whether indigenisation can play an effective role in consolidating the constitutional modern nation state that South Africa has become. Until now, the South African nation building project has been one that was mainly premised on building a national identity. While it has to be acknowledged that the manner in which this has been approached – i.e. primarily through the “rainbow nation” narrative – is in dispute, and that nationalism itself can prove to be a dangerous precondition for xenophobia and exclusion, it is undoubtedly a nationalist trajectory that post-Apartheid South Africa embarked upon.

In this, it has drawn on the leadership examples provided by visionary African leaders such as Julius Nyerere, to establish a national identity that rises above tribal, religious and other identity markers, and provides a sense of national unity that overcomes local and historical differences to hold together a geographical region that was bounded by colonial intervention. In a nationalist framework, once you are born in a country you are a full citizen and are native to it. Even a “settler” becomes a native through this project. In the long term, whether settler or native, everyone becomes part of the nation’s identity as a whole. That is, the nationalist framework focuses on the history of belonging.

In contrast, indigenisation projects are quasi race/history-based and implies diluting or doing away with nationalism and substituting it with indigeneity instead. That is, indigenisation focuses on the historical “right” to belonging instead. This right to belonging is also intimately tied up with the right to ownership, and this is the central mechanism through which colonial and post-colonial injustices are confronted and challenged.

In the nationalist framework of nation-building different accounts of how people come to constitute the historical mosaic that ascribes the national identity are validated. In contrast, indigenisation goes far beyond addressing historical imbalances and exploitation; it is – as a national philosophy – a program of exclusion. It is not about overcoming colonialism; it is about invalidating it altogether. That is, it attempts to “dispense with memory”; to eradicate memory in service of a utopian past.

One of the profound ironies of this approach is that the genuine ‘first peoples’ of South Africa (i.e. the San and Khoi San) get no mention and are still fighting to have their languages recognised. That is, a programme of selective indigenisation has emerged; one that selects an imagined memory for political expedience.

Yet indigenisation is not automatically fascist, especially in the postcolonial context. It is, however, more a reaction to the past, than it is an actionable framework to shape the future. Moreover, the presumption that a specific history exists, and is attached to us, purely by virtue of birth, is always a dangerous idea, precisely because it places a fantasy that explains every facet of our existence at the centre of it. The tyranny of indigeneity is not a mirage or an imaginary; it is a fact of 20th and 21st Century existence, as much as it was a fact of colonial existence. Indeed, indigeneity is also the backbone of settler identity, where settlers view themselves as transplants from cultures that they are long removed from. When indigeneity is invoked in contrast and in opposition to humanitarianism, it ceases to occupy the space of moral or principled action; instead, it becomes a vehicle for division and polarisation. No true struggle against oppression can escape the fact that it has a universal obligation to oppose all oppression, everywhere that it exists, and in whatever form. That is, to give itself up in service of the many, and not a group, a few or an individual.

Twenty one years into the post-Apartheid democratic dispensation, South African revolutionary politics is suffering from an identity crisis, which is perhaps best captured in the statement by Albert Camus quoted above. The emergence of new, radical ‘left’ politics suffers from a compulsion to eradicate history, rather than to overcome it. In a desperate effort to resurrect black identity (ironically, in a post-colonial context), a forgotten and imagined past is being resurrected. That is; an attempt to reinstate indigeneity at the heart of national politics is being conducted at the expense of memory.

There can be no healing without memory; no utopian project of indigenisation can undo the colonial and apartheid projects. Indigenisation cannot replace memory; it can only offer a utopian set of virtues (e.g. 'ubuntufication') that make hypocrites of those who attempt to locate themselves solely within its self-referential frame. We cannot imagine away the past; we have to live with it as it manifests in the present in order to overcome it. Utopian aspirations are commendable, but utopia can only exist as a pretence, and virtue can thus only be inhabited by hypocrisy. And so when hypocrisy becomes the norm, challenges to it are met with tyranny, for only tyranny can expunge all dissent, and make reality of artifice. Indeed, that is the purpose of tyranny; to subjugate all before a norm, irrespective of what it is.

A profound bifurcation has emerged in the political realm in South Africa, one that finds expression as a profound gap in intergenerational politics. The disillusioned, marginalised youth have adopted a philosophy of renewal that seeks to cleanse the public and political realm of its fraught past, rather than embrace it as definitive and irrevocably resident in the present; a fact of our existence that cannot be eradicated. At the same time, the ANC has become a mere shadow of itself as a former liberation organisation, succumbing to self-destructive party politics that loyally submits to the bureaucracy of internal processes, and concedes misplaced loyalty to a discredited leadership. The inescapable conclusion is that while the ANC seems to have been plunged into the mire of servitude, its radical left opposition appear to have embarked upon the path to tyranny.


 ***Note that the opinion presented in this piece does not seek to deter from the many legitimate struggles of first and/or indigenous peoples, which has an important role to play in contemporary politics, but merely to point out the very apparent and potentially grave mistakes that are being made by invoking indigenisation as a politically and socially exclusionary ideology in the South African context.

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