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Pretexts: literary and cultural studies, Vol. 10, No.

1, 2001

The State of Nation-building in the

New South Africa

In this lecture,1 I intend to problematise the concept of nation-building and to

consider in which ways and with what measure of success we can be said to be
involved in a nation-building project in post-apartheid South Africa. It is my belief
that most of us are trapped in Eurocentric concepts of ‘nation’, ‘race’, ‘ethnic
groups’ and other such putative social entities. One of the consequences of this fact
is that we cannot arrive at strategies that promote minimally, the networking, and
optimally, the integration, of the population of South Africa. Unless, therefore, we
can invent a new discourse involving a new set of concepts that is more appropriate
to the peculiarities of South African history, seen in the context of world history,
we are doomed to repeat many of the mistakes that have been made in so many
post-colonial African as well as in other former colonial states.

Some Basic Assumptions

In order to have a reasonable discussion with some hope of arriving at a sense of
direction, I have to spell out some of my basic assumptions. I do this because I
believe it is essential that my audience follow my train of thought from the
beginning and in order that the participants can say exactly where they part
company with the frame of reference I use for my analysis.
To begin with, I understand the nation to be a historically speciŽc political
community. Whatever else the ‘nation’ might be for individuals and groups,2 it is
constituted by people who have been thrown together through particular historical
events and who have thereby acquired a community of interest in spite of
contradictions of both an antagonistic and a non-antagonistic kind. Following
Benedict Anderson (1983: 55), I accept that administrative units, if they endure over
time, can acquire or create meaning. Concretely, this means that even oppressed,
indeed enslaved, groups of people and individuals eventually identify with the
political–territorial community that has evolved, no matter how arbitrary or
‘artiŽcial’ its origins. One need only refer to such situations as that of the USA or
Brazil to understand how this process takes place. In the South African case, it is
a fact that however much liberation movements have condemned colonial conquest,
slavery, etc., there is not today, and, if we leave aside a few episodic moments, there
has not been since 1910, a single political formation, whether of the oppressor or
of the oppressed, that has not accepted the reality and the international legality of
the South African state. This state, as is well known, was the result of a
compromise between Afrikaner nationalists, i.e. Boer generals representing the
so-called independent Boer republics, and the British Empire, a compromise that
ISSN 1015–549X print/ISSN 1470–1022 online/01/010083-09 Ó 2001 Taylor & Francis Ltd
DOI: 10.1080/10155490120069061
Open Rubric
84 N. Alexander

explicitly excluded ‘people of colour’ from the franchise. Today, certainly, every
single political formation accepts that we are all South Africans in this purely
juridical sense, i.e. as compared with other states in the world.3
At a descriptive level, it could be said that any group of rulers in the present era,
by whatever route they may have come to power, have, minimally, to establish
or/and maintain the coherence of the state and the stability of the society in order,
among other things, to attract domestic and foreign investment and to be able to
trade and to conduct administrative processes in a more or less consistent manner.
The inhabitants or citizens of such an average abstract modern state are, again
minimally, concerned that they be allowed to get on with their own affairs and with
the general business of life. However, territorial and political–military coherence
and the material reality of states does not imply that there is also ideological
cohesion and, therefore, social stability. People identify necessarily with the state as
it exists because, given consciousness of a larger whole, all people require to make
sense of where they Žt into the picture, as it were. Ideology refers to the systematic
or paradigmatic explanations which individuals and groups of people fashion or
accept in order to make their lives meaningful. In all cases, the ideas of the ruling
elite are decisive in regard to the myths, beliefs, values and visions which the
generality of the population accepts. At this level, which is by no means merely
‘superstructural’, what has to be identiŽed and addressed are those centrifugal
moments (lines of cleavage, faultlines) which divide the population into more or less
diverging, even hostile camps. To put it differently, the ruling classes have to
mobilise the consent of the entire population to their speciŽc perspective(s) on
economic, social and cultural development, i.e. they have to establish their hege-
mony, since no state could endure merely on the basis of coercion through the use
of the available repressive apparatuses. In the South African case, the dominance of
the apartheid ideology, which has been eliminated, has to be displaced by the
hegemony of the non-racial ideology ostensibly espoused and promoted by the
liberation movement, taken as a whole. The clairvoyant prediction of Olive
Schreiner (1923: 61–62), committed to paper at the very end of the nineteenth
century, set the agenda for the political class of South Africa during the entire
twentieth century.
Wherever a Dutchman, an Englishman, a Jew and a native are superim-
posed, there is that common South African condition through which no
dividing line can be drawn. … South African unity is not the dream of a
visionary, it is not even the forecast of genius, which makes clear and at
hand that which only after ages can accomplish. … South African unity is
a condition the practical necessity for which is daily and hourly forced
upon us by the common needs of life: it is the one path open to us. For
this unity all great men born in South Africa during the next century will
be compelled directly or indirectly to labour; it is this unity which must
precede the production of anything great and beautiful by our people as
a whole. … It is the attainment of this unity which constitutes the problem
of South Africa: How from our political states and our discordant races,
can a great, a healthy, a united, an organized nation be formed?
Because of the widespread belief that the nation state (or national state) has
overstayed its welcome on the planet, it is essential that I stress the continuing
Nation-building in the New South Africa 85

reality of this entity even in the era of globalisation, when the state is becoming
increasingly vulnerable, not to say subject, to the interests of transnational giant
corporations (see Castells 1998: 307–308). Finally, also without further elaboration,
I want to point to the fact that all people have multiple identities, which are of
varying importance to them. Indeed, in a state made up of many social groups of
diverse national or geographical origin, the relationship between some of the
notions that people have of who they are is of paramount importance.

Nation-building in Africa
Previous attempts at nation building in post-colonial Africa constitute a very
complex area, which cannot be canvassed in detail on this occasion. For our
purposes, it sufŽces to point to a few of the problematical aspects of this
One of the Žrst points to note is that because of the hegemony of the European
concept of nation, it was generally believed that national unity could only be
promoted if all the people of the given ex-colonial territory spoke the same
language. This had the paradoxical result that the former colonial language (usually
English, French or Portuguese) was declared the sole ofŽcial language as well as the
main, or even the only, language of teaching, tuition or training in the educational
system. This fact, in turn, had as an unintended consequence—if we view the issue
from the perspective of the consciousness of most of the leaders of the independence
or liberation movement—the marginalisation of the vast majority of the indigenous
people. The economic and ideological reasons for this categorical decision are well
known and I shall not discuss them in detail. It sufŽces to point to the convenience
factor, since the aspiring middle class in all of these states had, in most cases, an
adequate level of proŽciency in the language(s) of power such that they could
continue governing the territories concerned by using the existing mechanisms and
institutions which, naturally, were based on the dominance of the colonial lan-
guage. Linked to this—and the phenomenon represents a kind of bridge between
innocence and complicity—is the fact that under the circumstance of post-colonial
rule, proŽciency in the ex-colonial languages became a key to access to social status,
political power and economic advantage.4 Also, there was the very real problem of
resources in the short term, especially since the ofŽcialisation or even the prioritisa-
tion of any one language in the extremely plurilingual countries of Africa would in
most cases have led to resistance by those linguistic communities whose languages
had not been thus treated. With very few exceptions (especially Tanzania and
Somalia), no African language was ever given the high status that was automatically
accorded the ex-colonial languages.5
Another area in which nation-building projects in the rest of Africa tended to
overcompensate was that of ethnic relations. In most of the countries, usually as the
result of colonial policy (see Curtin et al ., 1981: 575–592), one or other ethnic
community was dominant and in all such cases, there was, especially in the Žrst
years, a tendency to ensure that all the major groups were represented in parliament
as well as in the executive. Again, this was explicable in terms of the need to
minimise separatist tendencies, but in fact the policy entrenched ethnic, i.e. ‘tribal’,
consciousness. It led to what John Saul called ‘the dialectic of class and tribe’
86 N. Alexander

which, among other things, saw the demoralising phenomenon of ‘elections’, which
were no more than ethnic censuses.

Faultlines of the New South Africa

South Africa differed from other African countries in certain decisive respects. The
obvious salience of the racial question made it very different from the rest of Africa
with the exception of settler colonial territories such as Namibia and Rhodesia.
‘Race’ assumed the same signiŽcance in South Africa as ‘ethnicity’ (or ‘tribe’) had
in other African countries. As long as segregation and apartheid insisted on ethnic
and racial discrimination, most of the people, thinking of themselves as so-called
racial groups, intuitively opposed the forms of oppression that resulted from these
policies. That is to say, they necessarily fought for improvements in their conditions
of life on the basis of the very social categories, which the ruling ideology had
inscribed in their consciousness through the manner in which the society had been
structured in order to promote the economic and social interests of the rulers. The
ambivalence and uidity of the situation is manifest in the fact that while they
assumed these racial identities as ‘natural’, they were also open to being mobilised
to reject notions of ‘race’ and ethnicity, which were (and are) so obviously tied to
their oppression. This explains both the tenacity of the four-nations paradigm,
which continues to shape the consciousness of most South Africans, and the
sometimes desperate clinging to a ‘non-racial’ vision of the future which has been
the hallmark of the liberation movement. In this, leaving aside many problematical
and polemical issues, the people were given a Žrm lead by the leadership of the
liberation organisations, all of whom had been reared in the universalistic ambience
of Christianity, Islam and Marxism.
The racial caste system—which is what we are dealing with at the level of social
psychology—has particular consequences that exacerbate the problem of promoting
a sense of national unity. The system itself derives from the historical reality of
interdependent groups of people who were integrated into the economic, speciŽcally
the labour, processes of the evolving capitalist system in such a manner that the one
could not, and cannot yet, do without the other. Archbishop Tutu’s mythical
‘rainbow nation’ is, thus, a brave attempt to make a virtue out of necessity. As
such, it can, in my opinion, be abused in order to Žx forever the sense of colour or
‘race’ that divides one group of people from another. Of course, the man at
Bishopscourt never intended that we should become a nation of hyphenated South
Africans, where the word in front of the hyphen is always a racial epithet such as
‘black’, ‘white’, ‘coloured’ or ‘Indian’. This last term also serves to reveal the short
jump from colour to other social markers such as language, religion, region or
‘culture’. This is the reason why I believe that this US-American metaphor will do
more harm than good. Already, we have a whole range of so-called Khoi groups,
each representing a mere handful of people, coming out of the woodwork in order
to claim a place in the sunny new South Africa for the ethnic entrepreneurs who are
driving them. The recent and continuing discussions about the prevalence of racism,
racial prejudice and racial discrimination in the new South Africa, if they show
nothing else, demonstrate the urgent need to introduce a new discourse concomitant
with radical changes in the ways in which wealth and resources are distributed in
this country.
Nation-building in the New South Africa 87

In order to consider this matter carefully, it is necessary to look at some of the

changes in our conceptualisation of South African society that have been proposed
by scholars in the post-apartheid debates. In the compendium edited by Liebenberg
and Rhoodie, a scathing attack on ‘the fuzzy notion of “non-racialism”’ is launched
by Kierin O’Malley (1994: 77–88) who draws attention to the philistinism and the
opportunism of South African intellectuals. He mentions the absurd fact, inter alia,
that ‘… (a) number of former Afrikaner nationalists have apparently been able to
become African nationalists without so much as a background glance’ (O’Malley,
1994: 78).
Using the spectre of Hanf’s Jacobin nation-building/social engineering, O’Malley
warns against the consequences of ignoring the ethnic factor. Even though his
portrayal of actual and putative nation-building projects is a caricature and not
derived from any systematic texts, as when he suggests that the present rulers want
to eradicate ‘all extant cultural and ethnic sentiment’ and ‘their replacement by a
new uniŽed and culturally uniform “Nation”’, his basic critique of recent radical
scholarship in South Africa is valid. He adopts Horowitz’s view that Western
scholarship is held in thrall by a pervasive bias against ascriptive social phenomena
and that this tendency is exacerbated in South Africa by the hegemony of the
neo-Marxist paradigm (see O’Malley, 1994: 81–82). His article is a thorough-going
interrogation of the consistency and bona Ždes of the new-found non-racial
discourse among both Afrikaner and African nationalists. Whereas, in his view, the
latter are deluding themselves in believing that social phenomena like ethnic groups
are non-existent or irrelevant, the former are disingenuously incantating the mantra
of non-racialism in their pursuit of a double agenda involving the permanent
retention of a share of power by the minority as a group. His plea is for the
recognition of the tenacity of ‘ethnicity’ and for the factoring in of this element into
any equation for guiding the nation-building project.
A similar attack was launched in 1994 by Ran Greenstein on the neglect of ‘race’,
which he calls ‘the excluded presence’. As against the neo-Marxist tendency to
dismiss race ‘as little other than a pernicious way for making invidious distinctions
among people in order to facilitate class exploitation and political oppression’,
Greenstein (1994: 3) avers that
race can and frequently does become an afŽrmative principle underlying
individual and collective identities, partially overlapping and partially
competing with other foci of identity.
Essentially, his article is a polemic against dogmatic ‘Marxist’ and other reduc-
tionist approaches to the study of ideology and identity. As such, it is without any
doubt a timely and most appropriate challenge to the hubris of closed paradigmatic
blueprints. His challenge to the notion that the dominant ideas of an epoch are
the ideas of the dominant class(es) is a useful reminder that subaltern groups
co-determine the terrain on which ideology takes shape. It does not, as I have
already intimated, weaken the thrust of Marx’s aphorism.
It is necessary at this stage to reect on O’Malley’s and Greenstein’s allegations
as far as radical scholarship in South Africa is concerned. There is no doubt that
they have pointed to the spot where the dog lies buried. Apartheid itself and the fear
of being Žngered as an apologist for that system certainly made most left-inclined
academics either deny the ontological status of phenomena such as ‘ethnic groups’,
88 N. Alexander

‘races’, etc. or at best eschew these social-science themes altogether. All of us have
in one degree or another been ‘guilty’ of this. However, I believe that O’Malley
overkills. Certainly, as one of those who consistently, in my capacity as an activist
helping to form the ideology of the liberation movement, i.e. as an organic
intellectual, undermined and put in question the relevance and validity of incipient
ethnic and racial formations, I at all times acknowledged the potential for mobilis-
ation on this basis especially once the apartheid laws would have been repealed (see
Nosizwe, 1979: 173–180; Alexander, 1989: 126–153, 1986: 84–87, 1999: 211–226).
Moreover, the recognition that all human beings are involved in a hierarchy of
multiple identities is the dialectical answer to the either–or approach to the question
of collective identities in practice. In my own writing, I have consistently used
the metaphor of overlapping concentric circles at the centre of each of which stands
the individual. As in a Venn diagram (Alexander, 1994), the space that indicates the
‘union’ of x number of individuals delimits a potential collective identity. This
‘space’ can be ‘described’ in principle by any marker of social difference such as
language, religion, region, etc., and ‘awaits’ particular conditions to be ‘Žlled’ by
the relevant people mobilised by the activists who wish to further those interests
that stand to gain by the occupation of this space.
Be that as it may; the kind of critique expressed by O’Malley does not dig deep
enough. It rests its case at the point of reiŽcation of the social phenomena whose
ontological status is being questioned. While such reiŽed entities (‘races’, ‘ethnic
groups’, ‘cultures’ etc.) have a phenomenal relevance under certain circumstances,
a historical sociology that is by deŽnition concerned with change cannot stop there.
I believe that it is essential if we are not to get trapped in unnecessary dilemmas,
that we move in the direction of a thorough exploration of something like David
Bohm’s (1980) holistic analytical framework which he calls the rheomode. This
exploration, i.e. search for a new language with which to comprehend the realities
we construct and reconstruct, would involve us in considering these constructs as
phenomena which are, under certain conditions (what are these?), experienced or
lived by people as things or deŽnable entities and under other conditions, for
example, at moments of accelerated social change, as a ux or a process, an
unstable and stormy movement in which new potential identities beckon to the
individual like havens of security.
In my view, this approach would represent an attempt to shift the frontiers of
sociological inquiry in the direction of understanding the social implications of the
new order which the advances in the mathematical and physical sciences in the
twentieth century have generated. Besides enabling us to transcend the limitations
of the ‘Cartesian order’, such a new language should make it possible to combine
in a mutually enriching manner the advantages of positivist and Marxist proce-
dures. It also gets us away from the vacuous dogmatism of unchangeable and
unchanging paradigms in the direction of a science of praxis whose purpose and
outcome is the generation of hypotheses or of an unending series of proposals
without in any way leading to social paralysis.
I want to come back to the relationship between social identities and the
distribution of the social product. What we refer to as ‘race’ is, in our context, and
in most others, always a matter of both ‘race’ and class. That is to say, the reality
of social inequality, which is based on obvious disparities of wealth and power
between the different social groups, identiŽed as ‘races’, has to be changed radically
Nation-building in the New South Africa 89

in order to bring about the conditions in which consciousness of ‘race’ can change.
It is not enough that we tackle the problem at the superstructural level by
advocating changes in the ways in which we perceive and refer to one another. This
is essential—and our schooling system as well as our media are failing us for a
range of contradictory reasons in this vital respect—but it has to be accompanied
by visible shifts in access to and distribution of material resources and opportuni-
In regard to the latter aspect of the problem, I believe that most people on the
left of the political spectrum agree that the economic policies adopted by the two
post-apartheid administrations, whether because they thought they had no alterna-
tive or because some of them at least never thought beyond the attainment of the
non-racial franchise and, thus, actually had no alternative plans, have entrenched
both class and racial divisions in our society. For, it is evident beyond dispute that
the few hundred aspiring capitalist entrepreneurs among the black beneŽciaries of
these policies are unable to change the colour coding programmed into the mode
of production and of distribution that we call racial capitalism. The thousands of
young black people who, like their Afrikaner predecessors, are now beginning to
occupy some of the important as well as all the unimportant posts in the civil
service and in the ofŽces of big business, besides demonstrating the embourgeoise-
ment of decisive layers of our society and the degree to which it is becoming
Americanised, constitute the social base of rainbowism. It would be reasonable to
say that given the very short period of post-apartheid rule, there is a certain
measure of non-racial consciousness and a self-evident patriotism that has come
into being among what we may loosely refer to as the middle classes. Patriotism is
displayed, as in other countries today, mainly in such areas as international sport
and cultural competitions. These areas are, notoriously, training grounds for the
inculcation of national chauvinism, which transforms the playfulness of sporting
events into the serious conict of wars. Indeed, judging by the ease with which
many South Africans have slipped into xenophobic behaviour, national chauvinism
is latent among all strata of the society. This is a matter that has to be dealt with
urgently at all social and political levels. Freedom of movement for people seeking
work and/or security has to be viewed in exactly the same manner as the freedom
for capital and trade goods to ow across state borders. South Africans, who have
so much to be thankful for to neighbouring states in respect of the attainment of
the present democratic system, have to Žnd the imagination and the courage to set
an example in this globally relevant area.
Relative consensus among the middle classes should not delude us into believing
that there are no areas of tension and contradiction among these sectors. On the
contrary, the often ham-Žsted manner in which afŽrmative action programmes are
operationalised by both the public and the private sectors have already given rise
to disŽguring conicts and are programming some really unwelcome features into
the social psychology of the new South Africa such as the widespread perception
that the black people who are assuming managerial and other top administrative
positions are incompetent and worthy of no more than token ofŽce. Such percep-
tions, which are often justiŽed, let it be noted, merely deepen and perpetuate
racialist attitudes and behaviour.
Instead of the overtly race-based afŽrmative action programmes (and I concede,
of course, that they cannot always be avoided), there are many different criteria that
90 N. Alexander

can and should be used legitimately in order to reduce or to eliminate the historical
disadvantages of the racially oppressed sectors of our society. Among these, the
most important are language, class, or income, and gender. Another important
criterion in South Africa is the prioritisation of the rural, as opposed to the urban.
Finally, the promotion of national unity through the identiŽcation and realisation
of signiŽcant national projects about which there is national consensus (jobs, AIDS,
houses, for example) is the concrete strategy for the nation-building project. This
presupposes a functional democratic state. Unlike many other analysts and com-
mentators, I take a sanguine view of this particular aspect of the new South Africa.
Democracy has to be ensured in this country by the normative commitment of the
political class to a liberal democratic polity. In that regard, we have reason to be
sceptical since both the major parties to the negotiations, to put it mildly, do not
have an unsullied record in this matter. However, I believe that the social pluralism
and the interdependence of South African society constitute the real bedrock on
which democratic practices and traditions are being built at the southern tip of the
African continent.

Lecture delivered at the University of Cape Town’s Summer School on 22 January 2001.
Concepts of the nation based on what is called ‘community of culture’ and ‘community of language’ are widely
held throughout the world. It would be simplistic to deny the social reality of such constructs under particular
historical conditions. However, on this occasion, I have to desist from discussing these approaches. Elsewhere
(among others, Nosizwe, 1979; Alexander, 1986, 1989, 1999, 2000), I have discussed this complex of issues in
some detail.
It ought to be obvious that the (democratic) legitimacy of all the white minority and white supremacist
governments since 1910 was rejected by all organisations of the oppressed. Even collaborationist blacks were
compelled to commit themselves rhetorically to the ‘struggle’ for a non-racial franchise.
See Alexandre (1972: 86).
Amharic, in Ethiopia, had a status among most of the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea not unlike that of Afrikaans
among black people in South Africa. I treat this aspect of the language question in detail in Alexander (2000).


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