SA’s nation-building project has come unstuck, with many seemingly believing the country’s diversity is an obstacle to development, growth and peace, and that the country can only prosper if led by one group. That some communities are not African enough.

A key obstacle to fostering a common South Africanness is that some people wrongly insist on narrow definitions of who is African or South African, often based on pigmentation, ethnicity of forbearers or level of suffering. Yet while SA was colonised by European powers and became part of the “New World” in the 1600s, over time it has become ethnically, culturally and pigmentationally mixed. Even the indigenous communities that were present before colonialism have become mixed at one level or another.

SA identities are not gated communities with fixed borders; more often than not they overlap meaningfully, beyond the occasional shared word or value. Our Africanness and South Africanness is therefore a layered, plural and inclusive one based on acceptance of our interconnected differences. This means a common SA identity will have to be built as a mosaic of the best elements of our diverse pasts and shared present, our histories and cultures.

Rejecting SA’s diversity and marginalising society along ethnic, colour and political affiliation lines undermines inclusive nationhood. One of the reasons for postapartheid SA’s low growth, low development and low societal peace trajectory has been such continued polarisation. Economic growth, development and societal peace will not come from one group controlling SA at all levels at the exclusion of others who are different from the dominant group.

The lack of diversity in recent appointments to leadership positions in the governing party, government departments and state-owned entities is one reason for their persistent poor performance. Some South Africans will doggedly support leaders, views and the position of “their” ethnic group, colour or political affiliation even if they are corrupt and violent; and even if doing so goes against their personal, financial or future interests.

A common African and SA identity will have to build on SA’s founding myths, which are based on politics and celebrate the fact that the country peacefully constructed a democratic dispensation in the wake of violent divisions and adopted a new democratic constitution with a new set of democratic values, rules and a political culture anchored in the country’s ethnic diversity.


SA’s constitution, democracy and the state should be unifying symbols of nationhood. Our self-identities should be vested in our constitution, democratic institutions and democratic values.

The best way forward for SA is not Afrikaner or African nationalism, but what Canadian author and politician Michael Ignatieff describes as “civic nationalism”. In “civic nationalism”, the glue that holds communities together is equal rights and a shared democratic culture, values and institutions, rather than ethnic nationalism, whether that is Zulu, Indian, Afrikaner or coloured.

Since South Africanness is a political construct, there are some obvious pitfalls, but since democracy and the new constitution are at the heart of SA’s new identity, undermining them cannot but undermine buying into inclusive definitions of common identities.

Because a democratic state is so central in building a new common South Africanness, the legitimacy of the state will hinge on whether it delivers. Herein lies the danger for nation building, which is premised on an effective, inclusive and caring democracy. As things stand, the country’s constitution, the state and democracy itself are either contested, failing or in peril — critically undermining the nation-building project.

The stunning failure by the ANC government to govern honestly, make decisions in the best interests of the largest number of South Africans and provide quality public services to all has driven many communities into tribal laagers, seeking safety among those with whom they are most comfortable and have most in common.  

A combination of lack of delivery, a seemingly indifferent democratic state and perceptions that only a few blacks connected to the top ANC leadership and whites who have the advantage of education and pre-1994 policies benefit economically from democracy undermine any nation-building efforts.

Many ANC members and supporters follow the party line first, rather than the country’s constitution, laws and their conscience. They apparently believe the ANC is above the country’s constitution, and this too undermines nation-building.

SA cannot prosper with competing governance systems. Customary law directly challenges and competes with SA’s democratic constitution, laws and values. Customary law, African traditional chiefs, leaders and structures should be abolished, or if retained must be reformed to be in line with constitutional democratic norms.

In some cases, organised criminal groups also operate parallel governance systems, meting out their own justice, providing “services” and employment, and forcing ordinary citizens to pay “taxes” to them in their “jurisdictions” in the townships and rural areas they control. In these areas, constitutional rules, values and laws do not apply.

SA’s political leaders must govern at all times for every South African, not one political party, faction or ethnic group. Leaders either foster the underlying values, inclusive nationhood and peaceful coexistence set out in the constitutions, or undermine them.

Former president Nelson Mandela purposefully tried to encourage, through the force of his own personality, a new patriotism around which all South Africans could rally, no matter their colour, ethnicity or political allegiance. SA’s current leaders must similarly govern in the widest public interest, aligned with the values of the constitution.

Building commonality based on difference presents a unique challenge. In SA, colonial and apartheid history bestowed those with white skin with more social, political and economic power. Race, and the continued legacy of apartheid inequalities where most blacks are poor and whites better off, is one of the faultlines of the country’s efforts to build a common South Africanness. Therefore, building a shared SA identity must involve economic redress, tackling racism and rebalancing apartheid-inherited power relations.

In times of crisis, whether caused by economic collapse, corruption or state failure, citizens in countries with diverse roots such as SA fall back on historic identities, groups and divisions, making the forging of a shared new identity much harder yet simultaneously so much more urgent.

A common Africanness and South Africanness must be built on solidarity for the vulnerable across ethnicity, colour and political affiliation. It is critical that economic development policies focus on genuinely uplifting not only the poor, but the widest number of people at the same time, whatever their race, colour or political affiliation, rather than a small elite, whether white or black.

• Gumede is an associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand School of Governance. This is an edited extract from his keynote address, ‘Fostering a Common South Africanness Based on Democracy, Diversity and Solidarity”’at the The State We’re in: Democracy’s Fractures, Fixes & Futures conference organised by the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy at Nelson Mandela University from September 7-9.


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