The leaders of the new democratic South Africa understood that forging a national South African identity was not going to be an easy task because of the brutal history of ‘apartheid colonialism’ that was divisive and disenfranchised the majority. Apartheid and colonialism involved racial divide between black and white people as it forbade any form of interaction among these two groups.
Apartheid therefore was a reflection of the British colonial policy of ‘divide and rule’ which involved the breaking up of existing power structures and the prevention of power groups from linking in order to create rivalry and discord among people. What stand out is the fact that the ‘colonisers’ stayed and retained equal citizenship and privileges accumulated over centuries while the colonised remained trapped and disenfranchised in society.
Through negotiation and protest, South Africa held its first non-racial election in 1994. The African National Congress (ANC) won the elections and was confronted with the challenge of transitioning from apartheid minority rule to democratic majority rule.
After this transition, the new democracy instituted affirmative measures in order to accommodate and empower people of colour to have meaningful participation in the countries economy. Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) a racially selective programme was launched by the government to redress the inequalities of apartheid by giving previously disadvantaged groups; Blacks, Coloureds, Indians, and Chinese citizens economic privileges previously not available to them under White rule. A further aim of the BEE was to curtail the influence of white citizens and white owned businesses. Unfortunately the intended vision was not realised as it did not result in any substantial empowerment of the poorest citizens. Instead, it resulted in institution and coalition building that protected the interests of key sections of the urban working, middle, and upper classes.
In line with the BEE, a housing programme providing housing to poor South Africa’s citizens was introduced. It was estimated that the urban housing backlog stood at about 1.5 million houses and that the backlog was growing at a rate of 178,000 units a year. In 1996, the national census revealed that 1.4 million shacks or informal dwellings remained in the country. This represented 16% of the 9 million households in South Africa at the time. But 2011, the census showed that the number of shacks and informal dwellings increased to about 1.9 million surpassing the previous estimate. As a consequence, the rate of income poverty has remained persistently high; there has been an increase in income inequality. Meanwhile, the different forms of Affirmative action including an early ‘multiplier effect’ experienced in the first five years post 1994 is argued to be a period of the South African ‘honeymoon.’ The honeymoon was short-lived because despite the enormous social, economic and political transformation experienced since the systematic dismantling of apartheid, all evidence suggests that the nation’s people are no closer to calling themselves ‘South African’ than they were in 2004. Many lack proper housing and sanitation and the gap between rich and poor has widened.
Throughout South Africa’s post-Apartheid history, the ANC-led government has undertaken a distinct nation- building program in pursuit of “a truly united, democratic and prosperous South Africa. The ANC’s ‘rainbow nation’ approach embraces cultural diversity through the practice of ‘interculturalism’ as a way of recognizing commonalities, reducing tensions and promoting the formation of social partnerships among different cultural groups. The ANC has also promoted a civic culture based on the principles of liberal democracy, non-racism, equality and the protection of individual rights. Interculturalism and civic nationalism are critically important factors to South African nation-building since together they foster a shared public culture and support meaningful participation in the creation of a truly just and democratic South Africa. Unfortunately, in many ways South African society remains deeply divided by race, ethnicity and economic inequality. This has led to the limited emergence of a broad South African national identity.
South Africa’s commitment to socio-economic transformation has been less successful in generating widespread support for a broad national identity. While some of those previously disadvantaged under apartheid have benefited from poverty alleviation schemes, service delivery initiatives and black economic empowerment programs, many continue to suffer from homelessness, unemployment and worsening economic conditions. Increasing economic marginalization has caused growing discontent among South Africa’s poor and constitutes the biggest threat to the formation of a cohesive national identity in South African society. Ultimately, it is argued that while interculturalism and civic nationalism have played an important role in fostering the growth of a broad national identity, true South African social cohesion will fail to emerge without a massive and sustained commitment to wide-ranging socio-economic transformation. Socio-economic transformation such as land expropriation would perhaps have been the perfect wedding for the South African honeymoon.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.
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