A few days ago I listened to a discussion on SAFM dealing with the subject of ‘nation building.’ The two political analysts who were invited to unpack this subject had the task of answering the question of who exactly is responsible for ‘nation building.’ Before expressing a view in relation to this question you must bear in mind that South Africa is a diverse country and diversity tends to polarise rather than unify.
The idea of ‘unity in diversity’ has been expressed in many platforms but how do we actually move it from rhetoric to reality? How do we make a nation with 11 official languages and many distinct ethnic groups into a cohesive whole? I suggest that if we had lesser diversity we would arrive quicker to the goal of nation building. Co-authors John Hunt and Reg Lescaris show that the tension between ethnocentrism and patriotism is less likely to occur in a country with less ethnic diversity than those with more.
In the book ‘The South African Dream’ they say, “Apparently, ethnic interest groups can delay the implementation of macro-economic strategies that seem to jeopardise their privileges. Stupid policy environments, corruption and other issues hobbled African progress, but ethnic diversity tended to make matters worse” (1998:190).
The continent of Africa is the most ethnically diverse place on earth and for some reason we have tended to underestimate how diversity impedes development. The reality is that there are sometimes cases where people are elected to positions of power because of tribal sentiment rather than competence. We therefore cannot talk about nation building unless we have dealt with what others refer to as a demon of tribalism. It is this demon that militates against nationhood.
A Wikipedia online entry suggests that nation building is about constructing a national identity using the power of the state. This is well and good if we have a functional state but what if the state is dysfunctional? What if the state is filled more by people who are driven by partisanship rather than patriotism? What if the people we look at as the state care less about the state of the nation than about the state of their pockets?
If our political parties continue to defend their little turfs rather than unify around the goal of nation building surely we should look elsewhere for answers. What about the role of civil society formations and faith based communities? Surely the many churches that litter the country’s landscape cannot continue to preach an escapist gospel while the people who frequent them are looking for answers to the many social problems bedevilling the country.
We should also not undermine the power of our individual actions. An example that comes to my mind relates to an experience I had in Estonia. This is a small country situated in the eastern side of Europe and we had to travel from one side of its capital city Tallinn to the other. Like many European countries Estonia has an efficient public transport system and we used three interconnected buses for our trip. What was strange for me is the fact that the system is not supervised and so it is possible to circumvent it and ride the bus without paying.
The lady who acted as our chaperon did something that left an indelible mark on me. She made sure that in every bus we jumped into we paid for our ride by punching all our tickets in an unmanned machine that was situated at the centre of the buses. When I asked her what was behind her diligence she said the following, ‘do you want me to bankrupt my country by not paying for our bus ride?’
I was gobsmacked because I had not seen a person who connected his personal actions with the state of his nation. Now can you imagine if every South Africa would also make this connection? The answer therefore is that each of us is responsible for the task of ‘nation building.’
By: Afrika Mhlophe