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Boeke | Books > Boekartikels | Articles on books > English

Open Book Report: 2 parts inspiration, 1 part Sunday blues


Bibi Slippers - 2011-09-29

Untitled Document

Considering the current state of South African politics I felt deeply privileged to have attended two sessions at the Open Book Festival on Sunday, 25th September which left me hopeful and (almost) positive about the future.

First up was Alex Perry’s conversation with Moeletsi Mbeki, editor of Advocates for Change. Mbeki, author of the bestselling Architects of Poverty, addresses the flipside of the coin in this new book, a collection of essays by experts from across the continent who believe there are solutions to the challenges Africa faces.

Alex Perry in conversation with Moeletsi Mbeki

While Mbeki freely admits that, at heart, he is more prone to attacking the powers that be, this is a book about solutions. It showcases the incredible development Mbeki sees in terms of high-powered intellectuals in the sciences and social sciences in Africa.

Moeletsi Mbeki

The discussion considered the factors contributing to the ballooning impoverishment characterising African economies, with Mbeki emphasising the impact of the shrinking manufacturing industry. Perry pointed to the “rising sense of optimism about Africa”, but Mbeki is sceptical about this apparent upturn. He did agree that there are centres of excellence to be seen in Africa, but pointed to the terrible state of corruption in Africa as an alarming indicator that all is not well. He also warned against the sense of euphoria created by the resource boom and the impact of Asia on the African economy. He also expressed concern about the lack of concern and social responsibility displayed by many of Africa’s political leaders.

Mbeki also spoke of the lessons to be learnt from the Arab Spring. He remains extremely sceptical of “leaders” as such and not very encouraged by the current leaders in Africa, but he is positive about the people and believes that we can make a difference to our situation by starting at the bottom and focusing on the people. He was adamant about the fact that South Africa is still a very young democracy and that we have to take care to protect our constitutional democracy. He also maintained the need for a political system in which the government is held accountable, an accountability lacking in the party system currently in place in South Africa.

Later on Sunday I attended the dialogue between Max du Preez and Neville Alexander. Du Preez is the editor of the book Opinion Pieces by South African Thought Leaders, to which Alexander contributed a chapter on nationhood and racial identity.

Max du Preez


Du Preez contextualised the need for the publication of this book by pointing out the “extremely low” level of public discourse in South Africa, with “the zeal of sentiment” dominating discussions on public forums.

Alexander spoke mainly about the need for South Africans to stop defining themselves (and one another) in terms of race. He placed his plea in the context of having lived before, during and after apartheid, thus having a perspective that few young people have.

Alexander shared many stories from his years on Robben Island, where he was a political prisoner from 1964 to 1974. During his time on the island he was involved in an ongoing debate with Nelson Mandela on “The National Question”. While the Congress movement believed the people of South Africa could be divided into four races, the Unity movement (to which Alexander belonged) did not agree with the concept of racial definition. While Mandela believed that the African people represented the South African nation, while all other groups were labelled as minorities, Alexander did not (and still does not) believe there is a nation in South Africa. While he recognises the national unit called South Africa, he insists that there is no nation in the sense of a group with an identity.

Neville Alexander

Alexander pointed out that social cohesion does not exist among South Africans. He likened the superficial unity created by events like the 2010 World Cup with the feeling of liking people when you are drunk and stressed that this does not really constitute national unity. However, he emphasised that we are building a nation, and that this is the opportunity that 1994 afforded us. The South African nation is a work in progress, and it is our duty to ensure that everyone who lives in this country has an opportunity to become part of the nation.

Alexander noted that we all inhabit multiple identities and that these are not problematic in themselves. The problem lies in perpetuating racial identities. Alexander refuses to classify himself as coloured, stating that people who know how identity is constructed have a duty to fight against identities constructed purely in terms of race. According to him such identities are counter-productive to the project of national unity. He said that the challenge to leaders in South Africa is to demonstrate that we do not need racial identities and that things can be done differently. Alexander calls racial identities vulgar and absurd, insisting that the perpetuation of racial identities is dangerous and inextricably linked with genocide.

Neville Alexander

Regarding language, Alexander took pains to emphasise that people do not have to speak one language to be a nation. The objective should be meaningful communication, and multilingualism is key to meaningful communication in a country like South Africa. According to Alexander, South Africans should all speak at least two, but preferably three languages, and should be afforded the opportunity to be educated in their mother tongues, while learning additional languages at school.

Alexander was emphatic in his statement: “The colour of my skin can never disadvantage me.” He insisted that by looking only at race, we are not acknowledging the real issues. We need to identify the fundamental vectors of inequality. Race remains a superficial categorisation.

The enthusiasm and dedication Neville Alexander displayed in speaking about a thorny topic did not only inspire me to buy the book, it also left me hopeful and determined to adjust my own thinking. In short: changed. It seems that, like the best books, this is what the best authors are able to do.