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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Essays

Nationalism and democracy

Ivor Chipkin - 2007-06-21

Ivor Chipkin spoke on his new book Do South Africans Exist? Nationalism, Democracy and the Identity of "the People" at the Cape Town Book Fair. The discussion took place on 18 June 2007, in Room 1.44 at 15:00. The talk was titled: Do South Africans Exist - Debate. This article formed part of the discussion.
Click here for the article Suren Pillay presented at the event.

In a recent opinion piece Christine Qunta slipped in a simple phrase that speaks volumes of the relationship between African nationalism and democracy. In her critique of Nadine Gordimer this is what she had to say:

She [Nadine Gordimer] has always seemed so smug in her role as observer, interpreter and final arbiter of our struggle. It did not occur to her that given her privileged position she should be more humble (my emphasis).

More important than her particular take on Gordimer is the status of the pronoun our in the sentence above. To whom does it refer? In other words, when Qunta claims the anti-apartheid struggle was "our" struggle, she is speaking in the name of some or other "we"? Who is this "we" that Nadine Gordimer is not part of?

The simplest answer would be that the "we" in question refers to "we blacks". Here the anti-apartheid struggle becomes a struggle waged by black people against white oppression. Nadine Gordimer is white ergo she is not black. Yet there is reason to believe that Qunta intends more than this simple equation. We might remember that in 2001 she was one of the authors of an advert in the Sunday Times alleging a white, right-wing conspiracy against President Thabo Mbeki. What worried her then was that some blacks were unwitting conspirators too.

On her terms we might say, therefore, that not all blacks are members of the "we" for whom the anti-apartheid struggle is "ours". How do we know the difference? Qunta provides a partial answer herself: “I recall in 1990,” she writes, “that [Nadine Gordimer] announced in the Herald of Zimbabwe that she thought the time for the cultural boycott was over.” She continues: “This notwithstanding that the broad liberation movement that fought long and hard for the cultural boycott had not decided that it should be terminated.” What is Qunta’s grievance? It is that Gordimer acted independently of the nationalist movement. For on Qunta’s terms it is to this movement that the struggle really belongs. The measure of authenticity as a black, as an African, indeed, as a South African is given by one’s relation to the nationalist movement. We might say that the "we" in question refers to "we nationalists".

As events unfold to our north it is timeous to ask: What is the relationship between African nationalism and democracy? Has not Zanu-PF, the nationalist movement(s) that liberated Rhodesia, today subjugated Zimbabwe? Closer to home, several commentators have worried about the African National Congress’s own commitment to democracy. In 2001, when she was still head of the World Bank, Ramphele Mamphela, for example, lamented how, within the ANC, the democratic culture of the mass democratic movement had been supplanted by an authoritarian exile culture. This is what she said:

Reward for loyalty and hardship endured in exile seems to have been an important consideration in allocating the "spoils" of liberation. (… ) The military culture that came with guerrilla warfare added to the entrenchment of an authoritarian culture. The political culture that evolved was antithetical to democratic principles and practices that embody respect for individual rights and tolerance for different viewpoints.

Today, against the backdrop of the succession battle within the ANC, there are more and more commentators anxious about democracy’s future in South Africa. Is it under threat? Does the ANC really value constitutional democracy? And herein lies a paradox.

By the end of the 1970s Zanu and Zapu militia had held the Rhodesian army to a military stalemate – indeed, the war may even have been turning in their favour. The political breakthrough came soon after. A belligerent, racist regime was forced into constitutional negotiations that culminated in the first democratic elections. The Lancaster House Agreement may have been imperfect, but there was no doubting one thing: nationalist victories were democratic victories.

Since the mid-1950s a similar story had played itself out across the African continent. In 1957 the independent state of Ghana emerged. Then, in 1960, 17 new countries appeared within months of one another. By 1964 a further 11 countries had appeared on the African political map. With few exceptions they were the result of nationalist victories, celebrating the emergence of independent nation-states. With few exceptions they invoked the language and images of the democratic imaginary: power to the people. When the Freedom Charter declared in 1955 that "the people shall govern" it was echoing the mood across the African continent and the colonial world generally.

This is why Qunta’s slip above is so important. It betrays a political logic at the heart of many transitions from colonialism. It also helps us further understand why national liberation has only rarely (India being the notable exception) resulted in democratic transformation – in Africa, but also in Asia and in Latin America. While scholars debate the relative weight of the colonial past on the present, the effects of globalisation and so on, it is worth asking if nationalism itself is not complicit in democracy’s still-born adventure.

Let us note two movements on Qunta’s terms. Firstly, the "we" whose anti-colonial struggle is "ours" is nothing less than people itself. Secondly, this "we", the people, is authentic only when it is either in or sanctioned by the nationalist movement. What has happened here is that the political space has come to be conflated with the space of the movement. Hence the ambivalent relationship of the nationalist movement to the democratic process. To the extent that the movement wins a democratic election, the results then merely confirm what the movement already assumes: that it is the authentic voice of the people. In the same way, democracy is valued to the extent that it is possible to pursue "the people’s" agenda through its mechanisms and institutions. When uncertainty enters the political scene, things look different. What does one make of a political opposition if "the people", “our people”, are always by definition unified in and around the nationalist organisation? Whom does it represent – if not "reactionary" forces (former colonisers, foreign interests, ultra-leftists). Moreover, if the nationalist movement is by definition the people’s own, then electoral loss can mean only one thing: sabotage by the enemies of the people. In which case one pursues "the people’s" agenda by other means ("states of emergency" and so on). Is this not the brutal logic at play in Zimbabwe today? If so, then it is time to ask: Is not the condition of democracy today the weakening of nationalist organisations in the body politic?

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