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

Pride and prejudice – challenges in hugging the beloved country*

Jameson Maluleke - 2007-06-26


With the most radical Constitution (which compares only with that of France and the US) a romantic coat of arms, a colourful flag, and legendary leaders such as Madiba and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, South Africans should be the most patriotic nation on earth.

We South Africans should be proud of our velskoene, biltong, potjiekos, Mashangaan Wors and Mashangaan Mieliemeal. We should boast of our computers, micro-ovens and DVDs. We should be proud of our knobkerries and assegais, Bayete Nkosi! Yes, thetha ndive kwedina. Ndaa, ndi matsheloni vho-Musanda. Aku na matata, Sha mina i xa wena, sha wena i xa mina. Shalom. Kosher. Bona serra. Ali Akbar. Bon Notre. Auf wiedersehen. We should be proud of the Ndebele artwork, of AmaSwazi Amvelo and of Dinaka tsa ga Moletsi. This year South Africa became the first African country to occupy a temporary seat in the United Nations Security Council for a period of two years. What stops us from shouting our lungs out from the roof tops: President Thabo Mbeki, you have done South Africa proud!

Despite all these, our rich customs and traditions, our diverse culture, our lively national symbols, our vibrant personalities, and “better life for all” (though still to be enjoy by we lesser mortals), very few of us are patriotic. In fact, some of us do not even know the purpose of our national symbols except that they serve as decorations associated with government officials. Sports personalities are surprised to discover that they are proudly South African only when they happen to win an Olympic game when competing outside the country. Similarly, South African tourists begin to see the significance of patriotism only when they are tormented by nostalgia in a far away country like Mongolia or when their bodies writhe from frostbites in Alaska.

Proudly South African

No doubt our unpatriotic stance is a source of disappointment to overseas tourists who visit our shores to share inour national pride and to learn a few tricks of Madiba magic. They go back to their respective countries crestfallen as a result of our negative attitudes towards our own country. In three years’ time we will be hosting the 2010 World Soccer Cup. Perhaps we should remind one another that it is imperative for all of us, unfriendly hosts, to start wearing a welcoming smile for the soccer fraternity, fanatics, tourists and business people who will be streaming into the country at the time.

Space does not allow me to define patriotism. However, for the sake of those of us who are still groping in the backwoods of our country’s socio-political development, I would say patriotism is simply about loyalty, allegiance and pride about one’s country, its people and culture. It is essentially an affection for South Africa and our willingness to sacrifice for it, even by our own lives if need be. Patriotism is a gush of passionate love - a tributary for what I would like to call South Africanism - a localised version of a continental movement which Falola (2000:144) explicitly referred to as pan Africanism:

Pan Africanism is both an idea and a movement for creating unity among blacks in Africa … speak with a common voice on matters of interest, and uplift all the peoples of African descent from their marginalized position in racialized environments. It constitutes a transitional solidarity, with a desire to use political, cultural, economic, and religious means to achieve the goals of uniting all Africans and Africans in the Diaspora, build pride among Africans, and cry for justice, freedom and liberty.

However, South Africanism goes much further than Falola’s definition in that it seeks to unite all South Africans (not just blacks) as a patriotic society. The struggle icon Steve Biko spent most of his adult life teaching people to be conscious and proud of their identity as South Africans. Patriotism is a must if we hope to take our hard won democracy forward. Masibe munye – let us be one!

Facing the challenges

Having said all these things, the question arises, why is there a lack of national pride amongst the majority of South Africans in a newly independent state? Is it because the daily battle for survival demands attention to other priorities so that we have no time for trivia such as patriotism?

Writing during the years of unrest, André Brink (1984:90) pointed out:

We live in a dissatisfied country, an unhappy country, a tragically splintered country. But basically we all belong here – and nowhere else. There are enormous differences between us, but all differences can eventually be eliminated consciously by starting out from a position of love and understanding. And love and understanding can emerge from cultural maturity.

When Brink uttered these words more than three decades ago, some people called him a prophet of doom. Yet not much has changed in our country in terms of human relations. South Africa remains a "splintered country". Dissatisfaction, mistrust and hatred still manifest themselves as the main pillars of our deeply divided society.

Factors such as ignorance, apathy and a struggle for survival among most of us South Africans contribute greatly to the absence of patriotism. For instance, for white South Africans, violent crime such as farm killings, armed robberies, car hijackings, rape, and affirmative action prevent them from being patriotic. Many qualified young white South Africans are streaming out of the country partly to seek greener pastures abroad, but chiefly because they feel unwanted in the country of their birth.

As for the majority of English people, they do not even see themselves as part of the new South Africa; they see themselves as part of the Western world comprising the UK, the US, Australia and New Zealand. Very few members of the Afrikaner community consider themselves as African (Afrikaan). The majority prefer to call themselves Afrikaners or Boers to separate themselves from black South Africans. One needs to refer to our past history to understand the psyche of the Afrikaner people.

Members of the so-called coloured communities are adamant that during the apartheid years whites did not welcome them into the fold as they are not white enough. For survival, it is said, they picked up crumbs falling from the master’s table. Today they are also not welcomed by the new government as they are not black. The uncertainty about their colour has duly rooted out patriotism from the bottom of their heart. How can someone be patriotic of a country’s whose society treats him as an underdog?

The media once had a robust debate about whether Indians should be regarded as South Africans or not. But it later turned out to be another excuse to boost the sale of papers rather than a search for a genuine answer. As I see it, Indians are genuinely South Africans, although their name indicates otherwise. It would be appropriate if we could gently persuade them to call themselves Indo-South Africans to differentiate them from those in mainland India.

In addition to the above-mentioned problems, black South Africans had to confront a formidable obstacle which eludes even the most discerning social scientists, and this is none other than ethnicity. Members of the majority ethnic groups are always eager to trample on the rights of members of the minority ethnic groups, contrary to the dictates of human rights. The Constitution puts it clearly that minority rights should not only be protected, but must be respected as well. However, the majority ethnic groups within the larger black South African community seem to be suffering from wishful thinking that since they are powerful, they can abuse, manipulate and dominate minority groups.

Traditionally, Africans are a communal, classless society. All people below a king, a queen and the elders are equal. However, nowadays majority ethnic groups tend to think of themselves as belonging to a high caste like the Brahmans in India, and of minority ethnic black South Africans as an inferior caste of untouchables (people). That is where the problem lies.

The reality of ethnicity

Isabirye (1995) holds that

we need to admit that Africans are by nature tribalistic and this in itself is not inherently evil … Africans traditionally belonged to extended families, which in turn belonged to a clan, and which in turn belonged to a tribe.”

Sharing the same sentiments, Dlamini (1995) says tribalism (read ethnicity) also reveals that

the root and fabric of the African society. It is where we derive a sense of pride in being African. I consider myself more of a Swazi than a citizen of Swaziland, in the same way a Zulu is more of a Zulu than he is a South African citizen… Tribal belonging is valued more than national identity.

From the above quotations it is clear that ethnicity is a reality that cannot be wished away. It is a national asset which should be preserved in a treasure trove for many generations to come.

Ethnicity an asset?

From a cultural point of view, ethnicity may be an asset, but rogues and opportunists have turned it into a social problem. For this reason I respectfully concede that ethnicity is an impediment in our quest for our unique nationalism - South Africanism. Way back in the late eighties and early nineties, South Africa was embroiled in an ethnically instigated war which saw thousands of innocent citizens, mostly women and children, loosing their lives. (See Anthea Jeffrey’s The Natal Story: 16 Years of Conflict (1997) for more information on the subject.) In other parts of Africa, ethnicity is responsible for civil wars, self-genocide, xenophobia and poverty. One also thinks of apartheid, which resulted in Madiba's spending nearly three decades in prison, and the grim story of the Holocaust, which inspired victims like Victor Frankl to write a "must read" novel, Man's Search for Meaning (2004).

Like a plague that seeks to wipe out generations of citizens in a country, ethnicity silently and invisibly gnaws into the heart of the nation.

But why would social scientists and national leaders choose to ignore this seed of destruction? No politically correct bookman will ever dare to introduce ethnicity as a subject of discussion lest he is called a reactionary, a sell-out, a lackey or what have you. Scholars and intellectuals seem to think that we should rather be united in our diversity than to venture into ethnicity as a subject of debate because that is in itself an unpatriotic move.

As for our democratic government, it treats ethnicity like a taboo. It is a concept which has the potential to sow division, so it should rather be shrouded in a veil of secrecy than be openly discussed. Ironically, the government’s laxity on ethnicity is rewarded with derogatory words such as “Xhosa Nostra” or a “blood is thicker than water" approach for populating its top positions with people from one ethnic group.

In the introduction of his book Ethnicity in Focus, Bekker (1993:1) points out that

astonishing though it may seem to the rank and file South Africans, there is little discussion on ethnicity in South Africa at the moment. It is an issue not raised during public and political negotiations, nor addressed in development interventions, nor discussed during most scholarly debates.

Politicians shy away from discouraging ethnicity in their constituencies, because ethnicity is manipulable. When their political survival is threatened they mobilise members of their own ethnic group to make sure that their rivals do not seize chunks of meat from their mouths. Despite tossing around non-ethnical, democratic ideologies and manifestos, nearly all political parties in the country are ethnically based or the majority of the members are from the same ethnic group.

Zegeye et al (2003:9) reveal that

Inkatha (IFP) was the most notable black organisation in South Africa to use ethnicity and regionalism as mobilising factors. Inkatha, a cultural movement with political undertones – much like the Afrikaner Broederbond - was established in 1922. It fell into inactivity during the depression years of the 1920s and 1930s along with other political organisations. When it was reactivated in 1975, membership was determined through acceptance of the notion of Zulu cultural solidarity and linked to a common territory, namely the KwaZulu homeland.

Another typical example is the Freedom Front (Plus) which advocates a self-governing territory for the Afrikaners within the mainland.

When the new government took over from the old Nationalist government, provinces were demarcated along ethnic lines. KwaZulu-Natal, North West and Eastern Cape are some of the examples which show that provinces are not different from what used to be ethnic homelands in the dark days of our history. No attempt was made to remove the blanket of ethnicity covering the provinces.

Name changes such as Makhado, Polokwane, Mokopane and Tshwane, though welcomed in the new South Africa, exude ethnicity in that they make other South Africans feel excluded. Limpopo is home to more than three ethnic groups, but the co-ordinators of name change are insensitive to the feelings of the masses. They went on to change Pietersburg to Polokwane, despite the fact that as the provincial capital city, it would make one ethnic group think that it is the sole beneficiary of the name change while the other groups are made to feel like losers. Rather than selecting neutral names such as Mahlaba-ndlopfu (presidential palace), Musanda (National Intelligence Agency headquarters) and the motifs forming our coat of arms, those co-ordinating name changes seem to be insensitive about the implications these might have for the larger society.

It has now become common practice that some managing directors of sections in some national departments have built their own little empires or strongholds where only members of their ethnic groups are staff members. In Limpopo, for instance, it has been reported that members of the legislature from various ethnic groups drink at taverns that are ethnically defined.

It is embarrassing that even today one still hears people being referred to as "Shangaan disco king", "Zulu warrior" or "Venda artist" in the so-called progressive media rather than simply "South African" disco king, warrior and artist. Although the South African media unashamedly denied its share of racism (in this case ethnicity) in Inquiry into Racism in the Media that was set up by the Human Rights Commission in 2000, it is unwittingly racist. It is high time that media workers came to their senses and realised that we are now in the second decade of our democracy.


Throughout the ages, governments who had been directly confronted by both racism and ethnicity have hopelessly failed to find a solution.

King Shaka Zulu, the military genius, used his insight to build one of the most valiant nations in the Southern Hemisphere. But Shaka did not live to realise his ambition as it was cut short when he was murdered by his younger brothers in a coup in 1828.

Apartheid architects approached the problem by separating ethnic groups from one another by means of a policy called "divide and rule", thus unwittingly rubbing salt into the festering wound rather than curing it.

Out of 45 millions South Africans, Madiba did his share to try and resolve the ethnic problem. He went out to marry his flame Graca Machel, who does not belong to Madiba’s ethnic group. Cross-ethnic marriages conducted in Soweto, and so-called multiracial schools also help to solve this problem.

Needless to say, it is up to the government of the day and the peoples of South Africa to find a genuine solution to ethnic problem lest they remain unpatriotic for many generations to come. Ethnic groups should tolerate, respect and accept one another rather than ridicule and discriminate against one another.

South Africa belongs to all who live in it, blacks and whites.


Bekker, Simon. 1993. Ethnicity in Focus. Human Science research Council (HSRC). Indicator South Africa. University of Natal.

Brink, André. 1984. Writing in a State of Siege: Essays on Politics and Literature. New York: USA Summit Books.

Dlamini, Muzi. 1995. "Tribalism in Africa" in The African Global Experience. April 29/1995.

Chivhu, Mafia. Source: Asia Africa Intelligence Wire Publication Date: 08-AUG-02.
(In South Africa, they now call it the "Xhosa Nostra", the dominance of Thabo Mbeki's government by the Cape-based Xhosas, one of the largest tribes in that country. Those who propound the theory of the "Xhosa Nostra" say Nelson Mandela, independent South Africa's first president, is Xhosa; so is his successor Mbeki.)

Doob, Leonard.W. 1964. Patriotism and Nationalism. Their Psychological Foundations. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Falola, Toyin. 2000. Nationalism and African Intellectuals. New York: University of Rochester Press.

Frankl, E Victor. 2004. Man's Search for Meaning. Parktown South Africa: Random House Publishers.

Isabirye, Stephen. 1995. "Tribalism in Africa" in The African Global Experience. April 29/1995.

Jeffrey, Anthea. 1997. The Natal Story: 16 Years of Conflict. Johannesburg: South African Institute of Race Relations.

Zegeye, A, I Liebenberg, G Houston. 2003. "Resisting ethnicity from above: Social identities and the deepening of Democracy in South Africa", in Y. Muthien et al (eds). Democracy and Governance Review, Vol 1.

* The title of this article was adapted from Jane Austin’s most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice, first published in 1813.