Thursday, 28 March 2013

Balanced meditation on Citizenship: Becoming Worthy Ancestors

By Aghogho Akpome

At a recent academic writing retreat, a prolific researcher advised a group of budding writers that it helps for an article to have a "sexy", attractive title. The appeal of Dr Xolela Mangcu's book Becoming Worthy Ancestors: Archive, Public Deliberation and Identity in South Africa (Wits University Press) goes beyond its catchy title.
For those with an interest in public debates on contemporary South African nationalism, democracy, history and group identity, Becoming Worthy Ancestors is a worthy read. And as one of the blurbs on the book's cover says, the informative analyses it contains enable productive "rethinking of what it means to have an inclusive conception of citizenship in South Africa" today.
The book is a collection of eight essays each dealing with either one or more of the social and political issues mentioned above. Mangcu brings together views from eight distinguished academics, six of whom are South Africans. The South Africans, in addition to Mangcu, are the late Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, Mtongela Masilela, Pumla Dineo Gqola and Carolyn Hamilton. The others are US-based Ghanaian Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Benedict Anderson and Martin Bernal, both of whom have British origins.
The contributions from the non-South Africans are particularly important due to their distance from the events and historical issues discussed in the book. The main effect of their international, "view from the edge", is that readers are offered a broad trans-regional and historical context within which local concerns may be considered. Potentially, this enables a more objective and balanced meditation on issues often distorted by recalcitrant emotions and prejudice.

In his contribution, Bernal provides a survey of the relationship between ancient Greece and ancient Egypt. His forceful argument that the civilisation of the former was strongly influenced by that of the latter goes against the grain of orthodox Western historiography and directly challenges Hegel's obnoxious denigration of Africa.
But, as some readers might ask: how is this revised history of the world related to identity and citizenship in South Africa? For Becoming Worthy Ancestors, Bernal's argument may be understood as a symbolic gesture. Most probably, it is meant to highlight the inter-dependent and hybrid nature of contemporary South African society, composed as it is of peoples descended from Africa, Europe and Asia.
The first part of this book's title comes from Anderson's essay, The Goodness of Nations, in which he evokes ideas from Max Weber, the renowned German sociologist. Weber challenged his contemporaries - plagued by complex social, political and economic problems - to make sacrifices for their nation so that they could become "worthy ancestors" for future generations.
Anderson explains that Weber's call is relevant to contemporary South Africans. He extols the virtues of nationalism, linking its immediate origins in the closing part of the 18th century to "projects of emancipation".
Referring to another book by Michael Billig, he also describes nationalism as the "powerful, almost unseen glue that keeps the members of complex and large societies from behaving much worse to each other than they otherwise would behave". Using the US as an example, Anderson argues that the pursuit of citizenship rights within the framework of nations has proved to advance the causes of human civilisation.
The remaining "international" contribution is Appiah's essay on Identity, Politics and the Archive. In it, he explains how identities are created and how they work in social and political situations. Appiah makes the insightful point that the idea of the nation (any nation) - as natural, homogeneous and mono-cultural - is a myth. He shows that the homogenisation of diverse peoples under the umbrella of a nation is an imposition, often achieved "over a couple of centuries of violent civil strife".
Appiah traces the history of modern nation-states to the 1648 treaty of Westphalia which produced the earliest sovereign European states that were independent of the Holy Roman Empire.
Giving brief accounts of political organisations in other parts of the world during that period, he demonstrates how a people's collective memory of their shared past and identity, or archive, is "the product, as always, of choices and decisions, of exercises of power and acts of resistance - in short, once more, of politics".
Appiah concludes by recommending, rather simplistically, that South Africans "work together in democratic dialogue to develop shared norms of identification that will give a core of common meaning to your South African-ness".
Those "choices and decisions", as well as "exercises of power and acts of resistance" that Appiah refers to, constitute the major concerns of the South African contributors to Becoming Worthy Ancestors. Mangcu's opening article dwells on the roles of the ANC, the Black Consciousness Movement and the Pan Africanist movement in the struggle against apartheid and how these roles are represented in post-apartheid discourses dominated by the ANC. He argues against the tendency of leaders to re-invent the country's history for political gains.
Referring to the histories of other nations, he also makes a compelling case for greater public participation in the continuous shaping and reshaping of the archive.
In his apparent fixation on the perceived failures of former president Thabo Mbeki (whom he|accuses of promoting a "nativist, essentialist discourse" of African identity), Mangcu seems to dilute the objectivity of his otherwise brilliant essay.
Masilela and Gqola examine the roles played by black intellectuals in the evolution of South Africa from the late 18th century. Masilela provides a detailed historical survey of the New African Movement of black African intellectuals from its beginnings in the 1897 launch of the newspaper Izwi Labantu (The Voice of the People). Masilela accounts for the contributions of such key individuals as Tiyo Soga, SEK Mahayi, Pixley ka Isaka Seme, RV Selope Thema, HIE Dhlomo, WB Rubusana, DDT Jabavu and ZK Matthews. He writes that the African renaissance is impossible without proper appreciation of the roles of these individuals in the evolution of modern South Africa.
For her part, Gqola offers a feminist critique of official accounts of political transformation in recent South African history. She seeks to assert the role of women in this regard, and decries the "variety of racialised and gendered processes that mask, mythologise and delegitimise women's agency".
She concludes that transforming South Africa into an equitable society requires unsettling the biases that shape the archive as well as public deliberations.
Some Do Contest the Assertion That I Am An African is the title of the chapter by the late idiosyncratic politician and activist, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert. Written in a personal and slightly conversational style, this essay departs markedly from the heavy philosophical and academic orientation of the others.
Slabbert uses anecdotes, humour and candour to explain his rejection of a number of what he calls "closed dogmatic systems" which are based on "solipsistic or tautological thinking". He also gives a personalised account of the transition from apartheid, calling (like Mangcu, to whom he makes reference) for more inclusive and vibrant national discourses to move South Africa towards greater socio-political integration.
This point is elaborated on by Carolyn Hamilton, who stresses in the last chapter that the public archive must be cautiously preserved to prevent it from being manipulated by unscrupulous political actors for selfish gain.
Her emphasis on the sacred role of objective historical evidence to national discourse is a fitting way to round off this thoroughly engaging compilation on contemporary South African nationalism, democracy, history and social identity.  - published March 10, 2013

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