The up-coming South African general elections have me thinking about identity and belonging. They have me thinking in particular about pride and guilt – two things I really struggle to grasp.
I voted last week (I’m in the UK at the moment so I qualified for an early overseas special vote). I almost didn’t go and vote – as would be my right. As I mention below I don’t believe in the concept of a nation, and voting would endorse that structure. But on the morning of the day I decided to go and vote.
I voted not because I love South Africa. I don’t. I don’t love the abstract concept of a nation – I don’t understand how to, and most importantly I don’t want to. I love individual people living there.
I don’t believe in the “infinite potential” of the country. I fundamentally disagree with the concept of a nation and have no personal affiliation with the sort of national identity the government is trying to forge.
I’m not “proudly South African”. Pride, for me, is a deeply personal emotion. Am I ashamed to be from South Africa? Of course not – I am from there. Am I proud? No, why would I be? I had no say in where I was born or where I grew up. South African society shaped a part of who I am, but I’m not “proud” of that – it’s just a given, in the same way that I’m not proud to have brown hair, or two eyes. I just do. I just am. Do I admire the acts of certain other South Africans? Definitely. But I also admire the actions of individuals from other countries and other histories. Do I empathise with some of the struggles in the country? Yes, but as much as I empathise with the struggles of other people elsewhere. Perhaps it’s because I grew up looking to transnational identities or non-South African media forms to feel a sense of belonging when I was younger that I don’t fully grasp the concept of a national identity. I know a great deal has been written on the subject, but for me it comes down to the realisation that I can choose my subjectivities: being from South Africa is no more important than ‘being Queer’, or than being of German/Lebanese/Scottish/South African (not necessarily in that order) descent. Why should I privilege a national identity in an age of increased transnationalism? How can I be expected to attach concepts like “pride” (or “shame”) to facets of my upbringing over which I had no control?
So no, I didn’t vote because I believe in ‘the nation’. I don’t stand when national anthems are sung.
Rather, I voted because I care about my friends and family living in South Africa. I care about what happens to them, and the conditions in which they are living. And I care about the conditions in which I live when I travel back and live there.
I voted because I care about certain principles, even if the structures in which those principles are realised are (deeply) flawed.
Of course the end result is the same. Whether I vote because I care about a nation or because I care about certain individual people I’m still buying into the same system. But I do think that intention matters, particularly in relation to defining and understanding one’s own sense of being and belonging (though to some theorists and philosophers argue that, of course, is all a part of the delusion…).
Thinking on that, there does seem to be some sort of shared danger when it comes to active citizenship in South Africa. A danger whether you support principles underpinning nation building, or whether you have individual views on what it means to be democratic. And I think this ‘danger’ is why I take such issue with the rhetoric of “endless potential” in the country. The danger: there seems to be a surge of (online?) voices encouraging people to vote, to be a part of change, to take ownership of the future, to be proudly South African…and yet between elections many of these voices are uncomfortably silent.
The danger is the illusion that active citizenship begins and ends with voting once every 5 years.
I wonder how many of those voices attend rallies and marches over the weekends during their free time. I wonder how many of them make daily ethical decisions about which shops to shop at, which items to buy, which brands to support. I wonder how many of them do more than ‘liking’ a post on Facebook or sharing an online petition. I wonder how many of them actively campaign for rights, or donate to causes, or call out day-to-day instances of prejudice. I’m sure many do. I’m sure many don’t. (And of course, many of those decisions can only be made when one is wealthy enough to make them).
I certainly don’t claim to be a paragon of good. I’m as guilty as the next person about not doing as much as I know I could do. I recognise that and I’m working on it. It’s a constant process.
Yet I do feel distinctly uncomfortable engaging with people who spew speak about ‘endless potential’ at election time and then do or say nothing more about being active citizens. Obviously it would be unreasonable to expect people to fully dedicate themselves to advancing democracy. Some people do, and I admire them hugely. Most people I know are just concerned with getting by day-to-day, regardless of the country they’re in. It’d also be unreasonable to expect that people, perhaps even most, don’t already do something ‘extra’ to speak true to their explicit views. Unfortunately I write from experience, and in my experience many of my connections have freely informed me that beyond being armchair activists and voting come election day they don’t “do” anything else – and many of them feel they don’t ‘need’, or want, to. Or – and this is the more common occurrence – they bemoan the state of affairs whilst actively perpetuating the underlying attitudes. Eating steak whilst shaking their heads about the cruelty inflicted upon Rhinos. Lamenting the spread of capitalism whilst tapping on iPads. That sort of thing . I think we’re all guilty of that hypocrisy at some point or another.
So I’ve wondered whether the rhetoric of endless potential is damaging to South Africa. Does the amount of energy spent on encouraging people to vote instill a false sense of democratic involvement? Does the speak about potential and voting and being involved foster a false education around what it means to be democratic citizens? Or do we acknowledge that the most we can reasonably expect is a single day of action once every 5 years? (If the latter it does seem to strongly sour the rhetoric of how much potential the people of South Africa have).
I do think that there’s potential in South Africa. Of course there is.
But I think that there’s potential in every country. In every location, with the right people.
As a part of the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship program I listened to a respected historian speak about the history of South Africa: she said something very unpopular, but something which stuck with me. She said there’s nothing unique about South Africa: there’s nothing unique about its history, its people, it cultures. Yes, there’s diversity and difference, but its history and future are not ‘special’. Extraordinary in many ways, yes. Admirable. Respectable. But not unique.
That’s not Afropessimism, of which she was accused. It was a frank assessment of her (very educated and researched) understanding of South Africa.
I think that the combination of a sense of privilege based on a false understanding of being special, and the illusion that democratic citizenship begins and ends with casting a vote, is a dangerous one.
As I read news stories I find myself increasingly irritated and angry about the actions of certain politicians and “leaders”. But as I read news feed posts from my friends I also find myself exceptionally irritated by vociferous exclamations of eternal optimism, nationalistic pride and idealistic ambitions. Afropessimism annoys me – where’s the use in it? But Afro-optimism also annoys me – perhaps even more. Hopes and dreams are important, but so is a healthy dose of reality. I acknowledge, though, that straddling that line between reality and pessimism can be difficult. You need optimism to help you get through the harshness of reality – but that, too, is a balance.
Social issues aren’t going to be solved by dreaming, voting, and then retreating back to middle-class suburban bubbles. Whether you believe in nation-building (which I don’t), or you believe in a balance between individualism and a new form of re-imagined transnationalist collectivism (which I, partly, do) social issues are going to be solved by constant awareness, research, dialogue, reflection but – ultimately – engagement and action.
Democracy isn’t an end-point: it’s a constant state of being in which freedoms ebb and flow depending on how engaged a people are.
I voted for the party with the policies which most closely align with my own views, and for the party which currently exhibits the most democratic principles and attitudes. Histories are important to be aware of – but they certainly did not determine my vote. I did not vote according to how a party was 20 years ago. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to determine ‘which party deserves my vote’; to get caught up in discourse analysis – I’m often guilty of that. But at the end of the day action is required, as is the recognition that perhaps 10, 15 or 20 years ago South Africa had the potential to develop a truly pluralistic parliament, but that may no longer be the case.
The election has me thinking about broader questions of what it means to be – perhaps because some (most?) political figures and political parties draw on identity politics to stir up voters. I’ve seen friends post articles about white guilt, middle-class guilt, patriotism, nationalistic pride…and I’ve felt a strong sense of disconnect.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve been trained, through my studies, to be highly critical of emotional connections to identity categories. Perhaps it’s because I’ve struggled, personally, with questions about what it means to belong in various contexts where belonging is so conditional. Perhaps it’s just because I have no soul. Ha.
But in relation to white guilt, or middle class guilt, or other forms of guilt that people assume (or often expect) I should be feeling, I often feel quite perplexed. I don’t take responsibility for the attitudes or behaviours of my ancestors. How can I? I don’t feel obliged to identify in certain ways, although sometimes resisting pressures to conform can be difficult. Am I white? Yes. Do I feel proud about that? No, but I don’t feel ashamed or guilty either. I just am. Do I recognise it gives me privilege? Yes, but I act to remain aware of that – I don’t take on guilt or shame for it. In the same way I don’t feel pride for a national categorisation I don’t feel guilt for a class or race categorisation.
I feel proud of my achievements, and I’m proud of many of my friends and colleagues. But I’m not proud of Nelson Mandela, or Desmond Tutu – how can I be? I admire them hugely, but pride? No – I don’t know them well enough to feel pride on their behalf. I feel guilty about not exercising enough, and about writing this instead of my PhD chapter. But I don’t feel guilt about being labelled and socialised as white, or middle-class. Of course, it’s from a position of privilege that I am able to recognise that. But that’s okay – it doesn’t mean I can’t check my privilege and remain conscious of how I think and behave.
I feel neither proud to be from South Africa nor guilty that I do not espouse the values of nation building. I just am from South Africa and I just have a different set of ethics to a nation building agenda. Does that mean I will deride and dismiss achievements? No. Does that mean I will celebrate the potential of the country? No more than I will celebrate the potential of individuals in other contexts.
So what can I take, then, from these thoughts and feelings at election time? Not the hope that South Africa will enter a new era of prosperity – that will only come with hard work. Definitely not a sense of despondency that it will collapse into anarchy – that will only come when no-one fights for democracy. Certainly not the dream that the country will become great, and wondrous, and all shall feel pride – I have absolutely no desire to be a part of fighting for the development of a nation-based identity.
What I think I can take is the personal reminder that it’s easy to disconnect from the world and to be seduced by the bubble of middle-class seclusion – but that will undermine the ethics to which I try and live up. I can take from my feelings of frustration a reminder that constant action and constant consciousness is required – whether in the form of making decisions about where to shop, what to eat, or how to recycle. That engagement does not begin and end with voting. I can take from it the affirmation that even though I am bound to a national structure I can exercise certain prerogatives to take steps towards living out what I claim to be, and what I think are, my principles.
I can take from it the realisation that even though I voted if I truly believe in progress or change I need to follow-through with constant engagement and action, as exhausting as it may be. And I can take from it the very important recognition that even though I have friends who may not vote I cannot, should not, judge them, for they may be far more engaged with democracy and change in their day-to-day lives than I am.