NEWS & ANALYSIS

Re (shaping) identity in a time of change

Zohra Dawood on the serious questions we're facing about the shape of post-Zuma country and society

Re (shaping) identity in a time of change

19 April 2018

Not since the dawn of democracy in 1994 have South Africans wrestled with the country we do not want, nor agreed so enthusiastically about the necessity for the restoration of political and social cohesion.

The weeks since former President Jacob Zuma’s forced resignation by the ANC have witnessed serious questions about the shape and form of a post-Zuma country and society. 

Despite a bruising battle, President Ramaphosa emerged buoyed to outline a message that it was not business as usual in a country and people battered by corruption, mismanagement and the sale of the family silver. The President articulated his views that he and the government were intent on reigniting growth, rebuilding investor confidence and tackling the myriad of problems from the crisis of unemployment, to broken and bankrupt state-owned companies. The message of the President landed well with business and the markets heaved a sigh of relief. The country was able to fend off a rating downgrade for now. 

While these economic impacts of change are easier to quantify, there resides a range of questions in the complex social and political make-up of South Africa that require thought and work. The last 25 years have witnessed political and racial binaries being supplemented by discourses on class; ethnicity; migrants and non-migrants, urban and rural; workers and bosses - amongst a range of others. Add to this some big problems like poverty, under-education of vast swathes of children across the country, and a R10 billion per month social security bill, and the complexities increase. Heavy on the minds of many South Africans is a recent resolution that the Constitutional Review Committee of the National Assembly review section 25 of the Constitution, which speaks to the right of property ownership. While the motion was predictably led by the EFF, the ANC, with a minor amendment, supported this motion. Proffering - as the motion does - to implement a radical means to effect land reform through expropriation without compensation will corrode the constitutional, economic and social foundations of the country.   

For many, particularly on the left, and largely in the shape of Julius Malema, mobilising on the basis that little has changed, hence the war cries around land, power and privilege, truths may be lost in election politics. Malema predictably used the funeral of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela to vent anger and fury at betrayals past and present. In the words of seasoned journalist, Stephen Grootes, his speech was “about youthful, almost reckless outrage”. President Ramaphosa on the other hand took the opportunity in a speech at the funeral to speak to all South Africans, “we must also recognise our own wounds, we must acknowledge that we are a society that is hurting, damaged by our past, numbed by our present and hesitant about our future. This may explain why we are so easily prone to anger and to violence…Her own wounds made her real and easy to relate to. It’s only when you experience real pain yourself that you can recognise it in others and offer comfort and healing”. 

The sentiment above captures two approaches to how change is both defined and articulated in present day South Africa and crucially, what might be the necessary conditions for the country of our dreams. Richard Poplak, writing in the Daily Maverickon 16 April 2018, eloquently captures the responses to the death of Winnie Madikezela-Mandela’s death by writing that many are trying, “…to make sense of how political interpretations of her legacy are playing out across our national imaginarium”. He adds that “she passed away during a vital inflection point in history: in the middle of a land debate that will define the course of the next generation; in the middle of the forensic accounting of Jacob Zuma’s pitiful State Capture mess; in the middle of the first blush of the coalition era; in the middle of a re-upped bout of racial discord...” The key question in the light of what Poplak refers to as the inflection point in South Africa’s history, based not only on a singular apartheid narrative but corruption, state capture and reckless governance and government, begs the question of how political and social identities shift and evolve over time, based on changing sets of realities.                        

Perhaps in a more philosophical vein, it would behove us as a country to pause and reflect on the Ship of Theseus, to grapple with how we understand change and its impact on our lives. The story of the Ship of Theseus is well captured in a Wikipedia article on identity and change and goes as follows: in ancient times, there was a ship, called the ‘Theseus’ after its famous former owner. As the years wore on, the Theseus started getting weak and cranky. The old boards were removed, put into a warehouse, and replaced with new ones. Then, the masts started tottering, and soon they, too, were ware housed and replaced. And, in this way, after 50 years, this ship now has all new boards, masts, and everything. The question then arises: Is that ship in the harbour, now called S2, the same ship as the one that was in the harbour 50 years ago (called S1 for convenience). In other words, is S2 really the ‘Theseus’? 

Perhaps the question is that of whether we are the same country 25 years later, and, like the Ship of Theseus, change is key for our collective survival. President Ramaphosa emphasised at the funeral of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, “you can’t stay wounded; we have to heal”, which may just be the sagest advice going forward as a country.        

By Ms Zohra Dawood, Director, Centre for Unity in Diversity, 19 April 2018