LET’S TALK ABOUT IDENTITY – In Pursuit of the South African Dream: The George Botha Memorial Lecture, South End Museum, Port Elizabeth, 27 July 2017.

by Barney Pityana

I am honoured and humbled by the invitation to deliver this year’s George Botha Memorial Lecture, sponsored by the South End Museum. Dimza and I regret that circumstances were such that we could not present ourselves to deliver this lecture as originally scheduled on 11 May 2017. It was a disappointment to us as I am sure to many that on that occasion we could not make it to Port Elizabeth. We are delighted that the Trustees of the South End Museum decided to reschedule the lecture in order to make it possible for us to be here in person. Thank you to all of you for attending.

I am grateful also to the Botha Family (Pralene, and Lyle, remembering also the late Garth) for lending George’s name to this lecture. To his widow and to their children I am here to honour them too for their endurance, so that we may today celebrate George as a hero of our struggle. We thank God for the diligence and for keeping the faith in the struggle for justice that George died for. By his torture and murder the police may have believed that they could extinguish the flame that was burning bright, instill fear in the communities and ultimately lord it over all black people for ever. They were wrong. Today, one by one, they are no more. Apartheid, too, is a mere blot in our history. But George who was dead lives among us in the work that we do in a democratic South Africa.

Of course, as many of you know Port Elizabeth is my home. The memory of South End, of 1976, and of George Botha evoke circumstances of struggle – the struggle singularly framed around the end of apartheid, and the affirmation of human values regardless of race or colour, and to restore the beauty of our common humanity. At South End was a community of all races and creeds and colours, a bustling cosmopolitan area of shops, and cafes, of tailors, and tradesmen, and shoemakers. Of mosques and churches, and cinemas, and other places of entertainment; of schools, and sports clubs. South End was the heart of Port Elizabeth – right near the docks, cheek by jowl with the city centre. South End was Port Elizabeth. People lived in this place, though, in the circumstances of pervasive discrimination, they lived as full lives as they could.

It may sound like I am being nostalgic about a long-lost golden age, or idyllic era. Of course, South End like any human habitation had its dark side. In some ways it was a crowded place according to my childhood memory, grim and yet vibrant and full of life. There surely was crime and violence, and even racial conflict and intolerance. Yes, there was exploitation in the manner that South Africa was. What is important, though, is that none of that defined what the place was. What defined it was the people, living ordinary lives. It was a place where people engaged with one another as human beings. That vibrant image of being human is what posed a threat to apartheid. Apartheid would that we were less than human; that we defined ourselves in terms of race or language or religion. That which was normal apartheid sought to render it abnormal. The essence of who we were was diminished. As was the case in District 6, or Fordsburg or Sophiatown, or Cato manor, anywhere else wherever human communities were defining themselves, setting their own standards of conduct, apartheid sought to separate and destroy. South End was demolished, people were scattered – and the dream and the course of nature disrupted. Friends were separated. New places of racialised habitation sprouted as if from nowhere: Gelvandale, KwaZakhele, Malabar – new names that shot right out of the apartheid bible.

Not even 20 years later Soweto erupted, in 1976. A new generation of South Africans rose up in revolt. A generation of students and pupils who challenged the apartheid educational system, rejected the definitions of their humanity by the “system”. Language was a trigger but not the substance of the revolt. George was a teacher at Patterson High School at the time. He felt the pain of the students he taught, shared their revulsion of the system of dehumanization, recognized the source and the justification for their anger, and he stood with them as they faced police brutality. For that he paid the ultimate price.

I was a candidate attorney in Port Elizabeth at the time. I was banned and my movement and activities were restricted. Our law practice was involved in defending many of the students who were arrested, and we appeared in defence in many of the cases at the time, as did many black attorneys at the time. The security police in Port Elizabeth were very vigilant and brutal – detentions without trial were commonplace. Torture was necessary to induce a climate of fear. It was as if we lived under siege. The more students, and teachers, ministers of religion and other professionals were arrested and detained, the more protests spread and defiance rose. Townships were places under occupation.

The witness of students in the Black Consciousness Movement was to dare and to challenge the forces of occupation, defy them and counter the evil of dehumanization. At universities, George was among the activists in SASO at UWC, and as a teacher he brought with him a vision of the teacher as an enabler or facilitator of human dignity, progress and development. The teacher was a participant in the peoples’ struggles, and never a mere observer or spectator. Academics and intellectuals in the community were being challenged to take their place as a part of the spirit of the people who yearned for freedom. Thus it was that teachers, ministers of religion, doctors and pharmacists were targeted. In detention George would have been at the mercy of the security police. He died at the hands of the police, and for which they must bear full responsibility.

There are other reasons that I mention both SASO, and that I also wish to draw attention to the significance of Port Elizabeth in history. SASO and BCM led the way in re-defining the politics of resistance in South Africa. BCM defined the black experience not so much in racial terms but in terms of solidarity born out of a common experience of oppression. In other words, it was self-defining more in terms of undermining that which the ‘system’ sought to achieve. It was a mental revolt and as rejection of all that apartheid believed that it could manipulate, separate and divide. Black solidarity defined blackness as a lived experience that required a common strategy. Thus it was that under the SASO lexicon the apartheid categories of classification: bantu, coloured, Indian, were subverted. Instead we referred to all who suffered discrimination as Black. Blackness thus gained political potency. Black Consciousness avoided definition in racial terms. It spoke about “ a state of mind… a philosophy of life.” This self-definition had the effect of rattling the apartheid norms as it shifted the centre of gravity from race as physical signifiers of being, to a common oppression as a signifier of common action, resistance and praxis. To be Black was to commit to resist all that sought to control, define and subjugate. Blackness had a transcendental value that transformed colour and race and reached deep to a common humanity, and human experience.

Port Elizabeth and the surrounding Zuurberg regions around here had earned a name in history as a place of resistance. To the settlers, both Dutch trekboers and the British settlers later, it was a colonial frontier, but to the indigenous people, it was a place of encounter, and of resistance. It was this meeting-place of cultures and peoples, that shaped the destinies of peoples and changed the history of South Africa for ever. It was as much a place of encounter, of accommodation and hospitality, as much as it was a place of strife and contestation. This is the part of the world where fierce resistance was waged by the Khoi and the San people, often in alliance with the Xhosa chieftains, to resist land dispossession by the settler communities, and the depletion of livestock. There was as much a clash of cultures and religions and philosophies of life, as there was a struggle for understanding and common living. And yet, this is the place where through migration, conquest, and by inter-marriage communities were forged. It is in the Eastern Cape that hospitality was extended and people were rescued after shipwrecks, and explorers were given homes, land, cattle and wives.

It is to leaders of the resistance from here like Dawid Stuurman, Maqoma, Makhanda who waged relentless struggles and ended up on Robben Island that we owe much of the defining character of the Eastern Cape. Those struggles, I submit, were never about narrow racialist, or ethnic definitions. They were about self-determination and the freedom to grow and develop freely as human beings, to move and roam freely according to the spirit, without land that is fenced up and where ownership ideas were alien. The mountains and the seas, the animals of the wild were there to coexist with the human. The stranger and the alien likewise was meant to be part of that reality. It was a resistance against the assault on the African personality and ways of being, and values, and history. It was to allow the civilizing values inherent in all humanity to flourish.

I am proud to say that Xhosa people and the people of the Eastern Cape, black or white, can never justifiably claim to be a pure race, of whatever. We are all people drawn from a mixture of races, and cultures and languages. Among Xhosa groups “nation” or tribe takes on a variety of meanings but suggests no consistency, or even custom. Communities formed allegiances and loyalties according to a variety of factors, and none of them were permanent. Groups were formed and unformed, and there was never a successful attempt to create ‘one-nation’ out of many. That is why in the Xhosa language are to be found the languages and dialects of the indigenous San and Khoi people, the settler Dutch, and many of the strandlopers who roamed the coastal belt hunting and gathering. A human community was formed and shaped by the circumstances and the environment that they found themselves in. That is not to say that communities did not form allegiances and built a body of lore and custom, or ways of being over a long time that kept them together in filial bonds and loyalties. In the history of the Eastern Cape, however, such communities were just as amenable to breaking up and reformed.

Sociologists rightly point out that identities are very much a part of what human beings are. Likewise human beings use certain identifiers to form perceptions about others. By the way, race, colour etc are simply one out of many of such identifiers. German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies, writing in 1887, developed a socio-analytical tool for understanding society. This was followed refined by Max Weber in his book, Economy and Society (1921). Tonnies used the twin expressions, gemeinschaft (community) and gesellschaft (society) to explain the dynamics of society. Gemeinschaft is expressed in personal and social ties, and in-person interactions drawing from traditional social rules as a means of social organization, that is, the way in which society consciously organizes itself. This could be said to be expected in a rural society. In this situation the rules and moral codes are familial, personal. In other words in this we find people identifying themselves at a micro level. This led to a degree of social obligation towards those one knows, and expectations are shared and honoured. Gesellschaft, on the other hand, is society at a higher level as may be found in urban and perhaps more industrialised societies. Even in this one, it is possible for the same adherents in gemeinschaft to be equally driven by gesselschaft in their interactions with other differently organized communities. Weber’s suggestion is that the bonds shaped by gemeinschaft are emotional and personal, but in gesellschaft are rational, and have to do with self-interest, and project a common result. I draw on this simply to point out that social organization does not simply depend on a linear categorization, and social organization has a variety of precepts, and bonds of kinship or other expressions of fealty are not dependent solely on kinship, or colour. Ultimately, I am making the point that all human beings occupy a variety of axes of identity, and that identities are susceptible to change.

1994, then, brought about the fulfillment of all those struggles. That was after years of being fed the diet of race and tribal difference throughout the time that South Africa was occupied by European settlers. The culmination of this systemic under-valuation and mis-representation, was the apartheid system wherein such perceptions were fixed into a legal system as a means of control. The struggle for freedom was meant to fight against exactly such a lie.

The Preamble to the Constitution (1996) rightly recalls the struggles of the past as constitutive of the democracy that we have achieved, almost as if to say that without the sacrifices of many, the nature and the texture of our democracy might have been vastly different. At the heart of that Constitution is the affirmation, with echoes of the Freedom Charter (1955), that We, the people of South Africa…believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity…”

“Belonging” is a very evocative expression. It speaks of a claim that we all share together. Belonging is not simply about ownership in an exclusive sense. It talks more about it being home, a place of existence, a sphere of being. In other words apartheid denied the existence, and therefore belonging of a large segment of the population of this country. It sought to make the vast majority landless and homeless. The Constitution marks the big claim of belonging. This belonging is not a gift or a favour, it is of God, given by divine providence. The obligation, further, is that those of us who belong dare never deny others their own belonging in the same way that apartheid sought to do. It is an undertaking that never again will it be said that race would be the qualification or signifier of destiny or privilege, or entitlement, or benefit.

The Constitution further frames the character and nature of our democracy as founded on the value of “non-racialism…” among others. Again, the reference to the founding “values” is inspired. It suggests that at the heart of or the constitutive element of our democracy is not race but values, rather in the manner of geselleschaft. Values refer to a standard of being human, a way of life, or the means by which people find their shared or common essence. That essence of our being is “human dignity, the achievement of equality, and the advancement of human rights and freedoms” (s. 1(a)). The negative descriptor non, placed against racialism is interesting. The drafters of the Constitution, I suggest, were not denying “race”, but “racialism”, that is, an ideology that essentialises race and on the basis of which decisions and judgments are made about people and their destiny. The only unfortunate effect of this formulation, is that it ends up emphasizing that which it seeks to undermine, that is, race.

Well, today, some 21 years since the adoption of that Constitution, we find that there are protests against the appointment of school principals in some areas because they were not Coloured, or we find other forms of protests suggesting that “Coloured” people were not white enough under the apartheid and that they are not “black’ enough in the new South Africa. Today we find the emergence of new “nationalisms” and ethnic chauvinism. Tribalism suddenly becomes a value to be cherished in the prevailing circumstances. Suddenly new chiefs are emerging and claiming recognition – and they seem to have followers! There is a resuscitation even of Khoi and San identities that were long lost, perhaps. New forms of ethnic pride are emerging. We are moving away from that sentiment expressed by former President Thabo Mbeki when he made a claim about that common African, “I am an African…” These days we desire to be less and less inclusive, and we define ourselves in more and more micro levels, gemeinschaft. We lay claim to meaningless concepts like race, tribe, ethnic – and we have even used them as classifiers of value, meaning and privilege., as if, in Steve Biko’s language, that culture can be arrested or stilled like the Mona Lisa in a certain age and time. We have become sentimental instead of rational about belonging. It has become the means of social stratification. Yes, we seem to have quickly forgotten the “never, never, and never again…” speech by Nelson Mandela at his inauguration as President in 1994.

Scientists tell us that the categorization by race has no meaning. It has no meaning scientifically. It is a mere figment of the imagination because throughout history nations and empires were formed and shaped by migration and conquest, through trade and commerce, through communities mixing and through inter-marriage. South Africa is no different, even as Disraeli hooted, “All is race; there is no other truth,” he was undermining the truth about what defines human beings. Race may well serve as a minimalist means of classification, or differentiation (should it be necessary?), but actually physical appearances are misleading because much of how we are and how we behave towards one another develops by social formation, history, or even some environmental factors. Ethnic identity, by my reckoning, is mythical or artificial. It is formed largely in order to make a political statement, or to maintain or to achieve a form of power.

And yet, despite all the evidence that there is, people still have a propensity to organize themselves according to forms of classification and alleged identifiers that are thought to have potency. In reality, such communities are coming together less because they have a common belonging defined in race terms, but rather because they have a common cause or grievance that propels them to presume to act in a common interest. The problem strategically is that the less one defines oneself, the less one draws on the solidarity that is not necessarily formed by what we believe alike about one another. It may well be that whatever common features we believe we share, are not a necessary condition that we should agree about the same outcomes., or about the causes. To rely on ethnic or race solidarity is to live in a fool’s paradise!

We must, I think, bemoan the development in our days of the politics of narrow chauvinistic, tribal or ethnic identities. In truth human beings hold a variety of competing identities all at the same time. As humans we move and navigate different identities with ease. There can be no fixed identity. British ethicist, Kenan Malik says that such identities emerge whenever people lose the vision that is value-based, universal, expansive, and all-encompassing. It happens also, he says, as a response to deteriorating politics when “old politics have become senile and corrupted… people are disaffected with the old order.” The new opposition movements that give voice to that disaffection are often rooted in religious or ethnic identity and separatist groups.

Whenever the universalist vision, or the grand narrative of a new world of equality, and human rights for all appears no longer achievable, people resort to identity politics without realizing that they too are meaningless and unachievable. In other words, to use the expression by Karlin Merle, constitutionalism must not cause people to have such expectations that they cease to revolt or to struggle, as if the Constitution will do it all. It will not. The tendency then is to extol “difference” rather than pursue a uniting and all-embracing vision of the world, and in doing so to blame others. There is the enhancement of identities and ‘own cultures’, and withdrawal from the common humanity theme. In fact, Jacoby says, “difference has become … the ideology of an era without ideology…” Solidarity that is minimized can hardly be called solidarity and can never achieve what it sets out to do.

I firmly believe that now is not the time when we lose the elevated vision, and the idealism that propelled this nation to resist apartheid. I submit that like never before we need to affirm those universal truths and together fight all forms of injustice or discrimination. Together we must hold fast to the vision of a new South Africa founded on the core values of human dignity, equality and social justice. These are the values that should produce forms of solidarity that will undermine those that seek to exploit our differences, and exploit our common resources. I would warn against the fig leaf resort to racial chauvinism, or to recall a once-glorious past as if there has not been years of cultural and political evolution. For example, South End as it was will never be ever again. Instead, we can find the South Ends as a vision of espoused in our Constitution, and in the oath we may take never again that apartheid chauvinism will come to life. We need a new solidarity movement based on moral values. By so doing we shall together we shall realize the lofty vision of the Constitution.

Joel Netshitendze, in a recent essay, Interrogating Race in Public Policy (2015), and quoting Michael Dyson, has a message for our times: “The moment we shatter those artificial encumbrances of race – a stereotype from without or rigid archetype from within – and feel no need to respond to either is the moment we are vastly improved, profoundly human and therefore become the best black people we can become. And we maximize our humanity… the greater we maximize our humanity the greater our blackness becomes…” (in The Colour of our Future: Does race matter in post-apartheid South Africa? 2015; Wits Press107-132).

This is a very important essay that interrogates the state of our nation and how we got to be here. In this essay Netshitendze is wrestling with how the ideals of our Constitution can be expressed better in public policy and how these can better our common lives together. I daresay that if we embrace this vision, then the death of George Botha shall not have been in vain.

Thank you.

**Prof Pityana is the Projects Advisor and a Member of the Advisory Council at the Thabo Mbeki Fooundation.

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