A Bag of Broken Glass.

One hilarious question is often asked by those wealthy South Africans who are paid by our corporate kleptocracy to pretend that they are pundits: why are South Africans so divided, what ever happened to the glorious idealistic unity of the Rainbow Nation? The question is purely rhetorical, since these affluent imbeciles answer it by identifying whatever demons their paymasters expect them to provide. It is also preposterous. There is not now, and never has been, a Rainbow Nation; the very concept was a pure product of the liberal delusions which, sadly, came to dominate the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and discourage it from taking meaningful action.

Instead, South Africa was, is, and apparently will be, a hideously fragmented society.

This is not extraordinarily surprising. Our community is numerically dominated by an African majority, which is itself divided into ten cultural minorities, some of whose languages are not mutually intelligible and some of whom are physically distinguishable in appearance. There is, however, a large minority divided into three main ethnic groupings, the “coloureds”, the indians and the whites. These ethnic groupings are also divided culturally and linguistically, and there are further internal divisions here, especially between Muslim and Hindu indians and between Afrikaans and English whites (with the whites of Jewish origin providing yet another minority division in that community). In addition to these divisions, there are broader religious divisions between Christians and animists, and between the different Christian churches.

Add to this mix the fact that we are one of the most economically divided countries in the world, with a small wealthy minority and a huge impoverished majority, and you can see that any attempt to unite the country around a single dogma or institution would have a lot of work on its hands.

However, the alert reader will have already noticed an elephant in this not very large living-room. The elephant answers to the name of Colonialism And Apartheid, which is an invidious name for an elephant, but it is a bad-tempered pachyderm if ever there was one. This is, of course, the elephant which the pundits are doing their best to camouflage. It is not a very good best, but luckily those South Africans whom the kleptocracy consider the ones who count have their eyes screwed tightly shut.

The purpose of colonialism and apartheid in South Africa was to control the activities of the majority of the population in the interests of a minority, or rather of a minority of that minority claiming to act in the interests of the minority. The method which was used, from early on, was fragmentation. The Dutch were separate from the dark-skinned slaves, and when the Dutch moved into the interior it was considered undesirable to promote the inevitable miscegenation which came with the shortage of women, in a community which was not enslaved. (Of course miscegenation and even population blending took place to some extent among the “trekboers”.)

Then came the English, who were at pains to distinguish themselves from the Dutch, and who, in “freeing” the slaves, were at pains to distinguish them on racial grounds from white people. And, of course, to distinguish the africans from everyone else; the English had the bright idea of promoting conflict between the newly-invented ethnic group of coloureds, and the relatively recently-discovered ethnic group of africans, conscripting coloureds into the military in the Kat River Settlement; later, of course, they also discovered the advantages of co-opting africans into their own communities (especially, apparently, the “Mfengu”). The English also drew a distinction between the Zulus, whom they defined as noble savages, and the Xhosa (whom they were the first to call “Kafirs”) whom they defined as ignoble and dishonest — though good enough as cheap labour for the new cities.

The Boers, oddly enough, did not seem to divide people in quite the same way, oppressing the africans almost universally. (On the other hand, they had divided themselves, between the Afrikaans-speakers who remained in the Cape and those who had moved to what became the Boer Republics.) The English duly imported indians to work the sugar-cane plantations and thus developed yet another source of division, a racial group particularly resented by the locals excluded from this labour, and even more resented because the indians rapidly made use of their imperial contacts to raise themselves above the level of the Natal africans.

And then, of course, came the rapid rise of the capitalist and financier class in South Africa, the Randlords and the agricultural barons, and the resentment which the white working class felt equally for them and for the africans who were willing to work for less pay.

All this before the Boer War, which reduced the Boers to the status of hopelessly crushed peons in their own country, after which they were restored to the status of a subordinate class, the enforcers and junior administrators for the English-speaking whites, all of which they of course resented. No sooner had this boiling pot of mutual resentments and anger been established, becoming ever more vigorous as the suppressed ethnic and linguistic groups one by one grew to recognise how badly they had been treated and strike for better conditions — no sooner was the trouble at its peak, than the British Empire blithely announced that this recipe for factionalism was now a Union, and everything was all right, on the same model as Australia and Canada.

At least in Canada the British had overcome the hostility of a single group of ethnic dissidents, the French Canadians. In South Africa the situation was like a dozen very angry cats in a sack. The racial and class divisions built into the Union Constitution, and the lack of enthusiasm for the Empire felt by almost everybody except a few weak-minded English settlers, did not help matters. Even before Union, there had been sputterings of rebellion among the Zulus, led by the half-hearted rebel Bambatha. Four years after Union the Afrikaners again struck for independence. Within a few years there was the Rand Revolt of the whites, the Bondelswaart uprising in South-West Africa, and the millennial activities among the africans (shades of Nongqawuse) which were savagely repressed, as at Bulhoek.

And then, just to improve all this situation, came the gradual hardening of the white racist line which flowered into apartheid and the active division of the society into more than a dozen ethnic groups, each with its own administration, many supposedly with their own national identity, and simultaneously a mighty clampdown upon social democracy of any kind.

Look back on all this, on colonialism and apartheid and all that they have wrought, and you can see that South Africa is not really a country at all. It is a sack filled with the broken fragments of nations, the most recently broken of which was the doomed dream of Afrikaner oligarchy. Superficially it seems to hold together, but the fragments are sharp and it is perfectly possible that the sack will prove too weak to hold them together.

It is possible to exaggerate this, of course. We may remember the fond determination of white South Africans to pretend that the state-sponsored terrorism run by Inkatha was actually ethnic violence between Zulus and Xhosas. (Of course the violence was not especially between Zulus and Xhosas, and indeed Zulus and Xhosas have not historically been particularly hostile to one another.) This led to the belief that Natal was going to secede from the rest of South Africa. This did not happen because nobody had the faintest desire to accomplish it. Nor was there a racial bloodbath after 1994, as white racists across the world had predicted.

On the other hand, the political divide between the ANC and the DA is very largely a divide between white and african. (Interestingly, the DA has managed conflict between English and Afrikaans speakers much better than the old National Party did, but this is probably because both parties are afraid of the ANC and thus are more willing to compromise than before.) This is true in virtually every province as well as at national level. Granted, indians and coloureds are not so ethnically loyal, and they also don’t have their own parties (the Minority Front is more a joke than anything else). There are provincial parties based in tribal groups, but apart from Inkatha they don’t amount to much.

Class conflict, too, has been managed — largely by pretending that it does not exist. Because classes have virtually no contact with each other, and don’t much want to contact each other (since the africans are mostly poor and the whites mostly rich, and coloureds and indians tend to be better off than the rest, the class divide is also largely an ethnic divide, which helps to obfuscate it and paradoxically reduce conflict; as in Latin America the rich are almost literally on a different plane from the poor). Very probably, factors such as black economic empowerment and affirmative action, although not massively significant in changing the balance of economic power, have the paradoxical effect of heightening class conflict . When africans see other africans, with no conspicuous virtue other than the right social or political connections, getting rich, wealth becomes an accessible goal and a source of resentment.

Hence, these conflicts are on the rise. They are not expressed so coherently. In many cases, for instance, they are canalised into xenophobia, mainly against Somalians for some reason, although Zimbabweans, who have flooded the country as Zimbabwe has declined, also face a great deal of criticism. When the affluent public notices the existence of xenophobia, it congratulates itself that it is not itself xenophobia (not, of course, being threatened by the growing threat of joblessness which is attributed — not always falsely — to a flood of foreigners).

One of the biggest tragedies of the Mbeki government was that it never really came up with a unifying system of beliefs and values for the country. Nascent in the idea of mutual socio-economic growth under the umbrella of the values of the Constitution was, surely, the possibility of a huge political movement which everyone could participate in. This idea certainly drove much of the rhetoric, and even some of the action, of the Mbeki government. But it was never participational. There has never been a serious effort to get the public to transcend their individual desires and take on the formidable problem of solving the national crisis, of all pulling together as one. Yet something like this was not only logical, given that the problems were indeed huge — it was desirable, given the fractured state of our society.

Mbeki and company fled from the idea. Conceivably it was just anathema to their centralised, technocratic approach to society. However, it is also possible that they did not believe that it was practical. There is, after all, a much more powerful counterforce working against this — the notion of selfish individualism, of suspicion of each other based on what a threat we might pose to each other. This is the neoliberal view of society, and it dominates the media and the public discourse despite all insincere appeals to the mythology of “ubuntu”. It is also the force which encourages people to move from their lack of identification with others, to the active attack on others which is crime, or tribalism, or racism, or corruption. The “Moral Regeneration Movement” hypocritically led by the crooked philanderer Jacob Zuma was supposed to deal with this, but since South Africans do not have any shared set of morals or values, and little or no willingness to make sacrifices in order to establish one, the MRM was merely a farcical sham.

As a result we rattle around in our sack, slashing at each other with fragments of our nationalisms — potentially vulnerable to any ur-fascist charlatan, or any overfunded and well-publicised fixer, who claims to have an answer to the problems we dare not even begin to understand.


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