Nation-building, community-building…or pulling down statues?

I am not ignorant of history, but actually fully mindful of it. Any knee-jerk response to this post will start with that sort of accusation, closely followed by the admonishment that I am being dismissive because I am not from here (therefore don’t ‘get it’), and disrespectful even (according to some)- I should be more ‘grateful’, and so on… 

However, I write about these issues precisely because I do ‘get it’ – both because I am not from here, and because I have spent time (in formal study like politics, peace studies, etc; and informally, reading between the lines in conversations and media coverage, with my inborn scepticsm) peeling back the layers of taken-for-granted culture…to examine the ‘power behind discourse’ which shapes all we hear and (if we digest it mindlessly) what we end up thinking. 

For this reason I insist on plunging into the murky waters of myth, nation-building and nationality in general, to see if I can point out some of the rotting corpses hidden under there, and hopefully instigate some dredging or clearing of these waters… Inviting scorn and ire, perhaps, but disclaimers now thoroughly set aside, Here I go again…

With the much-heralded approach of Anzac Day here in Australia, I must say its a relief to realise we will be on our holiday overseas, missing all the endless carry-on: mock religious ceremonies in every RSL dotted around the country, with politicians making an appearance almost everywhere- appropriating the day to somehow support whatever latest bit of policy they need support for…

All this is packaged strategically in endless  nauseating hours of coverage by the obedient media myth makers, and digested en masse, it seems, by an Australian public- hungry for meaning and affirmation.

This has to be the best day in the National calendar for the PR industry, spin doctors and the like… Not to mention those powerful vested interests in the background with an agenda: military-industrial or otherwise – which needs to convert each successive generation to its cause. Before they’re left alone for long enough to question.

It could also, slightly more positively, be seen as the best or most obvious exercise in Nation-building that I have yet encountered. Nation-building (the term and the process) can itself be seen negatively (as in, the spin doctors and propaganda refered to above); or positively (as the building of an over-arching narrative that binds many people together into a ‘nation’, with shared interests and pursuits).

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Let’s try to focus on its positive potential for the rest of this post –

So imagine with me for a moment, that Nation-building could be the intentional and thoughtful building of a positive, inclusive, visionary, peaceful and sustainable vision of and for our Nation (a sort of meta-community, made of many communities). 

In other words, a Nation-building ‘myth’ at best, is a ‘STORY’ about who we all are, where we have all come from, and where we would like to go/ what we would like to build together.  

This would actually more closely resemble community building, at its best – ie bottom-up (organically nurtured from grassroots level), not top-down (enforced by elite through propaganda in media and education). 

This would be Nation-building which celebrates our diversity and draws from our many varied strengths; which encourages and strengthens a nation to work together in difficult times; and which gives meaning and purpose to our shared lives and pursuits…

I would like to think the ‘Anzac’ myth has had (at some times and in some ways) this empowering and inspiring role in shaping the Australian ‘nation’ and identity… Despite my barely restrained sarcasm at this rampant ‘nationalism’ (the destructive, divisive sort); and the nausea-inducing hours of government and media platitudes it inspires… (but more about its latent potential later…)

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Across the Indian ocean, however, (where we head on our holiday soon to introduce family and friends to our two young children)….

South Africa has no strong, easily discernible or well-articulated Nation-building myths left for the disparate communities to gather around for much flag-waving and cheering… 

And from what I am hearing of late, they could really use some good old-fashioned ‘ra-ra-ra’ to hype up the crowds and raise morale – which is at an all time low, I am told, for those dealing with the endless power cuts, high crime rates, unimproved housing, rampant poverty, government corruption, etc.!!

In our time in South Africa, however, I doubt there will be any pomp and ceremony to celebrate or reinforce (and make real in each new generation’s consciousness) the myths of national identity, or to illustrate again the imperative of remaining ‘loyal’ to these myths….

The old myths were too elitist (encompassing only the white, or more specifically, Afrikaner nation, their identity, history and accompanying myths) – and therefore, of necessity, died with the fall of apartheid. It seems, to a ‘disinherited’ (that’s a long story for another day but clue: it involves that blasted ID book they’re far too keen on!) once-South African like me though, that no new and compelling overarching narrative has emerged in the over twenty years since the new ‘democracy’ was born.

The leaders, such as they are, have simply been too busy filling their own pockets to bother with such intangibles as ‘Nation-building’… But perhaps this could be turned around and viewed as a positive thing- upon re-examination of my definition of what a ‘healthy’ form of Nation-building would look like, I am reminded that bottom-up is better anyway (as in, real and lasting, community-building)…

But sadly, the recent furore over the Rhodes statue, and its subsequent felling, shows South Africa, at a grassroots level, seems still very much occupied with ever more futile attempts at tearing down traces of its past, rather than building a future and a nation (this time hopefully encompassing all who live in it, if such a thing has ever been possible anywhere…?) 

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Now back to the Australian Nation-building process and its myths: the Anzac legend is as exclusive and divisive as it is ‘Nation-building’- in a country where more than half the population now has one or more parents born overseas…. But there may still be room for modification and expansion of its basic tenets, and greater inclusiveness as a result…

For example, the arrival of the first fleet in Australia was long celebrated without any thought for the pain it caused to aboriginal people each year… Whereas now we have national ‘sorry day’ and other campaigns to attempt to balance out the narrative and celebrations around this day; and find better ways to navigate the troubled history it relates to. 

In a similar manner, all these world war ‘commemorations’ need to be expanded to include the full truth about war- as experienced by all sides-  and to enable a deeper, more inclusive and more lasting vision of the Australian Nation, past and present, to emerge. 

(eg the cynical use of whole generations of young men as cannon fodder, simply to achieve the shady agendas of the elite in power on all sides of the conflicts. Then, as now, the masses are lied to, indoctrinated, and then sacrificed for the sake of vested interest, NOT ‘the greater good’. Always. This seems to always be the core truth in some form in any war… But here I digress… )

However I can’t even begin to imagine what South Africa’s new, inclusive, empowering and forward-looking nationbuilding myth would or could or should look like… I leave this up to those still living there; to those engaged and enmeshed in the actual community (or more accurately, many interlinked and intertwined communities around the country); to those invested in the actual process and direct beneficiaries of its outcomes …

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