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

On Mandela day…each year, I wonder what that strong, determined, visionary and unifying leader would have to say about our country now?


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.!!

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’ once-South African like me though (that’s a long story for another day but clue: it involves that blasted ID book they’re far too keen on!), 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…?)

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 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 …

However, I do feel I can point in the general direction to be taken- or what the process should look like:

(And here I am drawing from the fields of peace studies, communications, political science and preferred futures thinking, particularly the practice of ‘back-casting’)

..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. 

.. plunging into the murky waters of myth, nation-building and nationality in general, to see if we can point out some of the rotting corpses hidden under there, and hopefully instigate some dredging or clearing of these waters…

..imagining what a brighter, happier future might look like, and planning the steps required to get there…

In other words: reshaping outdated myths, discarding what is unhelpful or unhealthy – and creating new, hopeful and inclusive stories together. Meaning, purpose and vision are ours for the making!!

Let the conversations begin!!

Comments and discussion welcomed

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