Themes: Our Creativy Diversity
A new global ethics
A commitment to pluralism
Challenges of a media-rich world
recasting cultural policies
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South Africa as a Global Pathfinder in Cultural Pluralism

Allister Sparks
Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, South Africa

real audio fileAs we draw to the close of this terrible century in which the human species, at the peak of its sophistication and enlightenment, has inflicted more atrocities upon its own kind and upon the global environment than ever before in history, it is up to us to reflect on what caused such aberrant behaviour and what the new century may bring.

Looking back, two things stand out above all others as having shaped human history in the twentieth century. One is the development of science, and with it the technology of killing. The other is ideology. For this has been a century of great ideological conflicts, from the Russian Revolution onwards, that altered the lives of nearly all mankind, that threw up totalitarian tyrannies of both left and right and led to great explosions of nationalism and racism and the genocidal slaughter of millions of people.

pijltje_beneden.gif (179 bytes) november 9, 1996
A commitmnet to pluralism
Introduction (Dragan Klaic)
Allister Sparks
Josette Feral
Discussion panel
pijltje.gif (179 bytes) A new global ethics
pijltje.gif (179 bytes) Challenges of a media-rich world
General Introduction

It was a century in which people were seized by the notion that they could, and should, create the perfect state. On the face of it, this seems like a noble pursuit, and indeed the desire to bring about the rational reorganization of society in the hope of making the world a better place has been the driving force behind all human progress since the beginning of time. But there is a curious ambiguity here. Take idealism one step further and it crosses a fine line into the realm of ideological fanaticism, where it has been the driving force behind some of mankind's most monstrous atrocities.

It is the vision of social perfection that is the bedeviling factor. For if I have the answer to achieving the perfect society, the final solution to the attainment of security and happiness for all mankind for all time, then I dare not let you stand in the way of that. The interests of all humanity require that I must eliminate you or 100,000 of you, or 6 million. If one really believes that such a perfect solution is possible, then no price can be too high to achieve it: no amount of cruel torture, incarceration or elimination. An end so sublime must justify all means. It is unthinkable that one might permit opposition to its achievement. That was the vision of Lenin, of Trotsky, of Stalin, of Hitler, of Mao, of Pol Pot - and even, to some extent, of Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid.

Now, as the old century ends and the new one draws near, we must try to assess what changes, if any, are in the air. What are the trends that may give us a clue as to what the stigmata of the twenty-first century may be?

The first thing to note is that the power of ideological conviction is waning. There is a realization that the notion of an ideal world is an illusion; that there can be no Utopia, either of the left or the right, and with that we have entered a new phase of pragmatism. There is a merging of philosophies of the left and the right into a broad centralism which seems to accept that the best we can do is adjust pragmatically to the realities of the moment.

Globalization itself is an unequal and asymmetrical process. Nor does it diminish the uncertainty, insecurity and entropy of the world system. It is awareness of this that has led to reactions. There are the resurgent assertions of peoples and their leaders in the post-Cold War world, mainly in Central and Eastern Europe, but elsewhere also.

Report 'Our Creative Diversity'

But as Utopianism declines, so does its bedmate, idealism. What we are left with is a rather flat thing, not something to crusade and if need be to die for. Certainly not something to inspire the idealistic youth. They are unlikely to be satisfied with it for long. So new forms of idealism, and ideology, may arise before the new century is too far advanced, but of that we have no clues yet.

What we do have clear pointers to is the communications and transportation revolution and its implications, which is surely going to be the main factor that will give shape to at least the first half of the twenty-first century.

The concept of the 'global village' has already become a cliche in our time. It is, of course, not a village at all in any sociological sense, for the notion of a village implies an intimacy of relationships where everyone knows everyone else and where mutual sympathy and support are the norms. The new world of international business is a cold, lonely, cut-throat place where every individual is out for himself and mutual sympathy and support are minimal.

It is a place where individual security and cultural identity are going to come increasingly under threat. Huge trading blocs, transnational businesses and the spread of global products are going to blur national boundaries to an extent that the nation-state as we know it may cease to exist. While the spread of pop culture through the international entertainment and fast-food industries, the dominance of international television news networks, and the growth of English as the single international language, are all combining to obliterate local cultures - and with that, cultural values and ultimately cultural identity.

In many lands there has been a convulsive ingathering, a return to past traditions and a reaction towards tribalism. We are witnessing religious revivalism everywhere: Islamic in the Muslim world, evangelical Christian fundamentalism not only in the United States, but also in East Asia, Africa and Latin America. Hindu revivalism is evident in India and a Judaic one in Israel. It is partly a reaction against the alienating effects of large-scale, modern technology and the unequal distribution of the benefits from industrialization. The concern is that development has meant the loss of identity, sense of community and personal meaning.

Report 'Our Creative Diversity'

Inevitably, there is a reaction to this. We can see it taking the form of a resurgence of ethno-nationalisms and religious fundamentalism. As the Report on the World Commission on Culture and Development notes, these phenomena 'represent a search for identity and meaning in a harsh world of conflicting values, a creative response to the crisis of identity'.1 To that extent they may be viewed as constructive phenomena. But, as the Report also notes, they tend to contribute more to the intensification of intergroup conflict than to the construction of peace.

Two other factors should also be noted. Global free-market forces are tending to widen the gap between rich and poor, nationally and internationally. Some countries, particularly in Africa, are becoming seriously marginalized. And in the unipolar, post-Cold-War world there is less incentive to try to win the allegiance of these poor countries with aid projects. They are being left to their own devices in an increasingly uncaring world.

Enormous strides are being made in the field of the media. But these developments also have a negative side, because they are accompanied by a number of dichotomies. It's true that there is an abundance of media but it is mainly confined to the North. In Africa, Asia and Latin America there is great poverty in this area.

Madala Mphahlele

This raises the prospect of what I have called the politics of desperation. When people feel desperate, and when they feel their desperation is ignored, they tend to do desperate things to attract attention to their plight. They seize hostages, hijack planes, blow up the World Trade Center in New York. Desperate nations throw up fanatical leaders who do desperate things at a national level. The sudden, bewildering appearance of such figures - an Ayatollah Khomeini, a Saddam Hussein, an Idi Amin, a Mohammed Aideed - has become a feature of our times. In a world of greatly reduced nuclear controls, the politics of desperation in such marginalized regions, where the lines of poverty tend to correlate with those of cultural insecurity and identity crisis, is surely going to be a mounting threat in the twenty-first century.

This places a premium on pluralism. The shrinking world must learn to live with its own diversity or it will destroy itself in the twenty-first century. It must pay attention to its poor and desperate. It must develop a sense of ethnic and cultural empathy. It must introduce some of the true qualities of the village into the global village.

It is here that I believe my country, South Africa, has an important role to play. Embodying as it does all the elements of the global divide, it is striving now to overcome them and turn what was once the global symbol of racial and cultural conflict into a symbol of cultural pluralism: a new 'rainbow nation'. That makes it a global pathfinder.

The challenge facing South Africa is immense. Is it able, with its variegated population, to develop a true national consciousness? Can it weld the many different racial, cultural, ethnic and religious elements of its population into a single nation with a true national identity, while at the same time preserving the different cultural identities of each group? In other words, is the concept of the 'rainbow nation' a practical possibility?

Half a century ago G.H. Calpin wrote a book called There are no South Africans, in which he argued that there was no true national identity in the country - and Calpin was thinking only of the whites, of the English and Afrikaner South Africans. The black South Africans didn't enter the minds of people like that in those days. Now the leaders of the new South Africa are trying to merge, not just two, but nearer two dozen different population groups into a single nation.

It means South Africa must try to bring about a balance between two intellectual traditions that have long been in conflict and mutually exclusive in the Western political context. On the one hand there is the tradition of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which proclaims the equality and universality of all individuals, recognizing no differences between them. On the other hand there is the German Romantic tradition of Johann Ficht, Johan Herder, Friederich Schiller and others, which arose in reaction to the Enlightenment and which emphasizes the ethnic and cultural identity of national groups, of what Herder called the Volksgeist.

The leaders of the new South Africa are committed to trying to bring about a balance between these two. That is to say, far from levelling out cultural differences in favour of a homogeneous society in the spirit of the American 'melting pot', these differences are protected in the new constitution which provides for eleven official languages. Traditional legal systems continue to function alongside the modern, Western legal system; even some aspects of traditional political systems have been woven into the main political structure.

That would be difficult enough at the best of times, but in fact South Africa is trying to weld its different groups together into a single nation at a time when the global trend is in the opposite direction. In the post-Cold-War era, the unity of a number of established states is being threatened and in some cases destroyed by the upsurge of ethno-nationalism. Nearly everywhere groups are defining themselves by their ethnic origin and demanding separatist rights - in the former Yugoslavia, in the former Soviet Union, in the separation of the Czech and Slovak Republics, in Chechnya, in Sri Lanka, in Canada.

Can South Africa swim against the tide?

The answer is that it must, because it has no viable alternative. South Africans know now that they cannot divide their people into separate ethnic compartments. They have tried that and found it impossible. Apartheid was the most determined and systematic attempt at ethnic separation ever undertaken. For half a century a powerful, well-armed, determined and ruthless government tried everything in its power, defying the world, making 18-million pass-law arrests and three-and-a-half million forced evictions. And at the end of it all the South African population was more mixed than ever before. If ethnic separation were physically possible in South Africa, it would have been achieved then. But the mutual dependency of its different race groups rendered their physical separation impossible.

South Africa is the only country in Africa that has undergone a full-blown industrial revolution, dating from the discovery of diamonds and gold just over a century ago. That, plus the destruction of the African peasantry by the 1913 Land Act, which prohibited black people from owning land outside the tiny reserve areas set aside for them and so made the entire black population ultimately dependent on the cities.

This comprehensive industrialization of the economy locked both black and white together in a state of mutual dependency: white South Africa cannot survive a single day without the black people who constitute the industrial working class, while the black South Africans cannot survive without the white population who have provided the entrepreneurial and managerial class in this industrialized society. This is what makes South Africa different from Palestine, Sri Lanka, Canada, Cyprus, Uzbekistan, Chechneya, Yugoslavia and all the rest. The Serbs are not dependent on the Bosnians or the Croats or the Slovenes; nor are the Israelis dependent on the Palestinians. And so they can be ethnically partitioned. South Africa cannot.

That mutual dependency is the central dynamic that drives the South African situation. It is what drove the initial negotiating process to success against all the odds.

From the moment former President F.W. de Klerk made his famous February 2 speech in 1990 unbanning the ANC and releasing Nelson Mandela from prison, South Africa was launched on an irreversible course. De Klerk could not turn back, ban the ANC again and return Mandela to jail: the international consequences would have been worse than if he had never freed them in the first place. And the ANC, for its part, could not quit the negotiations and return to exile and guerrilla struggle, with no Eastern bloc to train and supply them and no substitute for such back-up anywhere in the West.

Both had embarked on a one-way voyage, which could have only two possible outcomes. They could either arrive together at the other side, or they could perish together in mid-ocean. There could be no turning back. And every time a squall threatened to overturn their flimsy craft, as it did during several outbreaks of political violence, both sides leant on their oars and pulled together for the far shore.

That mutual dependency is what achieved South Africa's first miracle. It remains the driving force in the country's ongoing revolution.

Of course the fact that there is no viable alternative to the united but multi-cultural nation South Africa is now attempting to build is no guarantee of success. It may be the only rational choice, but this would not be the first society in history to perish through irrational behaviour. It was Sigmund Freud, even more than the Romantics, who exposed the greatest flaw in the philosophy of the eighteenth-century Rationalists with his discovery of the subconscious mind and thus of mankind's tendency to irrational behaviour.

This pinpoints the area of greatest challenge that faces South Africa now. It must at all costs avoid inflaming ethnic emotions. The potential ability of the white right-wing to whip up Afrikaner ethno-nationalism, the attempts by Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party to mobilise Zulu ethno-nationalism, and the possibility that a triumphant ANC may become insensitive to minority group anxieties and provoke a backlash, are the main danger points.

How does one monitor them? The key to understanding this modern phenomenon is to appreciate that ethno-nationalism becomes inflamed and dangerous if it develops a sense of collective humiliation, either real or imagined. This can arise, too, from a sense of being swamped by a numerically dominant culture, or of being overwhelmed by one that presents itself as being superior or of simply assuming a proprietary right to a dominant position. Then ethno-nationalism can take on an assertive aggression. The Oxford philosopher, Sir Isaiah Berlin, who has written much on this subject, uses the vivid imagery of the poet Schiller to liken cultural nationalism to a bent twig. Bend the twig too far, Schiller warns, and it will lash back with destructive ferocity.3

This suggests that the cultural nationalisms of groups like the Afrikaners and the Zulus can exist harmoniously in a multi-cultural South Africa provided they are not put under pressure and made to feel threatened or suffocated.

As its socio-economic revolution, it must redress the gross imbalances left by apartheid with affirmative action and with the Reconstruction and Development Programme. It must empower blacks in all sectors of society and it must integrate and transform schools and universities and indeed all the institutions of civil society. An important part of black empowerment is the rehabilitation of African culture, giving black people back their cultural dignity after generations of white cultural domination and disparagement. But as the Government does this it must at all times be aware of ethnic sensitivities, and not bend any Afrikaner, Zulu or other cultural twigs too far.

The Government has historical advantages and disadvantages as it faces up to this delicate task. The main disadvantage is that the ANC's socialist heritage imbues it with a universalist philosophy. Even more than the liberalism of the Enlightenment, socialism took rationalism to the point of disavowing all nationalist sentiment and, in its most extreme form, even to believing in a universalism that would see the eventual withering away of the nation-state. That, plus the fact that apartheid discredited ethnicity in the eyes of black South Africans means that the idea of making concessions to ethnic sentiments, does not come easily to the ANC leadership.

On the positive side is the singular fact that South Africa has no numerically dominant ethnic group, which means there is no political incentive to exploit ethno-nationalist sentiments.

This has been the bane of Africa. Most African countries do have a dominant tribe, and their political parties tend to be rooted in tribal power-bases, so that all the leader of the dominant tribal party has to do is to animate ethno-nationalist sentiments and he can ride to power and stay there indefinitely - much as South Africa's National Party did when Afrikaners constituted a 60% majority of the whites-only elecotrate.

This ethnically-based party can then entrench itself in power and appropriate the meagre resources of the poorly developed country for the nepotistic benefit of its own people, while the rest of the population remain outsiders. This situation continues until a military coup brings a rival group to power to appropriate the resources for its people. And so the cycle of kleptocratic rule punctuated by periodic coups repeats itself, while the country as a whole degenerates.

In South Africa the major political organizations are not ethnically rooted. The ANC was founded in 1912 by a Zulu lawyer, Pixley ka Seme, as a movement of leaders from all sectors of the black population whom he brought together to campaign against the Land Act. The ANC has remained a pan-tribal and multiracial organization ever since. So have the main black nationalist opposition groups, the Pan-Africanist Congress and the Black Consciousness movement, which broke away from the ANC. None of them is identifiable in tribal terms. The only exception is the Inkatha Freedom Party.

This fortunate political dispensation is reinforced by the fact, already mentioned, that there is no dominant tribe. It means that no party which roots itself in an ethnic base can hope to aspire to national power. The Zulus are South Africa's biggest tribe, but still they number only one-sixth of the total population. So even if the Inkatha Freedom Party were to succeed in winning 100% support among the Zulu people (in fact it and the ANC have about 50% each), it would still get no more than one-sixth of the national vote, which is nowhere near enough to win control of the Government. The IFP's best hope, therefore, is to control the provincial Parliament of KwaZulu-Natal.

Likewise, if Nelson Mandela were to make his appeal to his own ethnic group, the Xhosas, who are the second largest population group, he would estrange all the non-Xhosas who now support him and reduce himself to a regional player in the Eastern Cape province. There is simply no future in playing the ethno-nationalist card in the new South Africa.

Given this background, how has the Mandela Government handled the ethnic issue? In its dealings with the Afrikaners in particular, it has gone out of its way to ease group anxieties, even to the extent of including a special protection for 'group rights' in the new constitution - something it had previously refused to do. Mandela has made high-profile gestures of reconciliation to the Afrikaners, such as visiting the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the chief architect of apartheid, in the right-wing stronghold of Orania, and inviting the widows of other Afrikaner leaders to tea at his official residence. He has addressed the national synod of the Dutch Reformed Church, and made a point especially of identifying enthusiastically with the South African rugby team as it headed for victory in the World Cup - rugby being a sport of almost totemic importance to Afrikaners.

In a particularly subtle exercise, Mandela and his ministers have drawn the Freedom Front, a right-wing group led by the former chief of the Defence Force, Constand Viljoen, into a series of negotiations on the group's demand for a separate Afrikaner homeland or Volkstaat. Viljoen, with his strong following in the old regime's military establishment, was seen by white right-wingers at the time of the 1994 election as the potential leader of a separatist war, but at the last moment he baulked and called on his followers to fight for their separatist cause through constitutional means. He formed the Freedom Front and went in to Parliament. Mandela immediately identified Viljoen as someone who could defuse the right-wing threat, and accordingly was at pains to hear his case sympathetically and never to shut the door on the possibility of an Afrikaner homeland. Instead he told the Freedom Fronters that if they could find a way of establishing a separate Afrikaner state without forcibly moving or disenfranching any blacks, he would be prepared to consider it. He thus left them to discover the impracticability of their cause for themselves, for there is no part of South Africa that does not have a black majority. Gradually Viljoen and his followers have now come to accept that their separate state is not on, and they are advancing the idea of having a 'cultural council' with statutory powers to protect matters of importance to the group and with representation in the Senate - which the Government seems disposed to accept.

It has been a classic example of handling Schiller's ethnic twig with care, and at this point the danger of a right-wing uprising seems to be well contained. But it is a care that will have to be continuously exercised.

Mandela has been less successful on the Inkatha front. Chief Buthelezi was drawn in to the Government of National Unity as Minister of Home Affairs, a coalition regime also functions at the provincial level in KwaZulu-Natal, and Mandela succeeded in drawing the Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelithini, out of Buthelezi's sphere of influence and neutralizing him as a constitutional monarch. But factional violence in KwaZulu-Natal continues and political tensions between the ANC and IFP remain high.

What has changed is that the violence is now more confined to that province. Two years ago it raged throughout the populous black townships of Johannesburg and the Witwatersrand as well as many parts of the rural Transvaal - indeed wherever there were Zulu migrant workers. It has now ceased in all these areas, and is also greatly diminished in KwaZulu-Natal's major cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg. It is largely confined to the rural tribal areas of the province. What was a serious national problem has thus been reduced to a regional problem, and although it is still serious with an unacceptably high death toll, it is no longer life-threatening to the nation as a whole.

But whatever its current condition, the fact is that Zulu ethno-nationalism is likely to remain a permanent factor within the South African body politic. Sentiments of cultural identity as strongly rooted as those of the Zulu people do not simply fade away to nothing. They may go into remission and even lie dormant for many years, but if provoked by conditions of threat or stress they may re-emerge with a vengeance. The makers of the new South Africa need to be far more sensitive to the need to contain and accommodate Zulu ethno-nationalism than they have been until now.

The fear, of course, is of setting in motion an ethnic domino effect; that any move to accommodate Zulu, or Afrikaner, ethno-nationalism would create a dangerous precedent and invite other ethnic groups to demand the same, resulting in the nightmare of an apartheid recidivism. That, to the ANC, is a prospect too ghastly to contemplate and so its opposition is implaccable.

There is still a long road to be travelled in this pathfinding venture and it will be well into the twenty-first century before a verdict can be given on whether South Africa has succeeded in creating the 'rainbow nation'. But perhaps its most significant achievement so far has been in creating a culture of negotiation where before there was only stereotyping and prejudice. This is tremendously important, for it is fundamental to the transformation from cultural relativism to cultural pluralism.

Relativism is an attitude which says: We are different and that is that. There is nothing more to be said. Each community or cultural entity is then enclosed in its own impenetrable cocoon. That is the mindset of apartheid.

Pluralism is an attitude which says: We may differ, yet we are capable of understanding each other, of sympathizing and deriving light from each other.

South Africa has made that leap. It is an encouraging start.

our creative diversity