The working class must build an African nation

by Dec 18, 2020Amandla

The working class must build an African nation

Mazibuko Kanyiso Jara | Amandla Issue 73/74 |December 2020

The basic objectives of liberation cannot be achieved without undermining the accumulated political, social, cultural and economic white privileges. The moulding of our nation will be advanced in direct proportion to the elimination of these accumulated privileges…. until the colonial status of blacks is ended the process of building one nation cannot be completed… The ‘revolutionary classes’ can best advance the struggle for the achievement of single nationhood if they recognise (and act on) the reality that we are not yet one nation. Joe Slovo, 1988.

The potholes, the creaking water pipes, the collapsing RDP houses, the dilapidated schools, the power cuts, the lack of water management, the lack of decent schools in rural areas, the lack of decent schools in urban township areas, corrupt police, bankrupt municipalities, a bankrupt national airline, a bankrupt power utility, a bankrupt public broadcaster, coupled to rampant crime, sexual violence, murder, alcoholism, drug abuse, gangsterism, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, a failing healthcare system, porous national borders, a psychotic government, coupled to a populace enraptured with the status of Rugby World Cup champions, fed by DJ’s and influencers such as Somizi and Lasizwe, leads me to conclude that this will end in tears.Mark Fredericks, November 2020.

It seems that the majority of the people believe in and desire the notion of a South African nation. Despite all the deepening racial conflagrations and schisms, there is still quite a prevalent assumption that the South Africa we live in constitutes a nation in formation, albeit not united, functional or optimal. The Springbok World Cup victory, other sports and cultural achievements, the mobilisation in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, a national parliament and government, a unitary constitution and judicial system, a single army and police force – all of these and others reproduce this notion that there is such a nation in formation. Even our uncivil side, as often seen in the xenophobic pogroms we often visit on people whose origins lie elsewhere in Africa and Asia, demonstrates the prevalence of the assumption of an exclusive South African nation.

In other words, the idea of South African nationhood seems to be a real, palpable and concrete feeling with relevance and of concern to a large number of people.

How valid is such an assumption? What does it mean for advancing the struggles of workers, the unemployed, the rural poor and other exploited strata? What are the fault-lines in this South African nation in formation? What about the exclusivist, oppressive and exploitative logics of the notion of a nation? What would nationhood mean for women and gender oppression? Or for other oppressed social strata? Which class interests and forces should shape the nation-building process What would perspectives on nationhood look like from a Left perspective and in the long-term interests of popular forces? How should a reinvigorated working class movement approach the national question, given the largely failed nation-building experience of some two and a half decades since the formal end of the apartheid dispensation?

These are just some of the questions that arise for the Left and the broad working class movement when it comes to considering nation-building. This article merely opens up what should be an ongoing discussion, informed by practical organising work on the ground.

From colonial-imperial roots to national liberation

As with most of the colonised world, the modern South African nation-state is the deformed creation of the settler bourgeois class. It originated in the early stages of imperialism when inter-imperialist power relationships were a major factor. In many cases, this resulted in an arbitrary jumble of completely distinct socio-economic formations, language and cultural groups. Indeed, over time these colonially created entities gained life as deformed administrative units, polities and economies.

Colonialism interrupted the internal dynamics of several nation-formation processes whose potential trajectories have now been lost forever. As Slovo put it,“In the colonial world generally, nation-formation was deliberately stilted, retarded and under-developed by imperial policy.”

The introduction of the market economy, capitalist agriculture and mining in particular laid the basis for a unitary state, if not a unified nation.  It was the creation of the black working class that laid the basis for the development of the South African nation, which depended on the overcoming of apartheid.

While the unity of the oppressed in the struggle against apartheid began to generate a nascent sense of a common nationalist bond between diverse groups and cultures of the oppressed, this bond is now coming apart. We can see this in rising tensions between so-called black Africans and so-called Coloured people, in still largely negative African-Indian relations, inter-ethnic tensions, naked white racism and the still dominant power of the white bloc.

Apart from the socio-economic crises that have characterised the post-apartheid transition, a key factor in this unravelling has been the weakening of the radical working class movement. Up until the early 2000s, the urban black working class (broadly defined) was the most organised, most politically advanced social force, the most internationalist and committed to national cohesion in our society. But this is no longer the case due to a combination of objective and subjective factors.

Neoliberalism deforms nation-building

The post-apartheid South African nation-state is characterised by three fundamental processes:

  • The restoration of capitalist profitability, still on the basis of cheap black labour;
  • The reinsertion of white owned capital into the global economy at the expense of national objectives; and
  • the emergence of a junior black stratum of the capitalist class.

It is these processes that have objectively weakened the working class, thereby thwarting a progressive nation-formation process. Coupled with the history of racialised capitalism, the fundamental processes shaping the post-apartheid nation state have unsurprisingly left white supremacy unchallenged. They have reproduced racialised property relations and identities. No matter how many Springbok victories there are, South Africa will not be a deracialised united nation as long as the fundamental features of racial capitalism remain in place.

These processes have been compounded by the role of the state in failing to challenge white supremacy and in promoting retribalisation, ethnicisation, racialisation and xenophobia. There has been retribalisation of the former homelands through returning inordinate powers to tribal elites. There has been racialisation of reforms and transformation through narrow African chauvinism, and official xenophobia that enabled and legitimated pogroms. As long as different segments of the broad working class experience more intense and specific forms of exploitation, the class cannot act as a whole for itself.

Combined with the lack of resolution of the national question, the socio-economic conditions facing the majority can only mean that further tensions and social conflicts may occur, which will further undermine nation building. The large numbers of unemployed youth are a fertile breeding ground for reactionary mobilisation, including the gangster militia we see in many townships. This will make life intolerable for the majority, further postponing the possibility of resolving the national question on a progressive basis.

This underlines the direct interest of the Left and the broad working class movement in the resolution of the national question. Will it be on the basis of its functionality to capitalism? Or are there possibilities for its progressive resolution along socialist lines? If so, what should the Left and the broad working class movement do about nation-building?

Nation-building as social reproduction

A central feature of nation-building is the process of identity and cultural formation. This often starts and is sustained in the household – the family, the extended family, language, food, cultural practices, neighbourhoods, etc. Then from the family the next moments of identity formation are schooling, sports clubs, music and cultural groups, youth activities, religious institutions, non-profit community groups and services, local businesses, and political activities. Through these, people move out of the household and into wider conversations and circuits.

It was this momentum and potential for social cohesion through community-based mobilisation that we witnessed in the 1980s. This was through strong social structures that existed within townships, sustaining social life, giving direction and socio-political education. Through these spaces for identity formation, people form their world outlooks, including on how change happens. It is in these processes that politicisation takes place.

If the Left and the broad working class movement are to have any realistic chance to make an imprint on nation-building, they cannot ignore these daily activities of households, communities and society to reproduce. From a radical working class perspective, this means a strategy of democratising the processes of identify formation and social reproduction. Such democratisation would also break popular reliance on capitalist institutions.

Important in social reproduction is the class content of culture, heritage and language. Already we have seen ANC-centric and often ethnic-based hagiography being celebrated as national heritage. Similarly, the language policy of the post-apartheid state has not enabled common national unity away from English and Afrikaans. Language, culture and heritage are potentially powerful tools that the broad working class can claim in finding effective expression of social, economic, cultural and political demands away from such elite hagiographies.

The emotive importance of language, culture, heritage and tradition can be effectively utilised in the progressive mobilisation of the broad working class. They are crucial in forming popular consciousness. So the democratisation of the language question, the real promotion of all recognised languages and their use in official processes as well as compulsory learning of regionally significant languages, (for example in the Western Cape, the learning of isiXhosa, Afrikaans and English) would go some way towards building social and national cohesion.

These struggles for self-organisation around social reproduction can develop a further political momentum if they can be linked to the struggle for universal access to public goods. All these combined can build and shape a significant degree of stability, internal social cohesion and thereby political power for the broad working class – such is a crucial precondition for the broad working class to contest the nation-building project.

So nation-building, for the working class, should mean unifying itself nationally as the leading class whose developing culture, aspirations and economic interests become increasingly those of the overwhelming majority of our people. 

But this will only take the working class to a particular position of strength in reshaping the contours of political contestation and nation-building. The disintegrating ANC remains an organising force in society. So there will still be a need for a broader strategy. The path to stable, lasting, and meaningful emancipation from white supremacy and racial discrimination includes strengthening social cohesion, self-reliance, and cultural expression of the oppressed, and not merely melting into or collaborating with a dominant culture. 

Imperialism and white supremacy

Ultimately, any progressive working class-led nation-building project will always be hemmed in by, and be relative to, global capitalism. South Africa is on the periphery of global capitalism. This makes it impossible to build a nation without challenging and defeating capitalism. Short of this, nation-building will end up being a limited project at the service of destructive capitalism. It cannot be nation-building for capitalist accumulation purposes. And it cannot be nation-building that confines itself to the colonial borders. It has to be internationalist, integrationist and Pan-African.

The Southern African region will be important given the inter-locking linguistic, cultural, and ethnic relations and histories which have now been disrupted by the colonial borders which popular conscience seems to accept. Also important here is the long-standing regionalisation and internationalisation of the South African working class in particular. This provides some fertile ground to build working class unity in ways that can rebuild the political and struggle bonds required for the overall political fight against capitalism.

Importantly, the project of nation-building has to understand, point to, attack and defeat white supremacy. It can no longer be on the basis of kumbaya rainbowism. There has to be a much more explicit recognition of white supremacy and effective progressive, ideologically coherent, politically programmatic and mobilisational responses to it.  

Ultimately what is needed is a new political dispensation that can take us closer to Slovo’s vision of undoing accumulated white privileges and the colonial status of the country’s black majority. This requires a radical working class politics as the only sustainable basis for a progressive resolution of the national question.

Mazibuko Jara is a member of the Amandla Editorial Collective

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