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Critical Conversations

DO WE NEED A NEW NATIONAL NARRATIVE?

University of the Free State

1 March 2012

DO WE NEED A NEW NATIONAL NARRATIVE?

Opening statement

Major points:

  1. Three competing narratives before 1990

The liberation narrative

The Afrikaner nationalism narrative that became side-tracked by apartheid

The liberal narrative opposed to apartheid but expected Africans to be assimilated into their culture.

Njabulo Ndebele says that while apartheid insisted that the oppressed would develop better alone, liberals insisted they would develop better within the prescriptions of European. Both insisted said Njabulo on being the human point of reference for all the people of this country.

 

This was very strange to me since my lived experience was very different….Islam, mixed Indian and Malay, classified cape Malay..And finally in young adulthood I was drawn into the liberation narrative. – we were all human beings – non-racialism, accepting and working with all committed to securing a non-racial democracy. With this went the interfaith movement – we embraced everybody no one was superior to the other.

 

  1. Negotiations and Post 1994

A non-partisan foundation where everyone felt they got a little of what they wanted. I am an African – inclusive

The rainbow nation

The African Renaissance

 

  1. Elements of all these narratives will always be part of our story but the do we have a narrative that helps us make sense of where we are now and where we are going to? We need a story that will give us show us clearly where we are now and inspire a commitment in all of us to strive to get to our destination.

 

  1. This conversation does not allow for time to go into the experiences of other countries. I am going to refer only to developments in the United States. Way back Mr X published an article that helped to frame bipartisan consensus for more than 40 years. Towards the end of last year another article emerged called the Y article this time penned by two military officers.

 

  1. Now to come back to our country. Many of us are cut off from a fascinating process unfolding at the National Planning Commission.

And I thought I will let you hear from Trevor himself.

 

  1. At the same time, the Finance Minister choice of words at his budget speech last week struck me as very interesting. I was in the media gallery .

 

  1. We have too in our history a body of work of Pixley ka Isaka Seme and the New African Movement started way back in 1904. This objective of this movement was to construct a counter narrative to European modernity by defining African modernity.

 

CLOSING STATEMENT: So we have potentially elements bubbling to the surface that could become part of a focused story that will enthuse us all.

It is very crucial that we realise that there is nothing we can do to change the past. We cannot too focus on our separate narratives if we are serious about reaching our goals. We have to acknowledge the different narratives and craft a fourth way that can move us forward. It always has to be about moving forward.

I will end my contribution by pausing a few minutes on our home base. What is the story of this university? Can we find a way to write a story that acknowledges the past but weaves together a thread that can guide us towards a greater freedom that so many of us long for?

The challenge here and in South Africa is to find the right words that will inspire us to understand what we have to do(right action) to live in a country and a continent that deserves to fully taste what it means to be free.

 

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NOTES

I have had the interesting experience of being part of a broad liberation movement – and I am not referring here to the ANC only- that gave me a clear narrative as I entered young adulthood. All my actions and time was spent in living this narrative.

Broadly it was a narrative that said we want to see a non-racial democratic South Africa free from racism and inequality. We wanted free political expression and freedom of movement. To achieve this we needed all our leaders to come out of prison and out of exile and democratic election so that all South Africans could be included in one dispensation.

We were able to sweep large numbers of people in a common direction committed to get to their destination. Our story mobilised people inside and outside South Africa. When Nelson Mandela finally became presidents, our story inspired millions of struggling people.

But that story no longer fits the times we are living in. We need a new story that can hold us all together. We need a national narrative that can help move us forward in these changing times.

I was in parliament last week, when the Finance Minister delivered his Budget Speech. It was interesting for me that he started his speech as follows:

Mister President,he said, you have given us a clear and historic challenge to write a new story about South Africa – the story of how, working together, we drove back unemployment and poverty.”

Further along he said: “Our new story, our period of transition, is about building modern infrastructure, a vibrant economy, a decent quality of life for all, reduced poverty, decent employment opportunities. It is a story that must be written by allof us,” he said.

 

Prior to 1990, there were three strong narratives at play in the national landscape – this offcourse is broadly speaking – the liberation narrative, the Afrikaner nationalist narrative and the liberal narrative.

When we finally adopted our constitution in 1996, we for the first time agreed on one document that binds all of us together. The constitution is a powerful document that is our major reference point and any national narrative cannot oppose the terms of the constitution.

The idea of the rainbow nation all committed to living side by side was the first attempt to construct a national narrative post 1994. As we all know this story has somewhat faded into oblivion.

What do we have in place of it? I am of the view that there is nothing non-partisan that can sufficiently move us into action. Thabo Mbeki valiantly tried to develop the narrative of an African Rennaissance but with his removal from the centre, this story too has weakened.

The ANC’s centenary celebrations this year has done little to contribute to a way forward. So far it has mainly been an exercise in looking back .

What we do have bubbling to the surface is all the elements of the National Development Plan which I believe holds some possibilities for a unifying story.

Many of you may not have taken a close look at the process unfolding and I thought it would be useful to bring Minister Manuel into our discussion for a few minutes. DOODLING VIDEO

Thank you Trevor.

I am not here tonight to suggest what the narrative should be but I am arguing strongly that we have to consider developing a national narrative.

I believe that a national narrative could be formulated by one or more individuals. We have precedent for this in our country. Way back in 1904, the South African intellectual Pixley ka Isaka Seme wrote an essay that gave intellectual authorisation to the decolonisation process. I am drawing some of my comments here from Ntongela Masilela’s extensive work on the New African Movement. Seme had postulated that the 20th century would be the beginning of the engagement with the historical meaning and significance of modernity by African people. Seme’s work led to a cultural and intellectual movement of writers, artists, religious and political leaders whose objective was to construct a counter narrative to European modernity by defining African modernity. You can find all this on a website developed by Professor Masilela and time does not allow me to expand on this now although I am quite happy to do so in the furture. Much of this was scuppered when apartheid came on the scene. This one body of work that we can study and draw from to construct a narrative.

Then there are a host of international examples and I have time only to refer to one and that is the United States. Way back in 1947, a Mr X wrote a national narrative that was able to frame bipartisan consensus for the next 40 years. In essence the argument was that the United States was the leader of the free world against the communist world and that it would invest in containing the Soviet Union and limiting its expansion while building a dynamic economy and as just and prosperous a society as possible.

Just now a Mr Y has developed a new proposed narrative to be considered for a changing time. Mr Y turns out to be two military officers whose names are on record. They in essence say the following: We want to be come the strongest competitor and most influential player in a deeply inter-connected global system, which requires that we invest less in defense and more in sustainable prosperity and the tools of effective global engagement.

They are hoping that their article will spark a national conversation.

It is my understanding that the National Planning Commission is beginning to touch on finding a way forward together. Its work will remain confined to U-tube unless we as academics, writers and student leaders engage actively in critically examining what is being presented as a formulation of our future prospects.