By Zubeida Jaffer

I am an African.

I owe my being to the hills and the valleys, the mountains and the glades, the rivers, the deserts, the trees, the flowers, the seas and the ever-changing seasons that define the face of our native land.

My body has frozen in our frosts and in our latter-day snows. It has thawed in the warmth of our sunshine and melted in the heat of the midday sun. The crack and the rumble of the summer thunders, lashed by startling lightning, have been a cause both of trembling and of hope.

On May 8, 1996, Thabo Mbeki started his speech with these words. He was addressing the Constitutional Assembly on the occasion of the adoption of The Republic of South Africa Constitution Bill.

The speech that has subsequently often been referred to as a poem represents one of the most stirring arguments for an inclusive South Africa. It underpinned the constitutional formulation that South Africa belongs to all who live in it.

Mbeki was not only lyrical but very specific about the range of people who found themselves at the tip of Africa at a time when it moved towards becoming a modern democracy. He said:

“I owe my being to the Khoi and the San whose desolate souls haunt the great expanses of the beautiful Cape – they who fell victim to the most merciless genocide our native land has ever seen, they who were the first to lose their lives in the struggle to defend our freedom and independence and they who, as a people, perished in the result.

Today, as a country, we keep an inaudible and audible silence about these ancestors of the generations that live, fearful to admit the horror of a former deed, seeking to obliterate from our memories a cruel occurrence which, in its remembering, should teach us not and never to be inhuman again.

I am formed of the migrants who left Europe to find a new home on our native land. Whatever their own actions, they remain still part of me.

In my veins courses the blood of the Malay slaves who came from the East. Their proud dignity informs my bearing, their culture a part of my essence. The stripes they bore on their bodies from the lash of the slave master are a reminder embossed on my consciousness of what should not be done.

I am the grandchild of the warrior men and women that Hintsa and Sekhukhune led, the patriots that Cetshwayo and Mphephu took to battle, the soldiers Moshoeshoe and Ngungunyane taught never to dishonour the cause of freedom.”

A study of the entire text confirmed that Mbeki sketched a framework within which to tell an all-encompassing story of who constituted the South African nation. In a sense, the South African Constitution laid out negotiated rules to guide the country through the years it was expected to learn to live together as equals in a unified nation.

When the Constitution was adopted in 1996, it was meant to end the long period of violent colonial rule and apartheid. In its place came a new national narrative that emphasized togetherness, non-racialism and non-sexism breaking with the foundational narrative of apartheid that emphasized separateness and racial superiority.

How has this national narrative endured over time in democratic South Africa?

In her book, Official Stories: Politics and National Narratives in Egypt and Algeria, Laurie Brand, identified three key strands in any national narrative—the establishment of a founding story, the conception of national identity, and the parameters of national unity. She traced the evolution of their portrayal over more than six decades: from just before the 1952 July revolution in Egypt and from the eve of the Algerian revolution in 1954, to the present.

Her two cases show that it was at the time of the initial establishment/consolidation of the new leadership—in Egypt, 1952-54 and Algeria 1962-65—that the greatest changes were introduced into the existing narrative. In both, it was their respective revolutions that were cast as new founding stories, she said.

Over time, successive leaderships also introduced a variety of changes into the narrative. In order to understand if elements in the narrative might have been re-scripted to aid in regime consolidation or maintenance, she chose a set of the most serious crises each country had faced —political, economic, military—to discern if they seemed to have led to reformulations of the narrative. She found to her surprise, in the Egyptian case such a devastating blow to the regime as the humiliating defeat in 1967 led to no significant changes in the content of the central narrative themes. Brand (2014) wrote:

“Instead, in both cases the evidence suggests that it was periods of unexpected leadership transition—Gamal `Abd al-Nasir’s death in 1970, and Algeria’s Boumediene’s death in 1978—which triggered the greatest changes in both the founding story and in the construction of identity and unity. In both cases, the relative balance between critical identity elements—e.g. Arabism, religion, socialism, revolution, and the like—shifted significantly, if not overnight.”

In South Africa, the changes in the founding story, the conception of a national identity and the parameters of national unity took painfully long to change. Before the birth of a democratic state in 1994, there were essentially three competing narratives coursing through the country’s lifeblood in the past century: the liberation narrative, the Afrikaner narrative that became side-tracked by apartheid ideology and the liberal narrative committed to assimilation of the African majority into a European ethos.

Njabulo Ndebele (2017) has argued that while apartheid insisted that the oppressed would develop better alone, liberals insisted that they would develop better within the prescriptions of the European. Both, he said, insisted on being the human reference point of all the people of this country.

According to Xolela Mangcu (2015), the ever-inventive British came up with racial segregation to make that coexistence (with the locals) tolerable. He said it was an invention that was enforced with the most vicious ruthlessness. He quoted Noel Mostert (1992), who said that the British set out to “impose their language, their currency, their legal system and their political concepts and to bring the single greatest alteration since the Dutch East India Company’s sanction of permanent settlers in 1657.

As an aside, the sanction of permanent settlers had led to the beginning of the transfer of plots of land by decree of the Dutch Queen. Land rights were arbitrarily transferred to workers of the Dutch East India Company along the Liesbeek River in the Cape today known as Bishopscourt.  There was no exchange of money when these plots of land were transferred.

If we trace the evolution of the liberation narrative, it could be seen as running in parallel to the official founding story of the country adopted in 1910 which represented the consolidation of the white group to the exclusion of the black majority.

Fast forward to 1994: the first democratic election finally broke with this separatist founding story based on a notion of racial superiority that had held South Africa in a pincer-like grip.

Alongside this came the narrative of the “Rainbow Nation” and, finally, in 1996 came the adoption of the Constitution, representing a compromise between all the different political groups in the country. The Constitution was a non-partisan framework providing the rules of how it was envisioned South Africans would learn to live together peacefully.

Mbeki extended this narrative to include the entire continent when he developed his African Renaissance agenda and this shift took place seamlessly.  This narrative held sway for about 15 years and then started showing signs of strain especially after the global meltdown in 2008. Added to this was the difficult presidency of Jacob Zuma.

Unlike Egypt and Algeria, presidential change had not brought with its major shifts in the national story. Presidential transitions in South Africa have seen changes of emphasis but not large-scale change. The closest to this perhaps were the last few years of the Zuma presidency where terms of engagement were considerably muddied.

The shift in understanding of the national narrative came in 2015 when student struggles confronted the persistence of colonial material conditions especially at universities. The student movement challenged the idea that the colonial period had ended and demanded change at the core of the South African system.

The demands for decolonization at South African universities have thrown the existing national narrative into question.  Do the old dates that serve as markers pre-democracy and the new dates in the democratic period book end a story that will bring healing?  This part of the world did not come into existence in 1652 as the colonialists and apartheid ideologues would have us believe. People have lived here in Southern Africa for over a million years (Wilson 2011). Nor did all resistance to colonialism start in 1912 with the birth of the ANC, a date that effectively has written all other resistance efforts out of our story.

The constitution provides a framework for telling our story. But where does our story start and is it just a story of conquest and resistance? Is it this story that will help unite all of us to move towards a future that provides a space for every single person or will we remain slaves to the present narratives?

The “Rhodes Must Fall” movement that started the student protest in 2015 continued to provoke and force broader analyses of South African and African conditions. In a far-reaching talk this year (March 2018), Zimbabwe’s pre-eminent writer, Tsitsi Dangarembga argued against the use of the term postcolonial. She said that she did not understand how a system that transforms itself into another version of itself can be perceived of being post itself. She said:

“European colonisation of Africa has only been modified, it has not come to an end. The purpose of colonisation was to transfer wealth from where it was found outside the colonising nations into the colonising nations. Today we still see that net movement of wealth.

The colonial system may have changed in that it has adjusted some of its more excessive practices, such as direct rule, legal rendering of local populations as less than human, apartheid systems and genocide. There are more individuals today across the globe who are toiling to end the work of colonialism. However, the purposes of colonisation are still served in our era by systems that were created in order to be adopted after the end of direct colonialism. Therefore, the system of colonialism has merely changed but it is still in existence.”

This has been the lived experience of thousands of students since 1994. They arrived at South African universities to find that the dominant narrative continued to be a European one with little change to the physical spaces they found themselves in or the learning materials they were offered. The Eurocentric nature of the learning environment sparked a revolt that became known as the Rhodes Must Fall Movement. On 9 March, 2015, a UCT student Chumani Maxwele flung human faeces at the statue of Cecil John Rhodes symbolically declaring war against the submerged colonial system. He and fellow students ended the idea that the adoption of the South African constitution had ended the colonial period.

Since then, South African universities and leading intellectuals have been forced to deliberate and debate what decolonization meant and what was required to achieve it. The universities have not been able to avoid confronting these issues and this has impacted on the broader public discussions. A refinement of the national narrative that South Africa belongs to all who live it has shifted to a focus on economic disparities that largely run alongside the old racial divides. Will this be further refined over the coming years and provide South Africans with a story that will move the country forward?

Tsitsi Dangarembga pointed out that the idea that we were in the post-colonial era was an integral part of a strategy to keep the colonial system functional. “If we all believe it is over, we will not look to dismantle it. We will concentrate on other things. Here we see the power of naming in effect. Those who have the power to name are those who have the power to determine.

The development of a new national narrative has to make sense of where the country found itself and where it hoped to go in the near future.

When Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan presented his budget speech in Parliament in 2012, he hinted at the need for writing a new story together.

The minister 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 all of us.”

He was speaking against a backdrop of the adoption of the National Development Plan and its Vision 2030 both of which have largely been derailed in the past six years.

Tsitsi Dangarembga challenged the notion that the story must be about building modern infrastructure. Instead she argued strongly for a focus on developing the creative economy. And I quote:

“In the traditional economy the things that are valued are resources such as land, labour and raw materials. In the creative economy, the things that are valued are resources possessed by all individuals, namely the contents of our minds, our hearts and our souls, and the manifestation of these contents as our emotions. The creative economy values those products that come from our imagination. Imagination comes from experience, so our experience of our universe is our valuable resource in the creative economy.

At the economic level, the creative economy puts products into markets. The news at the moment is about Nigerian American author Toni Adeyemi’s seven figure book deal for her debut children’s fantasy novel. Marvel Films has just celebrated Black Panther box office takings surpassing the billion- dollar mark around a month after the movie’s release.

Importantly for her, the creative economy also disseminated ideas into groups, communities and nations.  I quote:

“The creative economy offers people alternatives and gives them a voice in which a desire for alternatives may be expressed. By its nature the creative economy works against totalitarianism.”

She made a strong call on her own president in Zimbabwe to consider investing in the creative economy. Again, I quote:

“When we engage with the products of the creative economy, its novels, its films, its music, technology, these become part of our experience and so the creative economy also determines who we are and how we view the world. The creative economy affects how we relate to ourselves, to others and to objects in our universe. It influences the values that societies embrace.”

In South Africa, the challenge remained finding a focus for national energies to sweep the country forward.  The answers could lie in the parameters of deciding on the elements that would make up a national narrative that would embrace all South Africans.

A close examination of the national narrative of the United States may suggest an insightful process. In preparing a lecture in 2012, I came across a document entitled “Article X”.

Way back in 1947, a Mr. X wrote a national narrative that was able to frame bipartisan consensus for the next 40 years in the US.

In essence, the article argued that the US 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 a prosperous society. History has shown that this has indeed been the driving force of the United States of America.

On April 8, 2011 a second document, titled ‘A National Strategic Narrative’, was issued by a Mr. Y. Mr. Y happens to be two senior members of the joint chiefs of staff of the Barack Obama administration who claim they write in their personal capacities to stimulate a national conversation .

They argued that the US was getting it wrong when it came to setting its priorities, particularly with regard to the budget and the use of national resources.

They said that the Americans were overreacting to Islamic extremism, underinvesting in their youth, and failing to embrace the sense of competition and opportunity that made America a world power.

In essence, their argument was as follows:

 “We want to become the strongest competitor and the most influential player in a deeply interconnected global system, which requires that we invest less in defence and more in sustainable prosperity and the tools of effective global engagement.”

President Obama appeared not to have made much progress on adopting the proposed new narrative. With the Trump presidency, it can be assumed that this would largely be on the backburner.

South Africa’s transformative national narrative sprung from the intellectual strata.  Way back in 1911 a South African lawyer, Pixley ka Isaka Seme, delivered a lecture that gave intellectual authorisation to the decolonisation process.

Seme’s address was part of a cultural and intellectual movement of writers, artists, and religious and political leaders whose objective was to construct a counter narrative to European modernity by defining African modernity. Professor Ntongela Masilela, a US-based South African academic has referred to this early initiative as the New African Movement and recorded these efforts in his book An Outline of the New African Movement in South Africa. He defines this movement as stretching over a century from about 1862 (Tiyo Soga) to 1960 (Ezekiel Mphahlele).

Similarly, the new democratic narrative, under considerable pressure presently was largely crafted by lawyers and politicians involved in the negotiations from 1990 to 1994. 

Will we draw on our past narratives, acknowledge the three major dominant narratives and craft a fourth way that moves us forward?

We need a simple story that acknowledges our failings, but also recognises our strengths. The narrative could run alongside the National Development Plan spelling out what is expected of us all.

The challenge here on the campus 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 on a campus, in a country and on a continent that deserves to fully taste what it means to be free.

Contestations around narratives could be intense. The student movement’s decolonial project challenged local and international economic interests and as such will be a difficult path.  Brand suggested that it could even be deadly (2014).

Indeed, a reading of the discursive struggle that has been underway in Egypt since spring 2011 over the meaning of January 25, 2011 versus June 30, 2013, the role of religion (and of what type) in defining the Egyptian people, and the relationship of the military to “the people” demonstrates clearly that the internal stakes in narrative conquest are very high, at times even deadly.  “In keeping with the evidence from earlier periods, across the region, today’s holders of and pretenders to power are well aware of the formidable force that a carefully crafted and ably wielded narrative can represent. For many, it is a central weapon in their arsenal as they seek to secure or maintain authoritarian control,” she said.

How will we ensure that a new narrative will shift us as far away as possible from authoritarian control that some political and economic interests would favour?

Through a broader story must come a simple statement that could make sense to a very wide constituency providing the youth especially with a clear context in which they could live and work towards a kinder and fairer South Africa and Africa. Finding the right words could inspire the right action and state of mind to move the country forward.

This paper cannot pretend to have the answers but would like to suggest some possible elements of the story that could help deepen understandings and develop a different more confident mindset.

Last year, 2017, anthropologist James Suzman published his book, Affluence without Abundance, in which he argued that Bushmen give us a pretty good insight into how homo sapiens lived for 95 or 98 percent of human history. European colonialism enjoyed its heyday for 400 odd years and while the Bushmen’s way of life prevailed for at least 70,000 years. He made an extraordinary observation:

“If we judge a civilisation’s success by its endurance over time, then the Bushmen are the most successful society in human history.”

Suzman argued that humanity was on the edge of change (2017):

“Something fairly fundamental is shifting. We have all these big new questions about sustainability, about whether the world can continue as it is. Looking back at how the most sustainable cultures in human history organize themselves might give us some idea of how to organize ourselves in the future.”

He further said that some settlers were quietly impressed. The expressed admiration for their extraordinary knowledge of local flora and fauna and the ease with which they procured “remedies” for all sorts of different ailments from the plants around them.

Why was this an important body of research for the development of a new national narrative? The Bushmen were spread across the Southern African mountains. In South Africa, they are considered to be the first people based at the Cape and were referred to as KhoiSan. Over time they were known to intermingle with the Southern African Bantu (these were anthropological terms.)

This intermingling over time resulted in the birth of a little boy in 1918 who was to grow up to become the most famous South African president and one of the most recognized leaders in the modern world. In 2018, the country stood poised to celebrate the centenary of his birth on 18 July.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s lineage was disclosed through DNA testing nearly 20 years ago and yet absolutely nothing has been done officially to pull this information into the national narrative. These tests proved that his maternal roots were KhoiSan and his paternal roots were Southern African Bantu. These two groups represent the largest collective of those who were dispossessed by European colonialism

Academics could gather this story and delineate other key elements of a broader South African story that our children could eventually be schooled in.

They should know and read Mhudi the first novel written by an African writer. Bridget Thompson, editor of the soon to be published book, Listening to Literature, A South African Canon described Sol Plaatje as the father of modern South African literature. Mhudi, she said, preceded Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart by four decades. More than a hundred years ago, he also produced a foundational book on South African history and politics, Native Life in South Africa that has remained largely absent from current university curricula. She further referred to some of the grand poets.

“One might expect, in our orally literate society, that South Africa’s poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile(1938-2018) would be a household name. Regrettably not. Nor is Mazisi Kunene(1930-2006), poet laureate before him and designated African poet laureate by UNESCO in 1993, nor is Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi(1875-1945) affectionately known as Imbongi yesizwe jikelele(The poet of the nation as a whole). Nontsizi Mqwetho, a remarkable woman about whose life very little is known but whose poetry written in the 20s and 30s amazes and delights to this day, is familiar to an even smaller circle.”

In conclusion, these four elements taken together with Mbeki’s “I am an African” speech provided some of the material needed to rescript a new and deeper narrative. A year ago, in 2017, Ndebele warned that this would take time.

The formulation of a collective narrative had to be such that it drew on all elements of the historical experience of those who make up the collective, he said.

“Against such a background, to come into contact with one another, to experience one another as equals, and to encounter one another as a people without pre-determined, labelled identities, in a new constitutional democracy, and to become socially, politically, economically, and culturally welded into a new national community was, while desirable, a condition that South Africans could not simply declare into being, even if that declaration was made in a constitution. To achieve the necessary bonding needed a great deal of work over time and the enabling political, economic and social space in which to do it.”


Brand, L. A. 2014. Official Stories: Politics and National Narratives in Egypt and Algeria. Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press.

Dangarembga, T. 2018. ‘Nervous Conditions: The Burden of Race, Class and Gender in the Construction of the Post-colonial’. Mapungubwe Annual Lecture delivered at the University of Johannesburg, March 20, 2018.

Mangcu, X. (ed.). 2015. The Colour of our Future, Does Race Matter in Apartheid South Africa. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Masilela, N. N. 2013. An Outline of the New African Movement in South Africa. Trenton, N. J: Africa World Press.

Mbeki, T. 1996. ‘I am an African’.

Mostert, N. 1992. Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People. London: Cape Publishers.

Mr. Y. 2011. ‘A National Strategic Narrative’. Wilson Centre.

Ndebele, N. S. 2017. ‘Constituting the Nation beyond the Constitution’. Jabavu Lecture at University of Fort Hare.

South African Government. 1996. ‘The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa’.

Suzman, J. 2017. Affluence Without Abundance. Bloomsbury USA.

Thompson, B. Listening to Literature: A South African Canon.

Williams, J. 2017. ‘Tell Us 5 Things About Your Book: ‘Affluence Without Abundance’’. The New York Times.

Wilson, F. 2011. Dinosaurs, Diamonds and Democracy: A Short, Short History of South Africa. Cape Town: Umuzi.c

This paper formed the basis of a chapter in the book, Decolonising Journalism Education : Some Critical Perspectives, edited by Ylva Rodney-Gumede, Colin Chasi, Zubeida Jaffer and Mvuzo Ponono (available for purchase at

Zubeida Jaffer will present it on October 19, 2022 to mark Black Wednesday (South African Media Freedom Day) as part of the 50th Anniversary Celebrations of the School of Journalism and Media Studies in Makhanda.


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