Policy Brief 38: Fostering a Common Africanness Based on Democracy, Diversity and Solidarity

Africa’s bitter history, of colonialism and apartheid, with its accompanying ethnic division, conflict, and state-sponsored economic inequalities has made the challenge of cobbling together a new African identity (Africanness), so much harder, yet more urgent.

To start with, diverse developing countries such as South Africa, with a politically divided past struggle to find a solution in nationalism, based on shared culture or common citizenship, or living in a shared space alone – often assumed in Western models of nation-hood (Gellner 1983; Anderson 1991).

One of the great African scholars of ethnicity, Mahmood Mamdani (1996) observed how the Achilles heel of many African post-independence and liberation movements had been their difficulty to construct citizenship as an inclusive concept.

How then should one define South Africanness? As with an African identity, the central pillar must be consensus on inclusive democracy, ethnic, colour, and political diversity, core shared values and empathy for the vulnerable that cut across the racial, colour, and political divide (Gumede 2005, 2012a, b).

No one single definition of who is South African 

We must start from the premises that there cannot be a single definition of who is South African. The obvious basic building block is identifying oneself as South African. The definition of being South African can never be narrow, but be inclusive, embracing, and democratic (Gumede 2005, 2012a, b).

The ethnic, language, and regional diversity bequeathed by both colonialism and apartheid, must mean that modern South Africanness cannot be but a ‘layered’, interwoven mosaic. Former president Nelson Mandela’s 1962 statement in the dock during his political trial for inciting resistance against the apartheid government neatly put it that, South Africanness cannot be defined in relation to a majority community (Mandela 2013). By the same token, there cannot be one sole defining culture that indicates South Africanness.

Being African, within South Africa’s plural South Africanness, cannot ever take only  one form, but should be, because of the country’s unique history, more nuanced, multiple, and diverse.

President Thabo Mbeki in his famous speech “I am an African”, made on behalf of the African National Congress in Cape Town on 8 May 1996, on the occasion of the passing of the new Constitution of South Africa, described being African and South African as being a collective of events that have happened with South Africa and its neighbouring countries, a common share of tragedy, loss, and hope,

“I am an African. I am born of the people of the continent of Africa. The pain of the violent conflict that the peoples of Liberia, Somalia, Sudan, Burundi, and Algeria is a pain I also bear. The dismal shame of poverty, suffering and human degradation of my continent is a blight that we share. The blight on our happiness that derives from this and from our drift to the periphery of the ordering of human affairs leaves us in a persistent shadow of despair”.

“This is a savage road to which nobody should be condemned. This thing that we have done today, in this small corner of a great continent that has contributed so decisively to the evolution of humanity says that Africa reaffirms that she is continuing her rise from the ashes”, (Mbeki 1996).

Alarmingly, many perceive who or what is African in South Africa very narrowly, either only based on  one type of pigmentation, ethnicity of forbearers, or level suffering. This leads to the misguided phenomenon that some people are perceived as ‘supposedly’ not African or black enough, because of their skin colour, language, or historical ethnic background. This for many South Africans leads to unnecessary trauma and questioning of their sense of identity and sense of belonging.

Africanness or African identity, in the South African context, cannot by any stretch of the imagination be the same as Nigeria, Zimbabwe, or Ghana.

South Africa was not colonised like many other African countries. It was colonised as what became known in mainstream history as part of the “New World” in the 1600s, by European powers, in similar ways such as countries like Brazil, the US, and Cuba.

Such colonialisation of the New World-type is of a different type to that of most African countries. In these New World types of colonialism, indigenous people inhabited these countries, prior to colonialism. But colonialism brought settlers from colonial countries. In many cases, it also brought subjected peoples from other parts of the world whether as slaves or subjects.

These societies over time became ethnically, culturally, and pigmentationally mixed. Even the indigenous communities who were present before colonialism often had mixed at one level or the other. The apartheid project was to a large extent based on preventing any further intermixture of colours, languages, and communities.

A common South African national identity is therefore not based on a singular shared culture, language, or ethnicity. As Nelson Mandela stated from court docks in 1962, it also should not be defined solely in relation to one majority community.

An African identity in the South African context is more diverse than in most other African countries – and that is also the overwhelming character, uniqueness, and strength of Africanness in the South African context. It is the basis of the country’s national identity, its mirror to itself, and its face to the world.

An African identity in the context of South Africa’s African identity is its diversity – and that is also the individual, collective, and the country’s identity.

Diversity is a central pillar of common South Africanness. 

The fact that we are so ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse should then be a central plank of a unique South African identity. South Africa’s democracy is based on a compromise between the diverse political groups and acceptance of our differences.

The fact that South Africa has multiple identities is the basis of a common South Africanness, should be the basis of its shared South Africanness. South Africa is a melting point of people with their roots in Africa, the East, and the West.

On the face of it, in many cases there may have at the end of colonialism and apartheid remained what appear to be distinctly different communities, despite centuries of intermixture.

However, South African identities are not ‘gated communities’ with fixed borders; often, they overlap meaningfully, beyond the occasional shared word or value. Our modern South Africanness therefore cannot be but a ‘layered’, plural, and inclusive one, and one based on acceptance of our ‘interconnected differences’.

Colonial and apartheid governments have insisted that South Africa is a “society of self-enforced communities, always potentially – and in the absence of the (colonial or apartheid) state, actually – gruesome conflict with one another” (Khilnani 2003).

Like India, both colonial and apartheid governments have insisted that South Africa is a “society of self-enforced communities, always potentially – and in the absence of the (colonial or apartheid) state, actually – gruesome conflict with one another (Khilnani 2003)”.

Yet, more than 350 years of colonialism and apartheid has meant that South African cultures are not ‘gated communities, with fixed borders, but more often than overlaps considerably, beyond just the occasional shared word or value. This means that South Africanness is one of ‘interconnected differences.

The challenge for any South African leader is how to build “a common sense of South Africanness and shared responsibility for a common destiny”, based on our ‘interconnected differences’. A common South African identity and the future will have to be built as a mosaic of the best elements of our diverse pasts and present, histories and cultures.

South African common identity based on democracy. 

Because the nation, termed the ‘imagined political community, by the scholar of nationalism Benedict Anderson, is so diverse, creating a new South Africanness will have to be based on politics. And because of this, South Africanness will always have to be continuously persuaded for – it is not going to be one that will be enacted by decree or good intentions alone.

South Africa’s founding myths – based on politics – are the fact that the country managed to, out of the ashes of a civil war, peacefully construct a democratic dispensation, based on a new democratic constitution, anchored in South Africa’s ethnic diversity and a new set of democratic values, rules, and political culture.

The founding document of our political settlement is our constitution. What then is the basis of our common political identity? A common South Africanness will have to be weaved around the idea of an inclusive democracy.

Altogether these would be the basis for common interests and a national consensus across ethnic, political, and colour divide. Our common ambition should be to mould a new democratic identity for South Africa.

Such a broader Africanness and South Africanness must be based on self-identities that are vested in the common constitution, democracy, democratic institutions, and democratic values.

The best way forward for South Africa is not Afrikaner or African nationalism, but what Michael Ignatieff (1993) described as “civic nationalism”. In “civic nationalism” the glue that holds communities together is equal rights and shared democratic cultures, values, and institutions, rather than ethnic nationalism, whether isiZulu, Indian, Afrikaner or coloured.

Because South Africanness is a political construct, there are some obvious pitfalls. Since democracy and the new constitution are at the heart of South Africa’s new identity, undermining both cannot but undermine the formation of a new South Africanness. Yet, increasingly the constitution has often been treated not as a founding document by some political leaders.

Furthermore, there is a misguided belief that the party laws are above that of the country’s constitution, laws, and individual conscience. Many ANC members and supporters follow the party line first, rather than the country’s constitution, laws, and conscience.

Former President Jacob Zuma for example some time ago warned that ANC MPs should serve the ANC first, before the constitution – that is not right. Furthermore, a new democratic South African identity necessitates widespread public trust in the democratic system and institutions.

Yet, the constitution has often been treated not as a founding document. In many cases, the ANC constitution is seen as above the country’s constitution. But “to survive, a constitution must have more than philosophical or logical appeal; it must be viewed by most citizens as worth defending (Weingast 1997)”.

If Parliament is seen as an institution that only rubber-stamp the decisions of the executive, rather than serving as check-and-balances against the abuse of power by the executive and to protect ordinary citizens, its credibility to protect ordinary citizens and its role as a symbol of South Africanness will be severely undermined.

There cannot be competing governance systems to the constitution either. For example, the governance system of traditional chiefs, leaders, and structures, and its guiding ideology of patriarchy, directly challenges and competes with South Africa’s democratic constitution, laws, and values. The system of African traditional chiefs, leaders, and structures should be abolished or if retained, reformed to be in line with constitutional democratic norms, to ensure social, gender, and age equality and promote individuals’ freedom of choice.

As Larry Diamond, the American democracy scholar argues, once a departure from the democratic rules and behaviour becomes a ‘recurring and defining feature’ (they do happen to some degree in all democracies), they will remain hollow democracies. And for our purposes, if the democracy is of low quality, it will be impossible to foster a ‘new national democratic identity’ (Diamond 1997).

An accountable democratic state crucial for a common democratic South African identity 

Because a democratic state is central in building a new common South Africanness, the legitimacy of the state will hinge on whether it delivers. Herein lays the danger for nation-building, which is premised on an effective, inclusive, and caring democracy.

The nature of South Africa’s transition to democracy meant that it was always going to be difficult for any democratic government in South Africa to build a national consensus centred on a new democratic state – unless the state delivers.

Because of South Africa’s negotiated compromise, the apartheid state that many black South Africans saw and fought as illegitimate was taken over by the new democratic government. Although the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was important in sketching the broad canvass of apartheid abuses, it covered only a small aspect of the countless human rights abuses.

As a result, many individuals who suffered, but now in the new democratic dispensation feel ignored by the state – whether because of lack of support, service delivery, or financial compensation, are suffering quietly in private.

A combination of lack of delivery, a seemingly indifferent democratic state, and the perceptions that only a few blacks connected to the top ANC leadership and whites, who by virtue of education and pre-1994 policies benefit economically from the democracy, undermine any nation-building efforts.

Trust in the state, public leadership, and democratic institutions, and in democracy itself, depends on these institutions being accountable, honest, and effective.

A common prerequisite for developing a common South Africanness is absolute loyalty not to a party, leader, or tribe, but to the country’s Constitution.

Another prerequisite is for the vast talents of all South Africans, not only those of the same colour, party, or faction, to be used. If it is the opposite, it will be undermined nation-building, as it leaves those deliberately marginalised or excluded, whether black or white, excluded.

Opportunistically using the race for self-enrichment or to cover up wrongdoing undermines the building of a common South African identity. So too retreating into ‘nativism”, wanting to seek an exclusive definition of South Africanness or who is an African, which over-rides the constitution’s core definition – which argues for multiple identities, diversity, and inclusivity – as the pillars of South Africanness.

Public corruption that appears to go without punishment or with selective punishment (perceptions that if the person is closely connected to the right faction of the ANC then wrongdoing is often not punished or just given a slap on the wrist), undermines the democratic legitimacy, credibility, and trust of the state.

Leadership that strengthens a common South Africanness

Leadership style matters very much. There is going to be a premium on South Africa’s political leaders to always govern for every South African, not one political party, faction, or ethnic group.

Good public leadership is a pillar of good democratic governance, the way the values of the country, as encompassed under the constitution, are embedded. Leaders can either foster the underlying values, inclusive nationhood, and peaceful co-existence set out in democratic constitutions, or undermine these.

A case in point is the fact that President Nelson Mandela, like India’s Mohandas Gandhi, on purpose tried to evoke through his own personality a symbol of all-South African patriotism around which all South Africans could rally, no matter their colour, ethnicity, or political allegiance.

People often say South Africa lacks leadership. What they mean is that we need leaders that would govern in the best interests of all. Leadership that is in the widest public interest, aligned with the values of the constitution, and which is compassionate – promotes democratic governance. Leaders must follow the rules applicable to everyone else. Flagrant ignorance of the new democratic laws by post-apartheid leaders will not do.

Leadership is at a higher premium in societies that are ethnically diverse, have high levels of inequality, and where democratic rules, institutions, and governance are not fully embraced by all. Poor leadership prevents the institutionalisation of democratic constitutions, laws, and racial inclusivity. It will mean ordinary citizens’ supporting leaders, whether in government, politics, business, or traditional ones based on democratic values, not colour, ethnicity, and culture.

Continental address and call for a United Africa.

While building a common South Africa is important it is worth noting that South Africa does not exist in isolation and parcel to its development is owed to its neighbouring countries within the African continent. This, therefore, makes It equally important in realizing South Africanness to also focus on building a united Africa, for the benefit of her people.

Patrice Lumumba was the most prominent nationalist and independence leader in Congo. In the 1950s his fame had spread beyond the nation’s boundaries.

At the closing session of the International Seminar organized by the Congress for the Freedom of Culture, held at the University of Ibadan in Ibadan, Nigeria. He gave a speech on March 22, 1959, which told the details of his aspiration for a united Africa.

“…the African unity so ardently desired by all those who are concerned about the future of this continent will be possible and will be attained only if those engaged in politics and the leaders of our respective countries demonstrate a spirit of solidarity, concord, and fraternal collaboration in the pursuit of the common good of our peoples.”

Solidarity, social justice, and caring for the vulnerable 

Building commonality because of difference presents a unique challenge. In the South African type of colonial and apartheid history, white skins were bestowed with more social, political, and economic power. Power was further dispersed based on skin pigmentation.

Building a post-colonial and post-apartheid common African identity is challenging because colonial, slave, and apartheid colour-based power often remains ingrained in social, political, and economic spheres.

Former President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah’s speech at the inaugural ceremony of the OAU Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1963 also  advocated for the unity and independence of Africa describing the continent as being empowered with human and mineral resources enough to create our own ecosystems independent of colonial rule and influences.

“On this continent, it has not taken us long to discover that the struggle against colonialism does not end with the attainment of national independence. Independence is only the prelude to a new and more involved struggle for the right to conduct our own economic and social affairs; to construct our society according to our aspirations, unhampered by crushing and humiliating neo-colonialist controls and interference”.

He further went on to highlight how the Continent carries the riches of the world that have given countries outside of Africa’s borders billions of rands in profits with very little shared within Africa.

“Our continent is probably the richest in the world for minerals and industrial and agricultural primary materials. From the Congo alone, Western firms exported copper, rubber, cotton, and other goods to the value of 2, 773 billion dollars in the ten years between 1945 and 1955, and from South Africa, Western gold mining companies have drawn a profit, in the four years, between 1947 to 1951, of 814 billion dollars” (Nkrumah, 1963).

“It is said, of course, that we have no capital, no industrial skill, no communications, and no internal markets, and that we cannot even agree among ourselves how best to utilise our resources.”

Race, and the continued legacy of apartheid inequalities, where most blacks are poor, and whites better off, is one of the faultlines of the country’s efforts to build a common South Africanness.

Therefore, building a shared South African common identity, therefore, must involve economic redress, tackling racism and a rebalance of apartheid-inherited power relations.

In times of crisis, whether based on economic collapse, corruption, or state failure, in the post-colonial or post-apartheid period, citizens, in countries with diverse roots such as South Africa, fall back to historically self-identities, groups, and divisions of the past – making the forging of a shared new identity much harder, yet so much more urgent.

A common South Africanness must be built on solidarity for the vulnerable across ethnicity, colour, and political affiliation. This means that social justice must underpin governing.

It will be critical that economic development policies focus on genuinely uplifting not only the poor but the widest number of people at the same time, whatever their race, colour, or political affiliation – rather than a small elite, whether white or black or both. If the poor black majority is left out of prosperity, a common South Africanness will remain a fading dream.

Nkrumah also added that while Africa may have been victim to colonial rule, Africans too have failed in realizing their independence because of the focus on developing ‘states’ countries within the continent and individual parties instead of on one unit.

“We have the resources. It was colonialism in the first place that prevented us from accumulating effective capital, but we ourselves have failed to make full use of our power in independence to mobilize our resources for the most effective take-off into thoroughgoing economic and social development. We have been too busy nursing our separate states to understand fully the basic need of our union, rooted in common purpose, common planning, and common endeavour. A union that ignores these fundamental necessities will be but a shame. It is only by uniting our productive capacity and the resultant production that we can amass capital. And once we start, the momentum will increase.”


The post-apartheid collective identity-building project has to be building a ‘layered’, plural one based on acceptance of our ‘interconnected differences’.

South Africans will have to transform their individual self-identity away whether from narrow white, isiZulu, Coloured, or Indian, to more inclusive South Africanness and at some point, pursue the reality of one Africa sharing a common history of colonial rule and a transition into an independent nation. Being born into the Zulu, white, Coloured, or Indian “community” should be only one aspect of Africanness or South Africanness, and not the only one, as alarmingly in many instances the case is now.

A South African identity would be taking parts of all communities, adding to those one was born into, and discarding aspects that are discriminatory, impinging on the human rights and dignity of others. A common South African identity is partially based on politics. And because of this, South Africanness will always have to be continuously persuaded for – it is not going to be one that will be enacted by decree or good intentions alone.

Democratic institutions, such as the courts, the media, and civil society, are critical watchdogs to ensure the values of democracy that is important for nation-building is lived out in everyday routines.


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William Gumede. 2005.  Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC. Struik Random House.

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William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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