No need to wait for the next World Cup

Now’s the time to act

Professor Thomas Koelble
Professor Thomas Koelble

South Africa has taken a beating in the world press lately, and national morale is at a low ebb. But should the country wait for another world cup to buoy it up or is it time to create indigenous rituals of solidarity?

Despite social upheaval and unrest, South Africa has sufficiently strong cultural, historical and societal resources to begin to build a multicultural sense of community, reciprocity and solidarity but a wholesale revision of the relation between the state and the public is required

Professor Thomas Koelble, Academic Director at UCT’s Graduate School of Business, and c-author of The failure of decentralisation in South African local government: complexity and unanticipated consequences, who has studied the design of the local government framework and its contributing role in the municipal 'crisis, says  that far from relying on heavily orchestrated events like an Olympics or a World Cup, the rites that best interpret a nation’s history into recognisable symbols of solidarity, are those that result naturally from its national journey of identity, based firmly in reality, despite being purposefully brought about.

The connection between ritual and unification

In new research published in Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, Koelble demonstrates that the FIFA World Cup, although a set event, became a point of solidarity when, in a seemingly natural way, South Africans tapped into a national sense of self, accessing symbols like the flag and the nation’s colourful diversity to offer the world a smorgasbord of sights, sounds and flavours uniquely South African.

“There is a deep connectivity,” Koelble says, “between the construction of peoplehood and the fabrication of rituals. The necessity of invoking the special powers possessed by ritual, and invoking them powerfully, is determined by the depth of the national divisions that a nation must transcend.”

Perhaps the greatest unifying act of solidarity was played out on the highly-fractured sports fields of the immediate post-apartheid era in 1995 when Mandela, attempting to stitch together a population divided by colour, culture and class, appeared on the playing field wearing a Springbok jersey. As if to advance the national narrative, South Africa triumphs in overtime, allowing Mandela to present the championship golden cup. Celebrations erupted throughout the country.

“Though only one moment,” Koelble says, “it was profoundly performative: the subject pronouns we and you joined to the third person collective – South Africa. There was the suggestion of a horizontal citizenship. Each South African having in common the ritualised experience of this our moment. The official film and book of the Rugby World Cup expressly presented it as a fated rite of solidarity.”

The need to embed solidarity

Professor Koelble believes that while there is agreement that solidarity is important, there is less clarity about what solidarity is because it tends to exist in a practical or immanent state. It does not appear to be as solidly conceptual as property rights, for example.

“The paradox is that solidarity seems to be mediated – intended to have an effect on national reality – but solidarity on the national level must be a dimension of public culture. Its sentiments can course through the collectivity only when it is embedded within the culture that circulates through the public sphere. Solidarity creates integration because it guides citizens’ choices in the same direction, lending them a coherence that is typically not the result of conscious calculation.”

Koelble’s research suggests that there exists nothing resembling a straight line between public events, like Freedom Day parades, and the production of solidarity. The reason is that so much depends on citizens possessing the social and economic resources that allow them to capitalise on the rewards of national solidarity.

“The public conversation instrumental in creating solidarity is only available to those who have the economic resources to own communication technologies like a television or computer,” says Koelble, “along with the linguistic and educational capital that allows them to converse on the national stage. There must also be an ‘ecology of hope’ in which citizens believe their investment in this conversation is worthwhile because it will create a better future.”

The state's involvement

The goal of solidarity is to create a way of reconciling the divisiveness of the immediate past as part of a larger project of creating an imminent unity, but as is now apparent in the tensions that beset South African governance, formalising a democracy is turning out to be easier then crafting national solidarity.

As early as 1976, Mandela wrote from his prison cell on Robben Island that “the most urgent problem” is and will be to “create unity”.

“This production of unity,” Koelble cautions, “cannot take place without the framework provided by the public political sphere. The state must allow, even encourage, the self-organising capacity of the public to come to the fore, opening up a space for an intercourse of signs, discourses and images. The public political sphere must come alive as a genuine mediation between civil society and the state. This would allow that sphere to serve as a site for the circulation of solidarity-producing signs. Those in governance must resist the temptation to intervene. Solidarity only comes about when the citizenry decides voluntarily to allow national identity to frame other forms of identity.”

For a democratic South Africa, creating solidarity requires nothing less than a wholesale revision of the relation forged under apartheid between the state and the public.

This involves recruiting disenfranchised and rurally-based citizens into civil society and giving them a voice and a stake in the public sphere discourse of nationness. But each day brings evidence that the lack of progress toward economic equilibration and the kind of community stability that employment and social services bring endangers the project and prospects for creating interracial solidarity.

On the upside, there are signs that South Africa has sufficiently strong cultural, historical and societal resources to begin to build a multicultural sense of community, reciprocity and solidarity.

While there are many overt, state-directed, attempts to create a new sense of unity – the emphasis on the constitution, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the miracle transformation, Mandela’s support of the 1995 rugby team, the ceremony surrounding the funerals of ANC stalwarts, and the elections being prime examples of politically symbolic acts of nation-making – citizenship education to encourage solidarity must walk a fine line between the creation of a glorified history and a narrative that does not smack of manipulation.

“The constitution,” Koelble says, “embodies not only a set of guarantees, but emancipatory promises that can potentially bind people together. The visionary promise is that if citizens embrace multiculturalism, transcend the racism and complicities of their past, and take on the nation as a foundational community, then a sense of nationness that leads to the good life, the prosperous life of jobs, security and peace, will follow. This is a future that, as Mandela foresaw from the earliest days, depends on the creation and imagination of a solidarity.”

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