European discourse on the nation…oscillated between… two conceptions: The first, derived from the experience of the French Revolution that placed emphasis on a set of democratic values and equality before the law constituting the basis for a community of free citizens. The second placed emphasis on the distinctions of geography, language, culture and ethnos that differentiated the oppressed from the oppressive empire or imperial power.
By Z. Pallo Jordan
The National Question conception arose in the multi-national states of 19th century Europe.
The kingdoms of Austro-Hungary, Britain, Russia, Sweden and others expanded during previous centuries taking in and subjugating bordering lands and their peoples. Within all these empires there were smaller national and religious minorities, like the Jews and the Romanies. Since the 15th century, Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands and Britain had also conquered territories in the Americas, Caribbean, in Asia and Africa. Foreign domination was widely practiced and affected Europe, Asia, Africa and the countries of the new world by the end of the 19th century.
The subject peoples in these imperial arrangements were held down by armed force and administrative fiat. Their languages and culture suppressed and attempts at self-assertion met with repression.
After the revolution of 1789, France was the first European state in which religious minorities attained full civil rights. From 1792 Jews and Muslims living in France and its territories enjoyed the same citizenship rights as Christians. The abolition of slavery in 1793 extended these rights to all Africans living in France and its territories as well.
France thus became a secular state, in which no religion or belief system was privileged; all religions were regarded as equal. When Napoleon re-imposed slavery in France’s colonies in 1802, that was the signal for the former enslaved of Haiti to break their ties with France. After a bitterly fought liberation war, Haiti became the first African republic of modern times as an independent state in 1803.
Historically, “the nation” is a relatively new concept and is associated with the modern world. It is directly linked to the emergence of industrial capitalism in Europe as well as to the struggles of the peoples subjected to colonialism by the European powers after the 17th century. Arising in the context of the French Revolution, the concept of “nation” is intertwined with that of “citizen”.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, adopted by revolutionary France in October 1789, pronounced the right of the governed to participate fully in government. It abolished institutions that vested such powers in the hands of an aristocracy or monarch and established the principle of equality in the eyes of the law. In revolutionary France itself it soon became evident that, in practice, not all could participate in governing the country and various measures were adopted to facilitate popular participation.
The suffrage – the right to elect or be elected to a governing body – became the emblem of citizenship, symbolizing the equality of all citizens and ending the regime of privilege.
In revolutionary France all adult males were regarded as citizens. The original French conception of citizenship was that it was a birthright that applied to all adult males as individuals. Equality before the law indicated that the individual’s parentage, region of origin, city or town of domicile, religious preference or race were irrelevant. Citizens had certain rights, the most important of which was the vote. Thus the community of citizens, created by the revolution, defined itself as “the French nation”, and no longer as the subjects of the Bourbon kings. The Bourbon monarchs too became the kings of the French nation before they were deposed and executed.
In reality individuals are associated with and affiliated to a number of groups and bodies that also claim their participation – the church, a professional body, a lodge, a guild. In revolutionary France, it was argued that these identities, are or should be subordinate to the more significant affiliation to the community of citizens, the nation. The French Revolutionary concept of the nation consequently upheld the idea of a multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-faith community, a nation, bound together by a body of shared political values and equal suffrage rights.
The second conception of “the nation”, derived from the experience of the subject peoples of Europe, as they sought to create such a community by the gathering in of the dispersed members of a language community, cultural or ethnic group in order to assert their collective rights against an oppressive empire. Issues such as language, geographical region, ethnos, culture and race would become emblems of inclusion or exclusion for such movements.
European discourse on the nation consequently oscillated between these two conceptions: The first, derived from the experience of the French Revolution that placed emphasis on a set of democratic values and equality before the law constituting the basis for a community of free citizens. The second placed emphasis on the distinctions of geography, language, culture and ethnos that differentiated the oppressed from the oppressive empire or imperial power.
The Debate Among European Socialists.
After 1848 it was the socialists of Europe who consistently pursued the cause of national independence and debated the issue most avidly. Two principal streams of thought emerged in the debates on the national question among the 19th century revolutionary movements in Europe.
The Austrian Social-Democrats, led by Carl Renner, Otto Bauer and Victor Adler, sometimes called the “Austro-Marxists”, espoused the concept of “cultural autonomy”.
Renner and the Austro-Marxists argued that the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its wealth were the shared inheritance of all the working people of that empire and that it would be historically retrogressive to dismember it into a number of smaller national units. What socialist policy had to address, they argued, were the injustices in the existent state which could however be abolished by a regime of legal equality- like that of France – amongst all citizens. It was the task of socialists to strive for the unity of this nationally and culturally diverse working class.
Instead of separate national states, socialists should struggle for the equality for all national groups before the law and in all institutions of state, with the aim of creating a single national state in which Germans, Magyars, Slavs, Jews, Romanians, Czechs, Slovaks and Italians all enjoyed equal rights within a single state. To ensure actual equality, each of these groups would have equal representation in the central administration and each national language would have equal status in the schools and all state institutions. The “Austro-Marxists” envisaged each national group being permitted to manage its own “cultural affairs”.
The Austro-Marxists argued that their concept accommodated two modern realities – by bringing all these nations and nationalities together in a single state it would reduce sectional and ethnic tensions; and it addressed the need to abolish national oppression by basing the unity of the state on the equality of all citizens. In addition to these merits, they argued, the principle of cultural autonomy retained the large state with its developed national economy, which was the collective legacy of all the national constituents, and not the Germans alone, while creating an environment in which all national cultures could flourish.
Though their viewpoint won a measure of support in many other parties, the perspective that emerged dominant was that of “national self-determination”, which even earned the support of US President, Woodrow Wilson, when the US was drawn into World War I in 1917.
Tsarist Russia was known as the “Prison House of Nations” because of the many nationalities under the Tsarist yoke. Russian revolutionaries necessarily had to address the relationship between national emancipation and their own struggle for democracy and socialism. The debate among the Russians ebbed and flowed before one trend became dominant. The advocates of national self-determination accepted the viewpoint of the “cultural autonomists” in principle, but took it one step further by arguing that subject nations should have the right to secede from an empire and establish their own state as an independent nation.
The Polish struggle for independence enjoyed the support of liberal nationalists, democrats and became one of the cornerstones of the political tradition associated with Marx and Engels after 1848. Greece’s struggle against the Ottomans had also attracted widespread support amongst the intellectual circles of Europe and one of Britain’s great Romantic poets, Lord Byron, died fighting in the Greek War of Independence.
But the reactionary compact, sealed among the European Empires at Vienna after the Battle of Waterloo (1815), conspired to consolidate the regimes of national oppression. Tsarist Russian troops helped suppress national uprisings in Poland, Hungary and Roumania. While Britain retained its hold over Ireland and expanded its trans-Oceanic empire, it helped the Ottoman Turks suppress the Slavic nations in the Balkans.
The national movements of Europe were led by radical democrats from the middle classes seeking to bring their own nations abreast of the most powerful states on that continent. After 1848 the drive for nationhood in some instances was taken up by the forward-looking elements of the incumbent ruling class. This was the case in Piedmont and Prussia, where Count Cavour and Otto von Bismarck drove national unification as state-led projects that resulted in the creation of the Italian state in 1866 and that of Germany in 1870.
Having attained his objective Count Cavour reportedly declared:” Now that we have created Italy, we have to create Italians”
Count Cavour’s remark captured the significant distinction between what the Piedmontese had achieved in Italy and what the revolution in France entailed. The French Revolution gave birth to a nation through a movement and struggle of the common people; Cavour and Otto von Bismarck executed that transformation from above, employing the state. Consequently a “national consciousness” had to be taught and nurtured through state policy. In France it was the revolution and wars to defend its achievements that stimulated and sustained a “national consciousness”.
In most of Europe the thrust of national movements was homogenizing the elements of a potentially unified political entity by drawing into a single state culturally and linguistically related communities, thus setting up psychic and emotional borders that incorporated some to the exclusion of others. Language, geography, folklore and traditions acquired a new importance as signifiers of acceptance or exclusion.
Most of the terms employed in discussions of the national question derive from these two European experiences. The definition of nation or nationality usually makes reference to specific characteristics such as a common language, territory, economy, traditions and customs all of which relate to one aspect of the 19th century European experience.
The Colonial Experience
During the 20th century the experience of the movements for colonial freedom has enriched this discourse in a number of ways because there are noteworthy differences between the European experience and what has unfolded in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America.
The most important factor shaping the movements for nationhood in the world outside Europe was that the imperial power and its colonies are situated in different continents, and with the exception of a few, conquest and control of the colony was vested in a relatively small number of administrators, traders, missionaries and of course the military, who came to constitute the dominant class in the colony.
Consequently, the colonized people usually differed from the imperial power in physical appearance – usually referred to as race – in culture, language, traditions and, often, religion. Most of the countries colonized by the Europeans were pre-industrial societies that were then subjected to the demands of the imperial power and its industrial economy requiring the indigenous economy of the colony to be reshaped and consequently undermining local traditions and changing the culture.
One of the mechanisms of control imposed by the imperial power was the institutionalization of social distance between the colonizers and the colonized. Physical difference, race, was the most effective instrument for this purpose because its markers are so readily evident. As a result contact between the imperial power and the subject peoples was formal and never allowed to go beyond certain well defined points. In every part of the world they conquered after the 1500s, the European powers employed race as a signifier of power and powerlessness. White racism, institutionalized in virtually all European colonies, dates from this age.
Apart from the early birds, like Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, the colonial empires built by the Europeans date from the 19th century and entailed the export of capital either to extract resources and to exploit labour from the colonies or to explore new fields of profitable investment. Colonization and imperial expansion respected neither territorial nor cultural boundaries in the colonies so that the borders of colonies were designed by colonial powers acting individually or collectively.as happened in 1884-5 with respect to Africa at the Congress of Berlin. No colonized people were consulted in the drawing of such frontiers.
The National Question in South Africa
We are all conversant with the Morogoro Conference, the consultative conference that the ANC held in Morogoro in 1969. We referred to the system of national oppression as a “colonialism of a special type”, different from the conventional systems, because the colonized people and colonial state occupied the same territory. In other words, black South Africa was the colony of White South Africa.
At that conference, the ANC adopted a Strategy & Tactics document, which identified the principal source of the conflict in SA at that time as that between the colonized black majority (Africans, Coloureds and Indians) and the white colonial/racist state, which expressed itself in racial terms. The Strategy and Tactics document went on to say that contradiction could not be resolved by the colonial/racist state reforming itself out of existence. Consequently, it was only through struggle that we would be able to resolve the central contradiction in our society. But, because the colonized people and the colonial state occupied the same territory, the system of colonialism in SA would not be overthrown by the colonial state packing up and leaving the territory of the colonized country. To resolve the colonial contradiction in SA required the attainment of democracy, the dismantling of the colonial state and the creation of a democratic state. In other words, abolishing the colonial status of the black majority by making them citizens on whose authority a government could then legitimately claim the right to govern.
In the past the authors of apartheid used to proclaim its essence in plain language, unadorned by the deceitful rhetoric they learnt after 1957. J.G. Strijdom, Malan’s successor as National Party Prime Minister, unabashedly told the Whites-only Parliament of his day:
“Call it paramountcy, baaskap or what you will. It is still domination. I am being as blunt as I can. I am making no excuses. Either the white man dominates or the black man takes over…The only way the European can maintain supremacy is by domination…And the only way they can maintain domination is by withholding the vote from the non-European.”
The national question in South Africa addressed precisely this system of white domination as spelled out by Strijdom. It had evolved from the 1909 Act of Union, with its racist provisions to deny blacks (or “non-Europeans” as Strijdom expressed it) the franchise.
The initial response of the oppressed was the founding of the ANC in January 1912. The clarion call for that inaugural meeting came from the pen Pixley kaIsaka Seme in tones resonant with national sentiment. His appeal to bury the inter-tribal animosities of the past and to take united action as an oppressed people was repeated in one form or another at the subsequent founding of every national movement on the African continent.
The inauguration of the ANC in January 1912 marks the end of the second phase of the anti-colonial national struggle, when the colonized, having experienced colonialism attempted to restore the pre-colonial society. But it also marked the beginning of a modern political practice amongst the Black elite.
During the late 19th century Black politics had been concerned with fighting an unsuccessful rearguard action in defence of the few rights the Black petty bourgeoisie had enjoyed under colonial rule. After January 1912, Black politics would increasingly challenge the institutions and the notion of White overlordship and in the process learn to pose alternatives for the country as a whole. As the ‘parliament of the African people’, the ANC assumed unto itself the role of custodian of the political values, ideals, and aspirations that had found no place in the ‘official’ White parliament, implicitly seizing the initiative from the white minority and recasting the question facing the country as the pursuance of common citizenship in a unified state.
The European liberal-democratic tradition, which the leadership had leant from their predecessors, provided the core political ideas of the national movement during its early years. The Black leadership shared an idealised image of the British Empire and its institutions, which they assumed was built on that political tradition. Like their White counterparts, they turned to Britain, as the final arbiter in South African affairs and tried to legitimate their claims by an appeal to that political tradition, demanding their rights as “subjects of the British crown”.
The racism of the Union constitution however also had the unintended effect of reinforcing group cohesion and solidarity among the oppressed, both of which became factors in political action. Because racism circumscribed the activities of the elite to dealing mainly with their own people, both became factors in political action. Confined to the ghettoes of their skin colour, the elite became susceptible to aspirations and objectives that were not necessarily its own. Those circumstances forced it to recognise that the fulfilment, of its own limited objectives and ambitions, was contingent upon the status of the Black community as a whole.
The “African Bill of Rights”, which the movement adopted in 1923, was essentially a liberal-reformist document setting out the aims of the ANC. They were:
- The restoration of the Cape African Franchise and its extension to the other provinces (i.e. a property-owner’s franchise applicable to all races).
- The abolition of the statutory colour bar.
- Restoration of African rights to buy and sell land anywhere in the country.
The ANC then conceived of the struggle as essentially for civil rights: an extension of the framework of the 1910 Union constitution to include Blacks. The notion of overthrowing white minority domination and replacing it with a government representative of the majority was not part of their political vocabulary.
The liberation movement executed a radical break with that tradition during the 1940s. Inspired by the adoption of the Atlantic Charter in 1941, then ANC President, Dr. A.B. Xuma, convened a Blue Ribbon committee of African political thinkers and leaders to apply the principles of the Atlantic Charter to the African continent. The product of their labours was “The Africans’ Claims”, a programmatic document that the ANC adopted at its annual conference in 1943. The following year a group of younger members of the ANC established the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL).
At its founding conference the ANCYL announced that it adhered to the ideology of African Nationalism, and regarded itself as the ‘brains trust and power station’ of that ideology within the ANC, whose objective was to transform the movement into a broadly based movement fighting for national freedom and the unity of the African people. As understood by the ANCYL, the principles of their nationalism were set out in the Youth League Manifesto.
We can underscore the following themes implicit in both The Africans’ Claims and the ANCYL Manifesto:-
- White supremacy in South Africa, no matter in what guise, is essentially illegitimate.
- The Oppressed people claim the right to national self-determination – i.e. racist South Africa cannot be considered a sovereign state.
- The oppressed people must be/will be their own liberators.
- Since power will not be willingly conceded, the movement required a strategy that employed whatever means necessary to wrest power from the White minority regime.
It was on the initiative of the ANCYL that the ANC adopted the famous Programme of Action of 1949 whose preamble states:
“The fundamental principles of the Programme of Action … are inspired by the desire to achieve National Freedom. By National Freedom we mean freedom from White domination and the attainment of political independence. This implies the rejection of the conception of segregation, apartheid, trusteeship, or White leadership which are all motivated by the idea of White domination…”
During the 1950’s, basing itself on the Programme of Action, the ANC was transformed into mass political movement, leading and initiating popular campaigns, strikes, civil disobedience campaigns and smaller local struggles.
The ANCYL’s perspective was of the African people realizing their unity in the course of the struggle for liberation that would draw in all Africans, irrespective of tribe, language or class. Unity of the oppressed too was conceived as the outcome of common struggle, in which African, Coloured and Indian would earn each other’s confidence through the shared trials of the struggle for liberation.
From the platform of that unity, they argued, the oppressed majority would overthrow white domination and create a non-racial state in which all citizens enjoyed equal rights. Our conception of the nation as composed of the peoples indigenous to Africa, those who came from Europe and those who came from Asia who all met on South African soil and all of whom have an equal claim on SA, which they could all collectively call their home, evolved from that. Hence, as proclaimed in the Freedom Charter: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it…”.
The liberation movement never argued for separate nations; or about distinct nationalities competing with each other; or, worse yet, for a policy to manage the inevitable competition amongst these separate national entities. For a long time, the people who call themselves “liberals” in this country subscribed to such views and consequently advocated various versions of federalism to accommodate the claims of the “competing units”. In our view that was merely a variant of the apartheid regime’s notion of a multiplicity of nations and pursued the same objective: neutralizing the numerical weight of the African majority in the governing of the country.
A number of societies that emerged during the latter part of the 19th century and the early 20th century evolved along lines similar to South Africa. The late African-American revolutionary political activist, Paul Robeson once sang in “A Ballad for Americans” of the US as a nation consisting of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants; that is: “English, Irish, Italian, African, German, Jewish, and Czech, double-Czech, American!” reflecting what emerged as a result of the coming together on the shores of the USA of peoples from all parts of the world.
In Africa, colonialist policies had no regard for historic pre-colonial communities and their boundaries. The borders of colonies reflected the balance of power in Europe and the negotiating skills of imperialist statesmen. National movements on our continent necessarily had to emphasise political equality, equal opportunity, the franchise and a shared democratic political order to the exclusion of factors such as language, ethnic group, cultural or religious community.
The liberation movement had to address all the colonized, transcending ethnic, racial, linguistic and cultural affiliations. Rather than bringing together the disparate elements of a potential nation into a homogenous entity, our movement’s approach is to embrace heterogeneity as a strength rather than as a source of tension. Thus South Africa’s national motto proclaims: Unity in Diversity.
The ANC’s response is to build a nation made up of diverse ethnic, racial, linguistic and cultural groups who share a common home and whose nationhood is determined territorially – the country they call home. In his address during the last sitting of our Constituent Assembly in 1995, Comrade Thabo Mbeki laid that conception out in a brilliant speech which he titled, “I am an African”! He drew the threads of that together pronouncing:
“It is a firm assertion made by ourselves that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white. It gives concrete expression to the sentiment we share as Africans and will defend to the death, that the people shall govern”.