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The fault in our national consciousness

With labels of “traitor” and “terrorist” easily applied, and fingers pointing in all directions at corruption, Mphuthumi Ntabeni takes a step back and looks at the differences between patriotism and nationalism and why we need to be cautious of “skunk political leadership”.

I am of Mark Twain’s persuasion that my country requires my loyalty all the time, but my government only when it deserves it. In these days of diminishing strength of our collective political gains and weakened institutions of democratic dispensation, perhaps it is incumbent upon us to remind each other of the crucial distinctions between patriotism and nationalism.

The current national government is quick in accusing people who disagree with it of lack of patriotism. The president, in his usual vacuous ways of an ignoramus, leads from the front in sometimes calling his opponents traitors who betray the spirit of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR). He is forever threatening to expose the “real” corruption within his organisation. Like wolves to his jackal, we wait in bated and berated breath, scaffolding the falling cliff of his ruse.

Historically Speaking

There have always been different streaks of nationalism within South Africa. The first to govern these lands was driven by the exclusionist racist ideology of the National Party. The left-leaning nationalism became the foundation of our political struggle. Initially it was a movement of black elites – intellectuals (journalists and men if the cloth) and tribal chiefs who, more than anything, wanted to share political and economic power with the colonists, and later the racists. Their streak of genius was in adopting the demands for land restoration of the dispossessed. From there, they gained traction into a popular liberation movement.

After deep factional disputes – regional, personality and ideological clashes – were placated into a mantra of black grievances in general, the ANC as we know it was born. Even their first congress used trickery, like concealing the venue in Bloemfontein, until it was too late for some from the opposing faction to attend. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find an epoch where factionalism didn’t plague the liberation movement.

It took the presidency of Jacob Zuma for the plague to be the only merit of advancement on its greasy pole. The previous presidents were able to keep the rancorous factions in check. The only exception, before the recent era, was when the militant Pan Africanist broke away to form the Pan African Congress. The seeds of Pan Africanism in South Africa stretch back to Makana, aka Nxele, who was angry with the missionaries and colonists who, after working with him, refused to see him as their equal. He became a war prophet, promising the restoration of land, and the black nation’s dignity in general, if they drove the whites into the sea. In that era, the progressives were led by the likes of Ntsikana who opposed Nxele with his own prophecies of integration and mutual benefit between blacks and whites – that which would eventually became know as multiracialism.

The founding of Black Consciousness in South Africa

When the political parties were burned by the apartheid regime they went underground, and into exile where they forged closer working relationship, moving beyond the petty bickering about, for instance, who organised the Sharpville March that tragically ended with 69 dead black people. Besides, by the seventies, both the ANC and PAC had lost huge amount of wind inside the country. The Black Consciousness movement, led by the likes of Steve Biko, had gained steam through the influence of innovative politics of existential consciousness of the Negritude philosophy of the black Francophone intellectuals, like Aimé Césaire. It was Black Consciousness that changed things inside the country, and in exile for that matter when it provided both the ANC and PAC with vitality through the hordes of South African youth that, fleeing the repercussions of the apartheid regime for the 1976 riots, went to join them in exile. These, eventually became the ANC’s foot soldiers, who had joined it more because it was better organised outside than political persuasion. The interesting thing is that the ANC underground prisons, later, were mostly filled by the Black Consciousness people. Why?

A history lacking transparency

The easier answer is to say the compatriots of Black Consciousness didn’t easily fit into the ANC. You’ll recall that Black Consciousness is the philosophy of self realisation and upliftment. This was like a square on the circle of collectivist discipline of the NDR.

It was Jacob Zuma who was in charge of the ANC internal police, called Imbokodo. The orders were responsible for throwing Black Consciousness compatriots into ANC underground, sometimes based on flimsy evidence of them being ‘traitors’ or apartheid spies. Even then, disagreements between comrades were regarded unkindly by the Imbokodo. The resurgence of it is now currently happening in KwaZulu-Natal where politics have become an occupational hazard, to say the least. I leave up to you to connect the dots.  Most bizarre to me is the ANC refusal to open its files of the exile era to the public, especially concerning Quatro prison. Though much more intelligent in disposing crucial evidence of its apartheid cruelties, the National Party, through government apartheid files, has done better in promoting transparency and accountability in comparison. Meantime, in Orwelean language, the pigs keep acquiring human faces.

The faction that formed Cope (Congress of the People) was more of backlash against the humiliation of Thabo Mbeki and the struggle for the rule of constitutional law than a nationalist movement. The real example of aggressive nationalism came with the factional shenanigans that gave birth to the recent split formation of the EFF. The EFF is the dog meal mix of pseudo Fanonism, Thomas Sankara’s benign African exceptionalism and Pan African sentiments.

Understanding Patriotism

The late American journalist, Sidney Harris, made this apt observation: “The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that the patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does; the first attitude creates a feeling of responsibility while the second a feeling of blind arrogance.”

I think it is nationalism, not patriotism, that is the last refuge of scoundrels. For patriotism is about protecting the land one loves, from internal and external enemies. Whereas nationalism is a misinformed extreme form of patriotism. It lacks humility and wears a stubborn face that is immune to reasoning and common sense. It understands only its own emotional passions.

[quote pull=”center”]Nationalism is intolerant and insecure; plagued by the deficiencies of inferiority complex – the ultimate breeder of arrogance[/quote]

Fanon was correct in admiring Nationalism as a historical revolutionary weapon. In Concerning Violence, he argues that nationalist sentiment is the right form of organisation for an anti-colonial struggle. Because Nationalism unites the people against a non-illusory common enemy – the coloniser or the oppressor – and helps indigenous peoples overcome tribalism which makes them weak in the face of a united enemy.

But Fanon was also astute enough to recognise the failures of nationalism once the common enemy, like apartheid, is defeated. In The Pitfalls of National Consciousness, he expertly explains the weaknesses of nationalism after the Revolution, after independence. Being a practising psychiatrist he goes further to prescribe a cure – a way that, through collective work and education, sentiments of Nationalism can be transformed into a National Consciousness. He propagated the republican humanism of a people’s sovereign self-determination. Something that is not far fetched from what Biko synthesised into Black Consciousness in our country. Fanon, like Biko, was himself influenced by the Negritude movement. In essence this is a drive to a humanist project with emphasis on black self-realisation and upliftment, not for racist cause, but as means of instiling a sense of dignity to the historically oppressed.

Where to next?

This is where as the South African nation we are stuck: at the inability to look at things with a humanist eye. We’re stuck in the nostalgia of the past even as we know it is incompetent to solve our current problems. This is why we are easily manipulated by skunk political leadership. We fail to judge them by the values they live by. We’ve allowed them to hijack the language of the struggle and humanism for their own selfish gains. Worst still, we have allowed them to use humanist language to fortify greed in careless disregard for ethics.

This, of course, is not limited to South Africa. I listen to UN speeches these days with a sinking feeling. I listen at how powerful nations appoints themselves policeman of the world, legalising their own murderous actions as just, while calling everyone else terrorism. I listen how the captains of capitalist industry justify their legalised corruption of endless bonuses and ludicrous salaries, while laying off family bread winners – real workers – as a first reaction to slump in business or recession.

The worst part, that which disappoints me most, is we revere, and teach our children, to emulate these people as role models, calling it entrepreneurship. And where we know, we don’t care, about how all this contradicts our beliefs and the social teachings of our faith. Because we have learned to be supermarket Christians, picking and choosing only that which agrees with our convenience. We have become adept at crucifying Christ again in the Calvary of our public squares, and sadly, our hearts also. And this is the canker in the spirit of our age. SA.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


  1. Interesting historical take on the topic from the South African. Thankfully the nationalists seem to be on the backfoot. Let’s see what the patroits can achieve for the country.


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Mphuthumi Ntabeni
Mphuthumi Ntabeni lives in Cape Town where he is a political commentator and writer. He writers for the Southern Cross and his book, The Broken River Tent is published by Black Back Book, an imprint of Jacana Books, in early 2018.

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