OPINION: On identity, nationalism, state and nation-building

Home Focus OPINION: On identity, nationalism, state and nation-building

An article, penned down by Dr Shaun Whittaker together with Harry Boesak and Mitchell Van Wyk, titled ‘Nation-building, not racism’, pertinently posed the challenge that now is the time to revisit the national question in Namibia. 
However, I do not necessarily concur with the authors when they called the President’s reference to ‘white’ Namibians as ‘the mountain of racist hogwash’ and calling the President a racist. The authors said ‘following the provocative and fictitious observations of President Hage Geingob about ‘white’ Namibians having declared war against Swapo, it is appropriate to ask what the political slogan ‘One Namibia, One Nation’ means today’?
This took me to a lecture on identity, nationalism and state-building by Alois S. Mlambo, a Zimbabwean professor of History in the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies of the University of Pretoria, South Africa. His lecture argues that most African states created by colonialism are not yet nations – and that they are only in the process of becoming. The lecture also comments on the role of historians in shaping notions of nationhood and identity. 
Indeed, just like Zimbabwe, which after many years of bitter armed conflict between the liberation forces and the colonial state gained independence in 1980 amid much joyous celebration over what was expected to be the beginning of a new era of racial equality, fairness, as well as constructive and harmonious nation-building and general welfare, many Southern African countries such as Namibia, Angola, Mozambique and South Africa also gained their independence and would have served as shining examples to the rest of the continent. 
This seemed all the more possible in light of the magnanimous statements at Independence, calling for forgiveness for past wrongs and reconciliation between former enemies. The question that arises is why had our Southern African countries failed to live up to the expectations brought about by independence of developing as harmonious countries with common national identities? 
Terence Ranger (2010: 505-510) has labelled “patriotic history”, which assumes the immanence of a nation expressed through centuries of resistance to external intrusion; embodied in successive “empires”; incarnated through the great spirit mediums in the first Chimurenga or war of liberation and re-incarnated by means of the alliance between [spirit] mediums and guerrillas in the second Chimurenga or resistance or uprising in the liberation Struggle (Ranger 2010: 505).
This is obviously an oversimplification of the country’s past. The reality is very different. Indeed, as the Zimbabwean scholar Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2009a) has asked, are Zimbabweans and by extension Namibians, South Africans, Angolans and Mozambicans merely colonial and nationalist constructs that are yet to become nations? 
The above question evokes more related questions about what has inhibited the development of a common identity in these nations, their common sense of nationalism and the construction of viable, successful and coherent nation-states?  In search of answers to these and other questions, Mlambo’s contribution explores the processes of identity-making and state-building in a multi-ethnic and multiracial society that has recently emerged from a protracted armed struggle against racially ordered, settler-colonial domination. 
The lecture contends that many factors have militated against the development of a common national identity, including, among other things, the ethnic diversity; the colonial legacy of racism; a racialised, unequal socio-economic system; the policy of national reconciliation after independence; the vexatious question of land ownership that remained dangerously unresolved; and the problematic role of intellectuals, especially historians, in shaping competing perceptions about the country’s past and present and fuelling difference rather than a sense of common and shared interests. 
The underlying assumption here is that the challenges facing Zimbabwe in its postcolonial nation-building and state-formation efforts may not be too dissimilar to those that have faced, are facing, or are likely to face other Southern African countries that are also multi-ethnic, multicultural and multiracial and also emerged from a contested past of racial domination and armed conflict, such as Mozambique, Angola, Namibia and, indeed, South Africa. 
The term “nation” is used to refer to “an aggregate of persons, so closely associated with each other by common descent, language or history, as to form a distinct race or people, usually organised as a separate political state and occupying a definite territory” (Fenton 2010: 13), while “nationalism” refers to devotion and loyalty to one’s own nation.  In addition, the term “national identity” is used loosely to refer to what Anthony Smith (1991: 14) has defined as the self-perception of “a named human population sharing a historic territory, common myths and historical memories, a mass, public culture, a common economy and common legal rights and duties for all members.” 
As used here, therefore, the term assumes the presence of various common attributes, such as the “belief in a common culture, history, kinship, language, religion, territory, founding moment and destiny” (Smith 1991: 14), along with other markers of a shared heritage. 
On the basis of the above criteria, some authors contend that these countries in the precolonial period were not yet nations, but only nations in the making. Further, it has been asserted that this process was interrupted and reconfigured by colonialism and that these countries’  task in the postcolonial era has been to build nations with a clear national identity. 
Like most African countries, which were essentially colonial creations and the products of the Western imperial and African nationalist imagination, our countries are, in fact, nations in the process of becoming.
Meanwhile, what had passed for nationalism in the days of the anti-colonial struggle was no more than a desire for self-determination.  The point is not to dismiss twentieth-century African anticolonial nationalism as unimportant, but merely to point out the fact that, whatever it was, it was not an expression of cultural, linguistic and historical solidarity since it brought together different communities who had little in common except their shared opposition to colonial rule.
Unlike Europe in the nineteenth century, where nationalism emerged as an aggressive assertion of a given people’s need to establish and claim territorial entities that reflected their sense of oneness built over centuries of sharing a common language, history, culture and world view, African countries were externally created by the colonial powers, which had no knowledge of the realities on the ground and bundled together as different ethnolinguistic groups and willed to become one nation. What this means, therefore, is that, at independence, Africa had states or countries that had yet to become nations. 
The lived experiences of our people do not sustain patriotic history’s claim that we have always been one as nations. In fact, we have always been different communities with different cultures and histories whose collective lives cannot be recounted through one single historical narrative.  For this reason, it is right to call our countries first Presidents such as Dr Kwame Nkrumah, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Dr Kenneth Kaunda, Dr António Agostinho Neto, Samora Machel, Robert Mugabe, Dr Sam Nujoma and Nelson Mandela as the founding fathers of our nations. 
European colonialism brought its racist policies, which manifested themselves in a variety of ways, and did not engender positive race relations or the development of a common national identity between whites and the majority African population.  It was, indeed, grievances about these and other policies which contributed to the armed struggle when Africans, under the banner of nationalist liberation movements took up arms to overthrow white rule. 
Thus, deeply embedded in our psyche is the mutual hostility born of the armed conflict days.  
There was, thus, little in the ethnic, racial and cultural past of our countries before, during and after colonialism that had laid an adequate and appropriate foundation for the development of a common national identity or an efficient modern state with a commitment to the welfare of its entire people.  
Further complicating the issue were the divisions among the Africans fighting colonial rule, which entrenched ethnic/political tensions rather than promoting unity and cooperation among the African people.  There was, thus, little in the ethnic, racial and cultural past of our countries before, during and after colonialism that had laid an adequate and appropriate foundation for the development of a common national identity.  
For this reason, popularly known as Mwalimu -Kiswahili for “teacher” – Nyerere is still revered by many Tanzanians as “Father of the Nation” for securing independence from Britain in 1961 for what was then called Tanganyika. 
He was Baba wa taifa, father of the nation, and charismatic leader of sharp intellect and great personal integrity, who welded a country and a national identity from over 120 ethnic groups, united by their language Swahili and by a social harmony constructed on the ideals of peace, justice, unity and personal commitment.
Tanganyika’s independence in 1961 was an inspiration for Zambia(1964), Malawi(1964), Botswana(1966), Lesotho(1966), Mauritius(1968), Swaziland(1968) and Seychelles(1976).
When the other countries of Southern Africa were forced into wars of liberation to eventually achieve the same end, Tanzania provided political, material and moral support until independence and majority rule were achieved in 1975 (Mozambique, Angola), 1980 (Zimbabwe), 1990 (Namibia) and finally, 1994 (South Africa).
Nyerere is one of the founding fathers of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which later became the African Union.  His dedication and commitment to the liberation of the sub-continent to African unity and pan-Africanism remains unsurpassed.  True to his vision, it can be said that he “carried the torch that liberated Africa”.

Against this background, the first leaders of the above-mentioned countries are the founding fathers of those nations.  One wonders why some people are hell-bent on dragging the names of our founding fathers in the mud?  There are even those who are questioning the rationale of having an Office of the Founding Father and First President of our Republic.  

On the occasion of the 90th birthday celebrations of Founding President, Nujoma, President Geingob, described the founding father, as an icon.  President Geingob further described the founding father as “a man defined by an innate humility, yet he possesses a disposition and an aura that is oftentimes larger than life.  His life exploits are unforgettable and his elegance is mesmerizingly timeless. It is for this reason that Comrade Nujoma’s legacy stretches across all generations, forming a bridge between the 20th and 21st century, between old and young, between the generation of the liberation struggle and the born-free generation”.

In conclusion, before independence, there was no Namibian State or Nation.  In view of this, let us continue with state and nation-building and chart the future destiny of our country without provoking racial hatred.  

*The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of my employer and this newspaper but solely my personal views as a citizen.