Paul T. Shipale
I wish to share my views on the debate on nation-building and what it means, especially 31 years after independence.
In an opinion piece that appeared in the local newspapers on Wednesday 10 and Friday 12 March 2021, Unam Emeritus Professor André du Pisani asked in a thought-provoking way if the country’s project of nation-building is dead. For this, he referred to patriotic history as the very worm in the apple of nation-building and reminded us of the ‘morally dangerous’ patriotic pride.
Professor Du Pisani argued that if indeed Namibians of different persuasions were to continue ‘the heritage of unity and tolerance’ as asked by Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari, Press Secretary in the Presidency, on Friday 18 December 2020, a more radical moral imagination will be needed, for more than the tribe has to die before the nation can be built.
According to Professor Du Pisani, a national conversation on what it might mean to lay claim to the identity of being ‘Namibian’ is urgently required. Professor du Pisani cites the philosopher Richard Rorty, who in his view argues correctly that the right kind of patriotism is necessary for a united, harmonious society with a national identity based on a ‘community of communities’ or what John Rawls calls ‘a social union of social unions’. He also cites David Hume who argues that ‘the heights of popularity and patriotism are still the beaten road to power and tyranny’.
Indeed, Carol Nicholson in a review on the need for a different kind of national pride says Richard Rorty, one of the most original and influential philosophers writing in America, is best known for his iconoclastic critique of traditional epistemology.
Rorty began to address concrete political and economic issues in his recent works such as Achieving Our Country (Harvard, 1998), in which he applies the views of knowledge and truth to the issue of patriotism. National pride, he argues, is analogous to self-respect and is necessary for self-improvement.
Both self-respect and patriotism are virtues found in an Aristotelian Golden Mean between the vices of excess and deficiency. Just as too much self-respect results in arrogance and too little can lead to moral cowardice, an excess of patriotism can produce imperial attitudes and bellicosity, and a lack of patriotism prohibits imaginative and effective political debate and deliberation about national policy, says Nicholson. According to Rorty, patriotism is instilled by means of inspirational images and stories about a nation’s past, which help citizens to form a sense of moral identity.
Foucault was a great philosopher. He worked tirelessly on behalf of prison reform for actual prisoners, and he was as canny as anyone about his own epistemological biases. Rorty and Foucault were, as temperamentally antithetical as two human beings can be. At times a fairly vulgar Nietzschean, Foucault insisted that the substrate of our common reality, however, we might suppress it, was cruelty. Shame is our hidden essence; the ugliest part of a thing is its truest part; being decent or kind or liberal is a sign of self-suppression or weakness and that cynicism is knowledge. It was against just this that Rorty wrote: “Achieving Our Country.”
Other than popular simple-minded militarism, Rorty sees very few stories in contemporary American culture that might inspire patriotism.
The ubiquity of concepts such as ‘power,’ ‘the system,’ and ‘the impossibility of meaning’ encourages a kind of ‘Gothic’ mentality in which quasi-supernatural forces rule and personal engagement are irrelevant. If we take the stance of agents rather than spectators who dwell on the errors and evils of the past, Rorty thinks that our national pride can be directed towards creating the dream country out of the ruins of the old.
On the one hand, nation-building is a process of socio-political development. This, at least ideally, shall bring loosely linked communities together, becoming one society. On the other hand, it is a political objective as well as a strategy. This means that either internal or external players try to create a system that is constituted under a nation-state.
However different these two definitions are, there are three core elements counting for both: first, Integrative ideology to build up a national feeling and give the people a national identity; second, integration of a society usually understood in connection with democracy and “third wave of democratisation” and finally, development of a functional state or state-building. For successful nation-building, this results in a triangle, Hippler argues, having state-building, social integration and ideological legitimacy at its corners, of which all corners need to be fulfilled.
Nation-building promises only success when the affected population’s living standards are improved. If the living circumstances stay the same in the long term it is perceived to be artificial and more and more opposition will rise. As a starting point, the new ‘nation’ must have the feeling that the new nation-state is and will be capable of solving problems in the population’s interest. Another step to be made is the implementation of ‘politico-structural’ changes.
For my elder brother Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna who asked what went wrong with the socialist project in Namibia, I will use Rorty’s advice. First, he points out that disputes over Marxism and differences in focus between the old and the new left have splintered the movement and made it ineffectual. Second, now that some major progress has been made in curtailing the sadistic practices of racism, sexism, and other isms, the left should go back to concentrating on economic inequality, which has increased significantly while the new left was focused on educating about prejudice. Once pointless debates about the ‘purity’ of one’s commitment to socialism and who is more patriotic are ended, it should be possible to try to pass legislation that will redistribute wealth more equitably without discussion of the violent overthrow of capitalism and who is less a patriot, says Rorty. Third, Rorty advises, “kick the philosophy habit.” Under the influence of Foucault, Derrida, and other postmodern theorists, the academic left has been conducting debate at such a high level of abstraction that no clear political platform is being communicated to the public.
The ubiquity of concepts such as ‘mixed-economy’, ‘socialism with Namibian characteristic’, ‘joint public-private ownership,’ ‘nation-building’, ‘historic patriotism’, etc. encourages a kind of ‘Gothic’ mentality in which quasi-supernatural forces rule and personal engagement are irrelevant.
I, therefore, agree with former minister Sacky Shangala’s view that we seem to imbibe political rhetoric which is way past its sell-by date in this day and age. What we need 31 years after independence, is to do away with inequality and deal with real bread and butter issues such as redistribution of wealth, land, employment creation etc. based on social justice and a developmental state for the concept of nation-building to have any meaning.