Building a National Consensus

Mar 22, 2007 | Newsletters



Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Weekly Newsletter to the Nation

My dear friends and fellow South Africans,

"The Old Testament prophets did not say, ‘Brothers. I want a consensus,’ the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher once told a Conservative party conference to howls of laughter – and of mortification from her party’s left wing.

The Lady, no doubt, had a picture of Moses, surrounded by his people, peering into the Promised Land in mind, as she lampooned Britain’s post war political consensus, which she believed (correctly) was contributing to Britain’s economic decline.

Consensus, for the Iron Lady, was a dereliction of leadership; defeat in instalments; something to be scorned at. But she, of course, led a nation with a highly developed sense of identity (call it Britannia, the ‘odd one out in Europe’, “perfidious Albion”) and, relative to South Africa, a highly developed shared consensus of social values. Her radical government shamelessly tapped into deeply held, if inchoate, notions of patriotism and the British “way of life”.

France, only separated by a few miles on the other side of the English Channel, also has a highly developed sense of national identity captured in its national motto of Liberté, égalité, fraternité (Freedom, equality, brotherhood). President Jacques Chirac’s recent speech announcing that he would not seek another term as president was liberally peppered with consensual references of “we” and “us” when referring to France’s peculiar way of life, welfare system and socially cohesive economic model.

The social identities of Europe’s ancient nation states built upon broad national consensuses, like Britain and France, have evolved over centuries of great social, economic and political upheavals and bloody conflicts. They are, of course, by no means unchallenged or unchanging. Both are, in fact, coming under increasing strain. Yet politicians of all hues in both countries seem to work with the dictum ‘if we want things to remain the same, things are going to have to change.’

It is therefore with a sense of awe that one considers the success of our highly heterogeneous nation of many stripes (more than a two-toned zebra) in internalising a sense of what it means to be South African over the last thirteen years. Symbols, such as our flag, and the rights and aspirations embodied in the Constitution and Bill of Rights have, somehow, snuck into the hearts and minds of “ordinary” South Africans.

Next week, Parliament’s new emblem will be unveiled and I am sure, in time, this will become a recognisable symbol of our teenage nation.

The biggest achievement, in a week when we celebrate Human Rights Day, has been the inculcation of a human rights-based culture amongst our citizenry; one which forcibly speaks out against violence against women and children. The most visible manifestation of this culture in practice was the incensed response from our media condemning the brutal crackdown against the opposition in neighbouring Zimbabwe.

The gap between aspiration and implementation may be wide at times, particularly in service delivery; but we generally know where we want to go as a country, irrespective if we wear ANC, IFP, DA colours, or none at all.

Our leaders, not least President Thabo Mbeki, deserve considerable credit for this progress. This directly brings me to the President’s elegant thoughts on the “national interest” and “national consensus” in the State of the Nation debate last month. He spoke of us travelling together as the “new Voortrekkers”. Not only was this a very well-judged reference to an important event in our highly contested history, it evoked the frontier spirit which propelled the country forward during the constitutional negotiations. The President’s timing for reviving this spirit today is impeccable.

As the CODESA round of negotiations hammered out what kind of country we envisaged South Africa should be, my response to the President is that, yes, we now need a new process, perhaps modelled on CODESA, to determine how we act in a structured way in terms of the national interest. Participation would be, as the President put it, “voluntary”. I do not think there is too much dispute on what constitutes the national interest, but we differ (or appear to) on how we can secure it.

But what, at the end of the day, is national interest? A rare example when the sophisticated but often vague French language beats plain English is the term "raison d’etat" whose broad definition comprises a country’s goals and ambitions whether economic, military or cultural. The raison d’etat or the national interest of a state is a multi-faceted concept. Whereas the state’s survival and security are its primary concerns, equally important is the state’s pursuit of wealth and economic growth and power. In addition, many states, especially in modern times, regard the preservation and continuation of their cultures as of major importance.

An important caveat here is that consensus decision-making means that the participants make decisions by agreement rather than by majority vote. Here, I fear, is the grit in the oyster. Such a process would imply that the ruling party with its 70+ percent majority should not occupy 70+ percent of the space in the national debate. I would simply say that this could be a golden opportunity for the ruling party to actually present its case on matters on which it is misunderstood and chart a new course if it is open to having its mind changed when other parties offer a better alternative.

Consensus implies that we do not (re-)racialise our response to national issues or apportion blame to one group or another when things go wrong or progress is glacially slow. The issue of crime is one example. The example of the late David Rattray’s wife, Nicky, shows us the way and proves that “yesterday is another country”. Nicky says she feels as safe at Fugitives’ Lodge as ever she did. David’s death, she says, was a random act of violence which has not diminished in any way her love and trust in the Zulu people. Let us then not resort to racial stereotyping or hackneyed references to the "swart gevaar" or black peril.

Encouragingly, our sense of national consensus has deepened to such an extent that these sentiments now, I believe, resonate with very few people.

I confess that I have often shared President Mbeki’s astonishment of how we South Africans of different hues, cultures and languages, who are neighbours and work colleagues, know so little about each other. But I have since recognised that our past tendency to think of our neighbours as members of another ethnic group rather than individuals is fast diminishing. I therefore believe that a national consensus process would further deepen insight into the infinite complexities of South Africa into its histories (I use the plural tense deliberately) and cultures.

In building a national consensus, I would like, once again, to express my concern about the perceived lack of sensitivity to minorities, in particular, in the Afrikaner community about the decline of the medium of Afrikaans in Afrikaner seats of learning. Similarly, one fears that the unseemly haste to rename places like Pretoria and Potchefstroom is not being done with enough consultation with the Afrikaner residents of these places. The objection here is not to the principle of name changing per se, it is rather an expression of fear, amongst many Afrikaners, that their historical legacy, such as the Great Trek or the Boer War, is being airbrushed out of history. Many in my own nation, the Zulus, share similar concerns.

One way to approach the process of building a national consensus is with an open mind and with maximum honesty. These attributes will ensure that in building a national consensus, individual, regional or group concerns about identities are not imprisoned in stereotypes, or stigmatised as tribal or retrogressive. Now that we have an idea as to how to go about building a national consensus, we need to find a starting point. I am thereby joining President Mbeki in his call for an appropriate forum where national consensus, bearing on our shared national interest, could be conceived, argued, developed and, hopefully, built.

Yours sincerely

Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP

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