By Dr Willy Mafuta
In January 1994, three months before the historic transition of power and the first democratic election in South Africa, James Barber, writing for the International Affairs, raised a series of prophetic questions regarding identity and nationalism in South Africa included whether the new government would seek a sense of a common nationalism or accept to build upon diversity, or whether ethnic divisions would shape the future politics of South Africa.
It is now known that when the Government of National Unity (GNU) came to power, they were preoccupied with building a single overarching national identity. They wanted racial and ethnic group identities to weaken or recede all together. They wanted “a political symbol of unity among the diverse people of South Africa.” They coined it, “a rainbow nation.” To promote the “rainbow nation,” the GNU organized campaigns such as “Simunye” (we are one) and “Masakhane”(working together). Yet this endeavor turned out to be an uphill battle. In the eyes of many observers, the rainbow nation has failed to materialize. As one of the conservative Dutch Reform Church (DRC) pastors suggested to me, “the notion of rainbow nation is a myth.”
What transpires, however, in the current and post- apartheid South Africa is that sub-group identities/typifications such as race or ethnicity had never receded or weakened. In fact, they have been all along processes of the superordinate/overarching national identity. In the current and post-apartheid South Africa, race and ethnicity are given a second look, a new optic that might have escaped the eyes of many identity construction observers.
A new society is emerging where South Africans identify themselves with their racial and ethnic background while at the same time claim a national identity. In this new society, racial assertions/typifications such as Afrikaner, Colored, Black, Indians, those typifications no longer signify antagonistic social positions they once were under Apartheid. They have become part of the component of the South Africa society.
What I argue is that for this new emerging society to be durable, fundamental structural changes that challenge perceived or experienced power or disempowerment need to be established. In this endeavor, Churches have a major role to play because they have the ability to foster an ethical environment where love, justice, reconciliation and care deconstruct power imbalances in the society. This endeavor has been observed in Churches in Sophiatown.