I read Martin van Staden’s latest column (‘From pact to pillar: The Multi-Party Charter after the 2024 election’, 29 February) with interest and attention. As with all his writing, it dealt thoughtfully with matters of importance, speaking to debates that have arisen repeatedly for decades, and which have a profound bearing on South Africa’s future. And for me, the context of this contribution is the question that some commentators have posed as to whether South Africa – as it was formed in 1910 – was ever really a viable entity.

As I read it, Van Staden’s argument is grounded on scepticism of the ‘nation-building project’. Centralised, state-coordinated action has tried to create a single ‘nation’ out of a diverse country. Far better to decentralise decision making and (most significant for his argument) pursue a strategy of ‘pillarisation’.

The latter idea sees distinct communities establishing their own internal institutions and managing their communal affairs. The idea originated in the Netherlands – Van Staden correctly points to the influence of neo-Calvinism – where confessional and political groups have historically maintained what amount substantively to parallel societies, with their own schools, media, business and trade organisations and cultural institutions. Similar arrangements have existed in Austria, Belgium and Northern Ireland.

Since South Africans, in Van Staden’s words, ‘simply do not want to abandon their identities and form a singular South African nation’ we should look towards pillarisation as an alternative. To this end, Van Staden identifies four such currently-extant pillars – the ANC, the Solidarity Movement, and the Jewish and Muslim communities – and proposes that the Multi-Party Charter could become another.

There is a lot going on here, so I’ll try to set out a few thoughts.

The problem

I’d have to note upfront that Van Staden and I have some general disagreements over ideological and political matters; but in some respects, he’s on the money. The idea of South Africa as a deeply divided society – with implacable identitarian loyalties expressed in its politics – has been an enduring theme in political science for decades. Over the years, this has prompted some reflection on whether the institutions created post-transition were appropriate.

Hermann Giliomee, for example, wrote eloquently in the post-transition period about the unsuitability of the ‘Westminster’ system to South Africa; in a society with deep ascriptive cleavages, there was a need to incentivise cooperation. Instead, we have a political system based on majoritarian control, in what has long been described as a dominant-party culture (though this is shifting), bolted onto historical divisions.

Along with this came the ANC’s self-image as the natural historical leader of South African society, which it sought to remake in its own image – call this its Jacobin impulse. (In the 1980s and 1990s, an ANC-supporting newspaper existed named New Nation, whose title spoke to the pretensions of this thinking.) This has been a catastrophe, and in so doing has precluded proper exploration of how competing political and economic interests, as well as diverse cultural expressions, could productively be accommodated. (Anyone looking for an illustration of how almost comically inept official interventions have been on incendiary incidents should read the report – if one can call it that – into the Phoenix violence in 2021 by the Cultural, Religious, and Linguistic Rights Commission.)

All that being said, I’d have to question Van Staden’s assertion that South Africans do not want to be a ‘single nation’ (I use the quote marks deliberately, for reasons I’ll get to later). Polling actually shows something to the contrary.

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s 2023 poll found that more than 8 in 10 respondents regard being South African as an important part of their identity, something shared by the overwhelming majority of each race group. A similar proportion – 83% to be exact – wanted their children to think of themselves as South Africans first. Afrobarometer’s latest polling (also from 2023) found only 11% felt entirely committed to an ethnic identity to the exclusion of being South African, while a further 15% felt that their ethnic identity was more important than their national identity. On the other side, some 20% either disregarded an ethnic identity entirely, or subordinated it to a national identity. Interestingly, an overall majority, 53%, felt equally South African whatever their ethnic group might be.

I would say that these results suggest a heartening degree of accommodating, pluralist thinking. This is surely consonant with liberal democratic thinking. The dominant idea seems to be that it’s possible and desirable to be a South African and equally Zulu – and also a devout Roman Catholic, a fan of the Sharks, a socialist politically and a conservative socially. To my mind these numbers refute both the homogenising claims of a ‘new’ South African person, but also raise scepticism as to public rejection of an overarching national identity. Most South Africans across demographics seem quite committed to this, although that does not mean that sectarian or ascriptive interests are unimportant. These things are not incompatible (and besides, the human psyche has a wonderful gift for tolerating glorious contradictions…).

Building pillars

If I understand the proposal, South Africans should sort themselves into communities that reflect their values and aspirations. I’m conflicted about this.

On the one hand, I’m attracted to active citizenship, citizen responsibility and subsidiarity. I rather like decentralisation as a principle. In contemporary South Africa, it’s a means of staving off disaster.

I also feel that particularist and sectarian interests are entirely legitimate in democratic society. The claim that something has no standing because it supposedly represents ‘white interests’ or ‘the privileged’ or ‘narrow interests’ is typically a pernicious one; it’s the great offering of liberal democracy that even those ‘narrow’ interests get to present themselves for deliberation. I append the qualifier ‘liberal’ in the preceding sentence since liberal democracy is explicitly concerned with the protection of rights and values, rejecting popular sentiment as the only consideration.

For that reason, I have some admiration for the Solidarity movement. It is a remarkable feat of pragmatic post-apartheid adaptation. Recognising that Afrikaner power over the state was at an end, it built a range of private alternatives. In my opinion, it’s tried to provide a basis to maintain communal interests, while being open to the participation of others and remaining fully engaged in society. It has been a constructive contributor to the country overall. In fact, I once chatted to a (black) Treasury official who said that the information from the Solidarity Research Institute was among the most reliable and useful available.

Jewish and Muslim communal institutions – think here of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies or the Muslim Judicial Council, along with their community media, culinary bodies, religious and business bodies – have played similar roles, and for a longer period. Their activities are often of concern largely to their own constituencies, but they also make energetic inputs into matters of wider national concern. Typically, this is done with a claim to represent the views of the ‘community’ as a whole. This in turn is invariably a contentious and contested matter. ‘Not in my name,’ and so on…

But, on the other hand, I’m not convinced that these are replicable experiences, certainly not at scale. Each of these bodies can claim some form of ethno-cultural basis, and represents a numerical minority among South Africa’s population. Each has a reasonably clear sense of the universe of its interests. While not all would agree – certainly not all those whom these bodies might seek to represent – there is an organic quality to these bodies. Even Solidarity, a relatively young organisation, grew out of a long-established trade union that has its origins in the Afrikaner nationalist movement.

So – and this is assuming I’ve understood Van Staden’s argument correctly – the idea would be radically to decentralise decision making, and encourage like-minded people and interests to come together to form mini societies that can exist in parallel with one another. They could then effectively run the governance institutions and would be supported by their own civil societies. In doing this, it would be possible for freedom and liberty-minded people to cohere.

The pillarisation that Van Staden has in mind – at least, the MPC-based pillar that he advocates for – seems grounded in ideology rather than ethnicity. If that ‘liberty-minded’ population can roughly be equated to the MPC, this would equate at present to around a quarter to a third of the population. My concern with conceptualising this pillar – something distinct from and parallel to its counterparts in the rest of society – is that it would seem to be rather inwardly focused, and probably condemned to remain a minority in perpetuity.

Even if the hope is that people might cohere around values, I would be concerned that attempting to build such a system would encourage a game of identitarian out-bidding. Fundamentally, this seems to me to be a communitarian project, and perceived ties of blood, culture and history might have a more potent purchase than the attractions of civil liberties and open markets. Polarisation may not be the intention, but I fear it would be the outcome.


And that is assuming that all those MPC supporters are in fact broadly inclined towards liberty. I’m not sure. For the IFP, traditional leadership and ethnic loyalty is very important for the African Christian Democratic Party, it’s Christianity, for the Freedom Front Plus, new-look Afrikaner nationalism and for the Democratic Alliance, liberalism. I wonder if many prospective MPC voters would not turn to their ethnic kin for belonging and political support – particularly in a society under stress.

For another reason, I’m sceptical that the Multi-Party Charter has the capacity to constitute what Van Staden hopes for. Right now, it’s a loose electoral alliance (I like the word Pact in his title), whose durability remains to be seen. It’s also ideologically heterogeneous. I find its set of principles quite a triumph of consensus seeking; but we should not disregard the significant differences that exist.

If it can drive South Africa towards a competitive politics, and can preserve constitutional governance and expand the prospects of a market economy, it will have done admirably. But we should not expect too much, nor the implausible.

The hard work of shifting opinions needs to be done across society, by such groups as the Institute of Race Relations, the Free Market Foundation with which Van Staden is associated, and by thinkers and activists. It seems to me folly to believe that this can be achieved through anything other than serious engagement with society as a whole, especially in those spaces where this message has not (yet) gained traction.

The big picture

Finally, as much as I am in favour of decentralisation, and of strong, independent institutions, and of the rights of freely constituted groups to organise their existence, I don’t think it’s possible to dismiss the national dimension.

This brings us back to the idea of a ‘single nation’. I’d say that the possibilities here hinge on how this is defined. The Jacobin idea of subsuming all subsidiary identities within one homogenised culture – with the imprimatur of a dominant party ruling-until-Jesus-comes – is fundamentally hostile to liberalism, to liberty and to the prospects for a democratic future. So too would bombastic ethnic chauvinism be. But this need not be the only view of nationhood and belonging.

‘There are nonetheless successful countries and states around the world that prosper without being nations. The United States of America and Switzerland are two prominent examples’, Van Staden writes. I’d disagree. The US can be understood as grounded on civic nationalism, an idea rooted in the institutions, symbols and aspirations, that is in principle accessible to all.

This was eloquently expressed by George Washington in a letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790. The US, he said would not speak of ‘toleration’ for its Jewish population, but ‘[required] only those who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.’

The polling I cited above says that South Africans want to be a ‘single nation’, though they seem to struggle to define what that means. For me, civic virtues would be a solid basis: a set of rights and duties that exist alongside ethnic or political loyalties. Indeed, I think the former would enhance the latter. Let me also add that our own polling – sometimes greeted with incredulity, though entirely in step with that conducted by other outfits and matching most everyday experience – is that around 8 out of 10 South Africans respect their peers, and believe that the success of the country requires mutual amity and cooperation.

I would rather pursue that, irrespective of the difficulties and setbacks, than retreat from it.

[Image: johnpotter from Pixabay]

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Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.