The Preamble to the Constitution of South Africa contains the words, “We, the people of South Africa, recognise the injustices of our past; honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land; respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.”
Why then am I suspicious of the motives behind the use of the term, “our people”?
Is it possible the phrase has been appropriated and its meaning perverted to serve more narrow, nationalistic and ethnic agendas?
Increasingly – daily even – I hear the ANC, the EFF, BLF, Vryheidsfront, politico’s and just your average citizen calling into talkshows or writing on social media and using the expression, “our people” in a way far less inclusive than it appears in The Preamble to the Constitution of South Africa.
That little term “our people” unsettles me. At first glance it appears to be innocent enough, a word of communality and brotherhood, of inclusion, like the opening statement of the Preamble to the United States Constitution, “We the People” or the solidarity implied in the Soviet-era word “comrade”; yet on closer inspection these are different conceptions because they are not in principle (although perhaps in practice) constrained to a narrow racial identity. But then neither is the South African “We the People” based on race, correct? Then why does this term “our people”, seem at times discordant in the South African context?
I’m trying to understand the disquiet, and perhaps I’m wrong about all this. Why worry about it? Is the very formulation “our people” not a rather amorphous and slippery thing?
Who, and what, is “our people“?
Is the term quasi-religious, like the “our people” in the conception People of God, (The Jews)?
Does it have multiple meanings?
Is it ever a legitimate term?
Perhaps it is too soon for South Africans to abandon their beloved and expedient race categories – the very categories which were so useful to the colonial rulers and the Apartheid ideologues.
I imagine Hendrik Verwoerd clapping his hands in hell each time he hears South Africans defining themselves according to their race, to us and them, our people and your people.
Perhaps we are not yet ready to erase our own metaphorical ‘prison tattoos’, when we are everywhere reminded of our continued incarceration in a structurally unjust system. Perhaps the damage wrought must be held close in a perverse embrace: the tortured body has become “our” identity, and must not be healed too quickly by well-meaning surgeons.
Perhaps the exclusion – or inclusion – implied by the term “our people” makes those who are shut out feel lonely, envious, resentful or fearful, while affirming an in-crowd with the shibboleth.
Is this “our people” something more sinister, the manifestation of some manichean duality: the blessed and the damned?
If the Imperialist believed his own people (the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, or the Belgian, or the Herrenvolk) were somehow superior to the black “race”, then – given the violence of colonialism and its violent aftermath (which is ever inserted into the present) – a black nationalist use of the term “our people” may be a legitimate response. Who are “we” – we being the last dusty vestiges of the discredited white supremacist colonial experiment – to deny a subjugated people the right to speak in terms of their own “our”? The colonial debacle was all about “our people” (an allegedly superior and “civilising” one) – and what an appallingly bad joke that turned out to be.
Who – and what – is shut out and excluded by this “our”?
I challenged a work colleague on this point recently and it was clear she had not really thought through her own use of the phrase, and she was nonplussed when confronted with her own exclusion of “others”. It wasn’t clear at first even to her if she intended her expression “our people” to mean Africans in general or a tribal/linguistic sub group. Did her concept of “our people”, I asked, include all or some of the language groups of South Africa, and which if any categories of race established under apartheid? Clearly I was excluded as a “white man” – that went without saying. But as a Xhosa-speaking person, did she include Zulus in her “our people”? Was hers a pan-africanist “our”, or as I discovered, were the boundaries of her “our” limited to a tribal identity – bordering on a kind of narrow prejudice (The Cape Coloureds this, the South African Indian community that; resident alien Nigerians this… the Zulus that, the Venda this, the immigrant Shona that…”). She was disquieted by her own reflection on the matter.
Our people | die stem
Personally I distrust all our “ours”.
The old South African national anthem – Die Stem – penned by the well-loved and respected South African poet Cornelis Jacobus Langenhoven (13 August 1873 – 15 July 1932), was littered with euphemistic “ours” which clearly did not include the majority of South Africans. Ironically it was written in 1918 – the same year the Native Land Act formally dispossessed black South Africans of their own country. However beloved and talented the writer, I have always had an inexplicable aversion for the anthem which I was forced to sing as a schoolboy while standing to attention in my shitty brown cadet uniform on cold highveld mornings. Die Stem was a written and sung lie expressing a narrow patriotism/nationalism – no less than the oranje-blanje-blou was a flag without legitimacy, representing merely a fearful white supremacist populace, an illegitimate historical narrative, a cynical Faustian compact.
Some phrases from the English version:
“Ringing out from our blue heavens / From our deep seas breaking round / From our plains where creaking wagons / Cut their trails into the earth / Calls the spirit of our country / Of the land that gave us birth / In our body and our spirit / In our inmost heart held fast / In thy power, Almighty, trusting, Did our fathers build of old…”
The old national anthem went on and on with this frankly sentimental drivel, the oft-repeated “our”, this hypocritical and idolatrous fetishization of “our people” (which people for God’s sake?) – a specific racial grouping which inferred the exclusion of all but die volk – with a sideways almost grudging acknowledgement of die engelsmanne. (After all, did “my” English-speaking people trundle across the veld in creaking ox-wagons? I was born in Zambia which clearly gave me less claim to the anthem’s bestowed blessings. How was this anthem to represent the country’s disenfranchised black majority? And if the 4 million or so blacks that were discarded and packed off to dusty bantustans with their own flags and pseudo-heraldic fanfare, were these wretched of the earth excluded from the anthem’s “our people” too? Did the Asian Hindus or Muslims trust in the designated ‘Christian’ Almighty? What occult meaning can we deduce from the expression “the spirit of our country” – an alarmingly pagan or Masonic concept? Not surprisingly our Cornelis Jacobus was a Freemason. Die Stem was a minefield of presumption, supposition, myth and narrow nationalist mumbo jumbo and finally a piece of prose expropriated by Afrikaner nationalists in an attempt to legitimize Apartheid. Whatever Langenhoven’s poetic virtues, it became a cynical lie, like its flag, the bantustans, South Africa’s heretical religion, its entire raison d’être a hideous burlesque.
Back to “our” as a word of exclusion
John Berger wrote, “… all bigots derive their fervour from rejection, the more they can reject, the more righteous they themselves feel.” I’m not sure its fair to lift his quote from its context and use it to imply a certain bigotry in the “our people” trope, but the quote is insightful.
Am I just resentful towards the in-crowd, after a life of exclusion?
The our people mantra sickens me.
In South Africa, language and skin are the exclusionary, othering shibboleths.
“By this ye shall be known”.
The mark of Cain.
The Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev used the word Sorbornost, an untranslatable Russian word at best described as ‘fellowship-solidarity’, which he felt was intrinsic to the Russian people. But he reinterpreted sorbornost not in a narrow nationalist sense but as a characteristic or the universal brotherhood of mankind in Christ – and even here he moved to a mystical, inclusive sobornost of all living things in God, a theosis.
A final overcoming of alienation-from-one another and from God is an idea explored by Christian mystics (the early church was a model no matter how inadequate of a reconciliation between all people, all nations, all classes, all races ). History shows the mystical element was soon overcome by factionalism and internecine squabbles which in turn evolved into schisms and persecutions over heresy. This did not erase the eternal truth of ecumenism and the ideal of healing a fractured humanity. Communism was an attempt to enforce товарищество (enforced comradeship is no comradeship at all). Собо́рность is always something more profound than comradeship. “Comrade” was finally robbed of all meaning, no more meaningful than “mister so-and-so”.
(A thought right there: in reductionist, semantic terms, the Afrikaans word Apartheid simply meant “apart-ness”. Is this “our” simply one more nascent nationalism growing like some strange thorn from the soil of other hatreds?)
I may be wrong, but to me, the exclusionary “our” expresses debarment and refusal, even as it asserts preference and prejudice. It segregates, even if only semantically, as all nationalisms inevitability do. Am I wrong to sense a latent fascism in the expression “our people”? The sinister Volksdeutsche of the Third Reich with it’s origins in a Romantic, less belligerant völkisch, seems to find a parallel in this “our people”.
The non-inclusion is a disavowal of the other: you are not one of us.
It might – who knows? – be a legitimate if violent shibboleth. But lets not hide it behind some artifice of philanthropy and inclusiveness.
I suppose one must simply ask, “of whom do you speak, when you say, “our people”?
The “our” may well be a violent “our”.
It might seek to spill my blood.
Or it might be a well-intended “our”.
Or the kind of “our” which insists that a Tutsi and a Hutu, a Boer and a Brit, a Jew and an ethnic German are forever mutually antagonistic.
I try to speak this phrase to imagine for a moment that the words could be mine:
MY PEOPLE THE BRITISH. MY PEOPLE THE WHITES. MY PEOPLE THE CELTS/THE WELSH/ THE ANGLO SAXONS.
Alas, it can only ever sound obscene to me, a sort of fascist, British National Front anachronism. An offence.
My people – the vulnerable and innocent victims of the harm done to them by the Evil Other: Girardian mimetic scapegoating.
I sigh, for once again I’m out in the cold.
Deservedly, many would say: for in the narrative of “our people”, you who are not of our people are the guilty ones.
When I demarcate my people as distinct from yours, when I exclude you,
I have already unleashed the angel of death.
It doesn’t matter what the context is: Indians in Uganda, Pakistanis in London, Syrians in the US, blacks in the Deep South, Partition in India, the plight of Armenian Christians in the Ottoman Empire, the Jews of Nazi Germany, an Arab in Israel.
Once I have decided who my people are, and I have decided you are not of their number, then
I have already unleashed the angel of death.
But of course I am by now quite familiar with the narrative of “othering”, bring judged, “guilted”: it was the inevitable and predictable post-apartheid moral consequence. In South Africa, someone somewhere is always reminding you that you are an outsider, you don’t belong. You are not one of us.
You are not one of our people.
“Sobornost (Russian: Собо́рность; IPA: [sɐˈbornəstʲ] “Spiritual community of many jointly living people”) is a term coined by the early Slavophiles, Ivan Kireyevsky and Aleksey Khomyakov, to underline the need for co-operation between people, at the expense of individualism, on the basis that the opposing groups focus on what is common between them. Khomyakov believed the West was progressively losing its unity because it was embracing Aristotle and his defining individualism. Kireyevsky believed that Hegel and Aristotle represented the same ideal of unity.
Khomyakov and Kireyevsky originally used the term sobor to designate co-operation within the Russian obshchina, united by a set of common convictions and Eastern Orthodox values, as opposed to the cult of individualism in the West. The term “sobor” in Russian has multiple co-related meanings: a “sobor” is the diocesan bishop’s “cathedral church”; a “sobor” is also a churchly “gathering” or “assemblage” or “council” reflecting the concept of the Church as an “ecclesium” (ἐκκλησία); in secular civil Russian historical useage is the national “Zemsky Sobor” and various “local/местное” landed or urban “sobors”. Khomyakov’s concept of the “catholicity” of the Church as “universality”, in contrast to that of Rome, reflects the perspective from the root-meaning of the word “liturgy” (λειτουργία), meaning “work of the gathered people”.” -Wikipedia
The origins of the word Comrade: