Finding citizenship, again - Politicsweb

Freedom Day came and went without much fanfare, a commemoration of sorts, but hardly a celebration. It’s been 29 years since the 1994 transition: sufficient for a whole generation to be born and to come to maturity, and time enough to assess the trajectory of post-transition South Africa. Sadly, to do so is to find failures and missed opportunities.

Terence Corrigan

Freedom Day came and went without much fanfare, a commemoration of sorts, but hardly a celebration. It’s been 29 years since the 1994 transition: sufficient for a whole generation to be born and to come to maturity, and time enough to assess the trajectory of post-transition South Africa. Sadly, to do so is to find failures and missed opportunities.

A commemorative day is meant to prompt reflection. It’s hard to look back on the early days of the transition and not to recall the optimism that accompanied it. The South Africa of the early 1990s was teetering towards bankruptcy, frustrated and angry, and in a state of low-key civil war. To have held an election – a far from perfect one to be sure – and to have effected a change of regime was no small feat.

Polling done in mid-1994 showed that around three quarters of South Africans thought the country to be ‘going in the right direction’. Only 6% thought it to be moving ‘in the wrong direction’. Inevitably, this euphoria dropped off rapidly as it became clear that a political transition did not imply the socio-economic or governance improvement that some might have expected (the so-called ‘democracy dividend’). This phenomenon has been observed in young democracies across the world. Nevertheless, a general sense of positivity prevailed, strongly correlated to economic success: in 2004, as South Africa’s economy went into an upswing, 73% were positive about South Africa’s direction.

This changed unmistakably as the presidency of Thabo Mbeki began to unravel, with growing concerns about some of his administration’s policy choices, and with the hammering the country took during the global financial crisis. Positive sentiment was revived in some quarters by the ascendency of Jacob Zuma, but the overall trend – as the economy stagnated and governance was overwhelmed by corruption and mismanagement (much of it with a pedigree going back to the 1990s) – was of increasing despondency.

President Ramaphosa’s feckless stewardship of the government has done little to alter this. Combined with a mismanaged pandemic, stratospherically high unemployment, divisive politics and chronic electricity shortages, approval of the country’s trajectory in 2021 stood at 24%. Some 73% felt it was moving in the wrong direction – a symbolic inversion of the post-transition optimism.

It’s not surprising that Freedom Day was an opportunity to ask just what this ‘freedom’ meant. And that polling has also picked up a growing disenchantment with or indifference towards democracy. In its 2021 polling, Afrobarometer found that 69% of South Africans were dissatisfied with the way democracy works, and 67% expressed some willingness to trade elections for a leader who ‘could impose law and order and deliver houses and jobs.’

These are not propitious circumstances for the continuation of democracy or civic and political freedom. And from the perspective of a commemoration.


The ‘New South Africa’ is often conflated with democracy (and hence not only negativity about the state of the country but also ambivalence about the advisability of democracy as a system). But this understates something profound. The revolutionary transition was not about introducing a democratic political system – in a sense, there was a precedent for this, however limited it may have been – but in introducing the idea of a common citizenship.

This was truly something that South Africa had never had before. Going back to the earliest days of rule by the Dutch East India Company, and also to the country’s indigenous systems, politics had invariably been marked by outright exclusion, or by extensive barriers to inclusion. Any number of examples illustrate this: those defined outside the borders of the various states and proto-states as they existed; slaves and women (by notorious assumption for much of this period); those excluded because of cultural or religious background; and, of course, along the lines of colour. It’s often forgotten that the theoretical objective of apartheid was less the subjugation of any group within South Africa than the creation of parallel societies.

Citizenship is often conflated with nationality, with the right to live and work within particular borders and to hold a country’s passport. This is but one manifestation. Citizenship denotes a connection between the individual and the state. It implies claims that each can make on the other. More than this, it is about belonging to a political community. It is the ability to operate politically. Hannah Arendt famously described it as the ‘right to have rights’. For Arendt, born a Jew in Germany in 1906 and having fled Nazi persecution, this was a matter of great personal significance. Having been stripped of her citizenship on account of her ethnicity, she was not only deprived of the protection of the German government, but found herself in a political no-man’s-land once she had sought refuge elsewhere.

The experience drove home to her the importance of inclusion in a political community as a guarantor of security. ‘The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human,’ she wrote.

The implications of this have been longstanding in history. How is citizenship to be recognised? Two broad approaches are typically recognised. One leans on ties of blood, heritage and culture, the idea of Jus Sanguinis, the ‘right of blood’. This is an ethnic conception of citizenship that sees polities as defined by essentially primordial affinities. The other sees citizenship as a function of common loyalties solidified by institutions. This is the civic notion, in which the polity is held to be a rationally constituted community of interest, membership of which is open to those who share its organising values. In practice, this is often expressed through the principle of Jus Soli, the ‘right of soil’, where citizenship is conferred automatically on those born within a country’s borders.

The principle of civic citizenship has been employed to reconcile and accommodate the competing interests of diverse populations. In the eighteenth century, this had a strong relationship to early liberalism, and the expansion of personal liberty. A moving expression of this was captured in a letter written by George Washington in 1790. The United States was not yet two decades old (even younger if its recognition by Great Britain is taken as its origin); its constitution had only just been adopted and Washington had assumed the newly created presidential office only the year before.

Addressing an appeal by the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, for their full incorporation into the newly created Republic, Washington wrote:

'The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.'

Here, Washington assured a community that had strong collective memories of exclusion and persecution – which their brethren elsewhere still endured – that they were as much a part of that community, no more and no less, than any other. Their presence and right to participate in public life would not be contingent on the say-so of others, on conforming to the prevailing culture of those around them, and they would face no official discrimination from the state. These rights were theirs by virtue of the nature of the state. Their duties were to behave lawfully and responsibility and to the benefit of the commonweal, no more than their gentile peers, and no less.

One is, of course, aware of significant contradictions in this. As just one example among many, the United States of the time accepted slavery, and Washington himself was a slaveholder – albeit with ambivalent personal views about it. Even free black people were not fully accepted as part of the polity. But the principle was clear, and an enduring theme of American history was the striving of marginalised groups to be included in the civic culture on the terms enunciated here. Martin Luther King’s appeal in his ‘I have a Dream’ speech stood firmly with this tradition. At least, one might argue, until recent decades.

South Africa

In theory, South Africa defines citizenship squarely in the civic mode. Each of its people should be able to call on the respect and protection of the State; and the State should extend these in equal measure to all. Section 3 of the Constitution puts it in these words:

1. There is a common South African citizenship.

2. All citizens are

a. equally entitled to the rights, privileges and benefits of citizenship; and

b. equally subject to the duties and responsibilities of citizenship.

This is rather more formulaic and legalistic than Washington’s prose, but conveying the same sentiments: distinctions on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, political affiliation are (or should be) conceptually irrelevant. It bears repeating that this was an approach to citizenship that South Africa had never had before.

And if Washington could counsel Americans to applaud themselves for having established a new mode of citizenship, South Africans can be forgiven for wondering if theirs has come to fruition.

One of the most obvious points here is that while formal citizenship – the passports and franchise side of things – is free of ascriptive identities (and that’s no small thing), questions of political inclusion and the legitimacy to claim it often default into ethnic and racial terms. A formally civic conception of citizenship coexists with an ethnic view in the minds of many power brokers and thinkers.

This recalls the powerful pull of history, perhaps inevitable in a society marked by inter-communal conflict, and the entrenchment of racial nationalism in some quarters. And where demographic factors have correlated closely with political support, this was perhaps coldly rational.

It has been on display since the early years of democracy. Even under the presidency of Nelson Mandela – a man who made a genuine attempt to reach out across the country’s divides, and probably stands as the one head of state who could claim to represent the country rather than a faction within it, and who was loved for it – racial qualifications had asserted themselves in the country’s politics and discourse around belonging.

This was evident in the repetitive resort to the dread accusation of racism to fend off criticism, or to dismiss policy disagreements. It found its way into legislation and policy, with requirements for ‘transformation’, which was an ill-defined concept with which everyone felt compelled to agree but whose objectives were never quite clear, but often seemed to hinge on ‘demographic representivity’. These were typically justified as recompense for the damage inflicted by apartheid, but the consequence was that the concept of ascriptive identification by the state was becoming increasingly entrenched.

More divisive than this, though, was the growing assertion of the idea of ‘African hegemony’, which began to appear in publications produced by the African National Congress. Again, this was a somewhat imprecise notion, but one which unmistakably saw South Africa as taking on a distinctive ‘African’ character, under the leadership in all spheres of African people. In practical terms it dovetailed well with demands for demographic representivity. The envisaged outcome – indeed, what was presented as an inherently natural state of affairs – would see influence in all areas wielded by race groups in proportion to their size.

Wynand Greffrath of North West University reflected on this in an article published in 2016:

'Clearly, the ANC was always more devoted to an Africanist, rather than a civic-nationalist interpretation of post-apartheid South Africa. Notwithstanding the important Charterist tradition in the party, the ascension to political power led to a swift abandonment of a civic nationalism in the ANC. This is contemporaneously corroborated by [Irina] Filatova when she notes that, ‘at this particular moment of South Africa’s history a nationalist stance offers a better political potential to the ANC than non-racialism, whether based on class solidarity or on “rainbow” all-inclusive nationhood’. This ethnic Africanist impetus behind both the National Democratic Revolution and its telos in post-apartheid South Africa would reach new heights during Mbeki’s succession as president, both as his personal obsession and as government policy. This was reflected in his ‘two nations’ theorem and almost impulsive recourse to race on a variety of issues, including his stance, domestically, on HIV/Aids, whilst internationally he was preoccupied with Africanist initiatives such as NEPAD and the propagation of his "African renaissance" project.'

This trajectory continues to be pursued with varying degrees of energy. A whole discourse has grown around the notion of ‘our people’, something that clearly divides nominal co-citizens into separate camps. ‘Ours’ against ‘theirs’, in other words. This was especially prominent in the Expropriation without Compensation drive. Racial considerations loom in some sense ever larger than before in government demands. The recent amendment to the Employment Equity Act has introduced the framework for ministerially-determined racial quotas that will probably prove fatal to firms that fall foul of them. This is an extraordinary triumph of politics over pragmatism, in a country struggling with one of the world’s worst unemployment crises and in which entrepreneurship is a rare and rarely successful endeavour.

Perhaps most disturbing was the admission in April 2019 by a senior official at the SA Human Rights Commission that the institution dealt with racist incidents differently depending on whether the perpetrator was a black or white person, ‘because of the historical context’.

The political conception

Another view of citizenship relates to people’s political orientation. Seen in societies consciously organised around adherence to an ideology, it links citizenship – the ability to participate in society – to one’s political reliability. Communist societies might insert clauses into their constitutions that recognised a particular political party as having a leading role in society. (East Germany’s 1968 Constitution stated: ‘The leadership of the state is to be exercised through the working class and its Marxist-Leninist party’.)

This conception of citizenship has resonance within the political worldview of the ANC. It sees itself not as a political party, but as a liberation movement. Not so much a representative of a constituency as an embodiment of ‘the people’. ‘The most important moral voice of the country on almost any question facing the country,’ as it once described itself. From this attitude came a dismissal of critical voices, left and right, as disloyal to the country and failing properly to introspect about their own failures.

This led directly to the pervasive corruption that stains South Africa’s public life, and to the corrosion of institutions as the ANC worked its counter-constitutional programme of cadre deployment. It needed to exercise a ‘hegemony’ which was incompatible with the professionalism with which the state was mandated to function.

The undermining of civic citizenship

All of this has represented a departure from the ideal of civic citizenship. The sense of a common entitlement to ‘rights, privileges and benefits’, and to exercise the associated ‘duties and responsibilities’ has been sadly and often intentionally betrayed. The damage that this has done to the promise of freedom is hard to measure.

Reclaiming that promise of freedom means striving for civic citizenship, rejecting the divisive and counterproductive race-baiting and race-hustling and the appeals to racial or ethnic or religious chauvinism, and rejecting also the elevation of party interest above all else. Skills and goodwill must be taken whence they are to be had, for the benefit of all.

Fortunately, in moments of crisis, a productive reset may be possible. Polling among South Africans offers some cause for hope. The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s 2021 report showed that over three quarters of South Africans were committed to a common sense of national identity. Well over two thirds believed that more united than divided the country. In its 2019 polling, the IJR found that just under of 73% of the respondents to its survey believed that ‘reconciliation is impossible as long as we continue using race categories to measure transformation’, a direct repudiation of the prescriptions underpinning many of the country’s most damaging policies.

The Institute of Race Relations similarly found in its last poll – also 2021 – that 73% of South Africans need each other for progress, and that quotas and race set-asides were generally rejected. But this does not imply any indifference to those who have been excluded: 61% opted for a combination of merit in appointments along with special initiatives such as training and bursaries to assist the most disadvantaged to compete in the economy.

While this polling does not quite measure views on citizenship, it provides some important pointers. South Africa’s people recognise that civic citizenship is the only possible means by which a complex, multi-ethnic state can be organised.

George Washington’s concluding words to the Jewish congregation of Newport might serve South Africa well: ‘May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.’

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.

This article was first published on the Daily Friend.