“The great divide is closer than we might guess” – Chuck Stephens

In this thought-provoking piece, Chuck Stephens discusses the inevitability of a ‘great divide‘. Drawing on examples from history, Stephens looks at how numerous countries have split into two or more – “Yugoslavia exploded into several countries and Czechoslovakia split in two, inspiring both the Basques and the Catalans in Spain to secede. But any serious talk of splitting South Africa in two is considered to be retrogressive and racist.” While he notes that he is an opponent of a two-nation theory, Stephens writes that various forces seem to be pushing us there. “Like Zille, I am not in favour of a split. However, the hardening attitudes of the majority lead me to believe that it is getting to be inevitable, and closer than you might guess.”

By Chuck Stephens* 

Helen Zille’s new book #STAY WOKE, Go Broke is delivering the same sort of warning to South African citizens that I wrote in my book of last year, Orania and Azania. The problem is that social cohesion is falling apart. Lucky for her, she wrote her book after George Floyd’s death. Mine was already out before that. Not that I think that incident was any different from many that we have seen in the media both before and since – and both in America and South Africa. But George Floyd’s death was like the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Straw is not very heavy, but when the load gets to a certain point, that’s all it takes to snap the poor camel’s spine.

Liberals like Zille occupy a shrinking middle space in politics. They don’t want to slide too far to the Left, into nightmares like Zimbabwe and Venezuela. But they want to be progressive too, not stick-in-the-mud gun-totin’ conservatives like the Alt-Right. For so long, they called the country to leave apartheid and enter a new era of rapprochement. But she is right that the prospect of reconciliation has taken a huge blow from the rising sentiments in America.  The status quo is being shaken. Monuments are falling.

The Abraham Accords took many people by surprise. Suddenly Arabs in the Gulf states and North Africa were willing to agree to a new way forward with Israel. This put the “Two State Solution” on the back foot. Suddenly the Palestinians were being drawn into an enlarged Israel. But the Biden camp did not like Trump scoring such political points – not in election year. So they leaned away from the integrated approach, and basically cheered for Hamas when it unleashed a volley of rockets at Israel in 2021. They are adamant that there must be a Two State Solution, and they even seem to prefer Hamas (in Gaza) to the Palestinian Authority (on the west bank).

I get confused by these signals. The woke thinking seems to cheer for Scotland wanting to return to the European Union. Woke thinking seems to cheer for a united Ireland, lopping off another major asset of the United Kingdom. So why aren’t they cheering for Tigray to secede from Ethiopia, the way Eritrea once did, and the way South Sudan separated from Sudan?

Yugoslavia exploded into several countries and Czechoslovakia split in two, inspiring both the Basques and the Catalans in Spain to secede. But any serious talk of splitting South Africa in two is considered to be retrogressive and racist.

In my book Orania and Azania I explore in some detail the thinking that led to “Partition” – the emergence of Pakistan from India.  Muslims moved out of the core of India, both eastward and westward. Later on, East Pakistan renamed itself as Bangladesh.  So we no longer have “West Pakistan” but just Pakistan.

The roots of such thinking are in the right of an ethnic group to “self-determination”. Even if you are part of a bigger country, you can still call your ethnic group a “nation”. For example, the Zulu nation. But this was the logic of the state of Biafra seceding from Nigeria and the province of Quebec trying to separate from Canada. In different ways, such moves have been opposed by their mother countries. Whereas India and Pakistan were partitioned – in 1947. That was one year before the United Nations came into existence, after which such a “Two State Solution” became very hard to engineer. Including in Israel, which also came into existence in 1948.

The two-nation theory at the heart of the British Raj’s decision to partition India and Pakistan goes quite far back, to the time of the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations. It is very similar to the “Two State Solution” that has emerged in recent decades for Israel and Palestine. However, there were and are good arguments on both sides (pro and con).

Essentially, the heart of the matter is: what is a nation-state? Over a period of decades in Colonial India, this kind of thinking was debated by indigenous Muslim and Hindu entities – in consultation with the British Raj and the League of Nations. By inclination, some voices were more liberal and others more conservative. The choice of Partition was not one that everyone agreed with, but neither was it totally opposed. There was a lot of self-determination factored into it.

Opponents of the two-nation theory tended to see a future India like the United States model, or the European Union. They were thinking far ahead, in recognition that neither on the Muslim side nor on the Hindu side of the religious divide was there only one ethnicity. There were several, on both sides. In this regard, it was very much like the free and democratic South Africa, which only emerged 47 years later. We adopted 11 national languages including 9 tribal languages. Afrikaans is also “indigenous” in that it arose first as a creole then later as a written language (thanks to Bible translation). Traditional leaders have been included in the overall governance with elected representatives. (Sadly the Ba Baroa were missed out on both counts.)

Helen Zille points out in her new book that this seems to be the way that things are going. I myself am an opponent of two-nation theory, but forces like identity politics and implicit bias seem to be pushing us in this direction. I unpack these in greater detail in my book Orania and Azania (now available on Amazon).

Divorces are always costly. But the surge of minority rights in America is having the effect of “sympathetic vibration” on the majority in South Africa. This means that hearts are hardening. Woke thinking wants the Two State Solution back for Israel and Palestine. But it will obviously reject it – for the time being – in South Africa. This is inconsistent.

Can the middle hold? Will Liberalism prevail in a non-racial democracy? Or will we see more and more polarisation, friction and hatred, until our paths divide? The litmus test that is used to test whether partition is inevitable is compatibility. A strong dictator like Tito was able to keep Yugoslavia intact for decades. But when he died, it exploded. For it contained too many “incompatibles”. Ask yourself if we are getting along better or worse than we were before? In a marriage, when the two of you just can’t stop fighting, sooner or later one partner pleads incompatibility and sues for divorce. There are already independence movements forming in the Western Cape, not only one. And the Zulu nation may want to become a country in its own right, like Lesotho and eSwatini are?

Like Zille, I am not in favour of a split. However, the hardening attitudes of the majority lead me to believe that it is getting to be inevitable, and closer than you might guess.

  • Chuck Stephens works at the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership. He has written this article in his own capacity.

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