A century of nationalism in South Africa, what comes next? – Katzenellenbogen

Moeletsi Mbeki, in a recent lecture and article, reflected on a century of rule by nationalist parties in South Africa. His analysis revealed a shared flaw: both white and black nationalists pursued exclusive benefits for their supporters, hindering national success. In the wake of Mbeki’s words, Jonathan Katzenellenbogen suggests that the deep-seated grievances of exclusion drove these movements, but their common use of a large, interfering state stifled economic development. As South Africa navigates post-nationalist possibilities, questions arise about the potential rise of extreme racial nationalism amid shifting political landscapes and coalition dynamics.

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What comes after a century of South African nationalism?

By Jonathan Katzenellenbogen

Next year will mark a hundred years since the National Party gained a foothold in government as part of a coalition with the South African Labour Party, which represented white worker interests. This means that for the most part of the century since that time, South Africa will have been under the rule of first white, and then black nationalists.

In a lecture last week on SAFM and in an article in Rapport, this past Sunday, commentator Moeletsi Mbeki looks back at a century of rule by nationalist parties. His conclusion: in seeking to gain special benefits for their own supporters and deprive others, both white and black nationalists undermined the prospect of success for the country. The National Party reserved certain jobs for whites and introduced Bantu Education, which resulted in skills shortages. And black nationalists have used empowerment policies and the state to benefit supporters, and undermined entrepreneurs and business.

For Mbeki, nationalist parties are part of movements, ‘driven by a deep sense of grievance’ due to a sense of exclusion. The source of the grievance for both Afrikaner and African nationalists was their exclusion from the benefits of colonialism.

There is a striking similarity between the two racial nationalisms. Both favour a large and interfering state to further their aims. The National Party imposed multiple controls and set up a plethora of state-owned enterprises. The ANC used the state they inherited to give jobs to cadres, and uses contracts in the name of empowerment for patronage.

‘And the African elite has continued to hobble economic development of the country by diverting taxes from investment to consumption, especially consumption by the African elite.

‘The use of the state by South Africa’s two nationalist elites during the last 100 years achieved one important outcome – it constrained the ability of the economy to develop to its full potential,’ Mbeki writes.

‘All this explains why both Afrikaner nationalism and African nationalism were doomed.’

But what comes after these doomed nationalisms?


Are these nationalist parties not really movements that are, or would be, leaning towards authoritarian government and favouring a large intervening state?

The element of nationalism in these parties is just the wrapping, which helps in election campaigns. They are often fundamentally populist and use policy to attract votes.

The only lesson that can be drawn on what replaces such movements is that there might be no lesson from other countries. If the past in other countries is any guide, it is not necessarily the case that the defeat of nationalist liberation movements gives way to liberal democratic governments that are prepared to pursue policies that benefit the wider economy rather than only their support base.

Nationalist movements tend to hold on to power for long periods, usually in one-party dominant systems. This often leads to a lack of pressure to reform. But they can and sometimes do reform, if there is pressure.

In 1986, the National Party scrapped the pass laws, a cornerstone of apartheid which prevented black people from freely living in ‘white areas’. But the big changes – the scrapping of the homelands and the extension of the vote – only took place in 1994, after years of external and internal pressure and ultimately, negotiations.

In India, it was the National Congress Party, a nationalist party, which brought the country independence and pursued strongly socialist policies. It introduced reforms after a foreign exchange crisis in 1991. These removed many burdensome licence restrictions, ended state-owned monopolies, and laid the basis for India’s later rapid economic growth.

Unleashed the changes

The Congress Party first lost an election in 1977, and has returned to power since its first loss, but for much of the time, India has been led by a party that strongly aligns itself with Hindu nationalism: the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This shows that while Congress unleashed the changes which led to economic growth, this did not guarantee that it would stay in government. A far more extreme nationalist party would replace it in power.

While the ANC may have to form a coalition to stay in power after next year’s election, it is far from doomed. At present, the most likely scenario, if some of the polls are reliable indicators, is that the ANC will fall short of a majority at next year’s election by about five percent. To make up for this shortfall it could form a coalition with some of the smaller parties and stay in government.

But if it falls short by around ten percent, it might have to form a coalition with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). On any scale, the EFF are an extreme racial nationalist party in favour of the aggressive seizure of white-owned land and property and far tighter empowerment regulations. As the ANC declines, we could yet experience a rise in extreme racial nationalism.

The recently formed Multi-Party Charter, made up of the Democratic Alliance and other parties, claims broad ideological alignment. The DA adheres to liberal democratic ideals, the very opposite of a racial nationalist movement. It draws largely on the white vote, and it has a strong regional base in the Western Cape.

But other parties within the coalition have strong ethnic if not nationalist identities. The Freedom Front Plus defends Afrikaner interests, the African Christian Democratic Party is based on Christian principles and the Inkatha Freedom Party is identified as a party carrying the mantle of Zulu nationalism.

Outside the Multi-Party Charter, the Patriotic Alliance might be going for a wider appeal, but it is viewed as a voice of coloured nationalism.

Post-nationalist world

The risk is that the MPC could be viewed as a means to counter black nationalism with white and coloured nationalism. Taking South Africa into a post-nationalist world by dismantling empowerment, labour regulations and freeing up the economy could result in blowback.

If it is out of power, there is the question as to how the ANC might change. The National Party tried to re-launch as a centrist Christian democratic type of party, but this eventually died in the arms of the ANC. The ANC would possibly divide upon defeat, but others might seek out political ground as a racial nationalist party. And what if it does win an election a few years later?

There are many scenarios for once-dominant nationalist liberation parties. In Mexico, the Institutional Revolutionary Party held uninterrupted power for over seventy years and handed out favours to its friends while development lagged. While in power the party eventually divided, then attempted internal reform, but lost power in 2000, returned to power in 2012, but then lost power again six years later.

So nationalist parties do lose power, change and can get back in power.

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This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission