National belonging and cultural difference: South Africa and the Global Imaginary

Brown, Duncan (2001). National belonging and cultural difference: South Africa and the Global Imaginary. Journal of Southern African Studies, 27(4) pp. 757–769.



For at least the last two-and-a-half decades, critical theory in the Humanities and Social Sciences has been concerned, amongst other things, with exploding the myths and fictions of nationalist thought. Instead of the coherence of 'imagined communities', or even the unity of the individual subject, it emphasizes the multiple, shifting, fragmented and often contradictory modes of identification which characterize what are referred to variously as the 'postmodern', 'postcolonial', 'posthistorical' or 'postideological' conditions of the contemporary world. Yet recent history has seen a burgeoning of nationalist sentiments and struggles, and numerous bloody wars have been fought over inclusive and exclusive conceptions of identity. In less violent, though no less compelling ways, countries like South Africa are struggling with the competing demands of difference and unity as they seek to reconstruct themselves in more humane and equitable ways. Far from disappearing, arguments about national belonging and cultural difference have had increased prominence in the 1990s. The dangers of exclusive or 'ethnic' nationalisms graphically evident in the history of the twentieth century. However a simple retreat from nationalism into multiplicity, division and difference can be immensely disabling in contexts, such as the South African, in which the rebuilding of society requires a common commitment and a sense of shared responsibility. In this article, I investigate the possibility of reconciling the demands of difference and national belonging. Specifically, I argue for what I call a recuperated or revindicated nationalism, based not on the fictions of imagined unity, but on a shared problematic: a mutual implication in a history of difference, which acknowledges local as well as global affiliations. The Humanities and Social Sciences have a crucial role to play in the developing of these understandings, and towards the end of the article I set out what I perceive to be the challenges of this project for those involved in such teaching and research. I argue against a short-sighted state tertiary educational policy in South Africa which, despite its rhetoric of human development and Africanisation, promotes the 'hard' over the 'human' sciences.

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