Unity and Fragmentation

I was in Cape Town last week for the World Cup, and watched the Ghana – Uruguay quarterfinal in the FIFA Fan Fest there, together with several thousand supports from South Africa and abroad. For those who have missed it, Ghana lost in controversial circumstances, and the trend of blatant cheating in this World Cup continued.

What really struck me during the whole experience was quite how much almost everyone there wanted Ghana to win. South Africans white and black, Africans from elsewhere – all supported Ghana. Almost every face had a Ghana flag painted on, Ghana scarves, t-shirts and flags were everywhere, no doubt encouraged by the TV campaign on DSTV encouraging all Africans to wear Ghana’s colours for the match, and the numerous newspaper headlines and posters extolling this pan-Africanism, including one I ‘liberated’ from its mooring: ‘We are ALL Ghana’. And the allegiance did not seem to simply be skin-paint deep, either: after Ghana scored one of their penalties, the big South African behind me literally lifted me off the ground with a powerful hug, while simultaneously obliterating the sound of the vuvuzelas (and the skin on my ears) with a primeval roar of joy. Meanwhile, a string of supporters in front of me were on their knees with arms linked, praying for Ghanaian success in the penalty shootout.

I was talking about this with a couple of friends afterwards. One asked why this happens. After all, he said, European nations would rarely cheer for each other on principle, and North and South Americans are more likely to boo their neighbours than will them on. As a counterpoint, my other friend pointed out that with the exception of Egypt and Algeria, pretty much all Arab nations would cheer for each other in lieu of their own team. It has something to do with a shared sense of oppression, an ‘us against the world’ attitude that is often brought about by shared misfortunes. Many Africans don’t partake in this form of supra-nationalism, but far more do.

Particularly in the immediate post-colonial period, pan-African nationalism was a major intellectual force in Africa: the countries that had been agitating for independence often did so together, and their intellectuals, who had traveled to Europe for education and to further their cause, met to exchange ideas and develop friendships. There’s a great passage in Wole Soyinka’s autobiography You Must Set Forth At Dawn that captures this moment – the excitement of being a black African fighting for a new future meeting peers, artists and intellectuals who shared that goal and saw success in one country as success for all.

After independence was achieved, Nyerere and Nkrumah in particular pushed pan-Africanism as a ideological basis for the continent’s advance, leading to the founding the Organisation for African Unity, now succeeded by the African Union. None of this is to say that Africans primarily identify themselves as African as opposed to more specific markers such as (for example) Kenyan or Kikuyu. But there is an identity ‘African’ that many people choose to use in many situations, and it certainly appears to be one of the most powerful supra-national identities around (not as much, of course, as religious identification).

Yet, in an apparent paradox, while Africa is tightly bound by this self-identification, there seems to be an increasing talk about whether the countries of Africa make sense, and specifically, if they should be much smaller than they are. Lee mentioned a few such discussions in this blog, and Jina Moore at Change.Org blogged about an even more radical idea: redrawing the national boundaries of Africa altogether. This is, of course, only a paradox in a superficial sense. When you get down to it, it’s perfectly possible to celebrate one identity, ‘African’, that binds you to another group while simultaneously fighting a second identity ‘Nigerian’ that also binds you to some of the same people, because these identities have different functions and relate to different aspects of one’s life.

Yet, the ways in which identities are assumed and cast off are important when we’re discussing national lines and how development should proceed. We all have a range of identities that we use in different circumstances, each of which have different practical and emotional implications. In the example given above, a South African imagining himself as ‘African’ for the purpose of the football match can leave or return to this identity easily, and it can be used more or less when it suits him. Were Ghana to play South Africa, he would cease to be ‘African’ and would re-emerge as a ‘South African’. As a ‘South African’ he would further be able to re-cast himself as a Capetonian, or a Christian, or a Zulu, or any of the other identities that are open to him depending on his context.

This multiplicity of identity makes all of these discussions about the ‘true’ national boundaries much more difficult. In almost any country in most circumstances, there will be contexts in which one would define oneself as part of a group that is either smaller or non-continuous to those defined as national subjects. If we’re talking about whether national borders make sense or not, identity is a very tricky piece of evidence to call upon. It’s only if there is no circumstance in which a group would describe themselves as ‘Kenyan’, say, that it is an unambiguous indicator that the country doesn’t make sense as it exists. This being the case, you then need to look at a lot of other metrics on which a state can be judged: how well is it able to provide services? How diversified is its source of revenues? How does this affect the prosperity of all in the state, and of each group within it? Making states smaller, or different, would require these questions to be asked of both the existing state and its proposed new form before any kind of judgment could be made.

Secession is a little different. It implies that there is an active movement desiring a separate country, normally for concrete political reasons, directly related to an identity issue. I read an article recently that quoted a judgment by the Supreme Court in Canada, that if a minority is denied meaningful access to Government, it has the right to secede. This seems right to me, but in many cases even with access to Government, secession may still be desired if the seceding group has a history as an independent entity. The movement towards fragmentation of states is fed by many sources, and can only be judged against what people want (but which people? It’s difficult to design a census that doesn’t self-select a result unless it’s genuinely marginal), and what impact this will have on themselves and their (soon to be former) countrymen.

Identity isn’t something that we tend to think about in a very subtle way outside of academia. We read constantly about such-and-such a group expressing opinions through spokespeople, but don’t think nearly as much about the conflicts that must exist within these groups and individuals involved in processes of change at the national level. And it’s not trivial. If we try and examine the politics in Africa without a nuanced view of it, we won’t get far.

2 thoughts on “Unity and Fragmentation

  1. Philip

    July 8, 2010 at 4:23pm

    In Damascus things go one step further. Last night the streets were awash with Spain flags, honking cars and over-enthusiastic shabaab. It was more over the top than Madrid two years ago. I suspect that since alcohol is less of an outlet for people here their excesses are manifested in different ways, even adopting other countries.

    On a more serious note, identity is a very fluctuating and multi-faceted thing. Amartya Sen’s ‘Identity and Violence’ is along the same lines as your argument. But one thing to remember about identity is that it’s as much a product of imagination as it is of something real and tangible. That’s why it can be dangerous to give it too much sway over politics. On the other hand, though, imagined or not, it’s an incredibly powerful motivator for people, in good ways and bad, so we ignore it at our peril.

    Good post!

  2. mawuli

    August 25, 2010 at 1:10pm

    This is really an interesting piece. Considering the context is as much very important when we are looking at the content of what we are saying or else we may draw spurious conclusions as to how we should behave and what we should have been or be.
    The beauty is the unity in diverstiy we expereince as various circumstances face us.
    Thanks for your deep thought –

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