Home Sociology Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism, and Modern Paganism
The Rainbow Years: 1996-2007
South Africa’s vision for a new nation was symbolically captured in Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s metaphor of the “Rainbow Nation” that became a unifying motif of a multicultural South Africa as it reentered the international sporting arena, embraced a new flag and national anthem, and was drawn on by business and commercial sectors as they engaged in the transformation process. The rainbow was also an important symbol of the ANC’s primary goal of dismantling the white ethnocentrism of apartheid from which all forms of social, religious, and political divisions had been established and reinforced. Racial equality became a new narrative in the Rainbow Nation as the world celebrated the transition to “black” majority rule: a term that denoted an apartheid race typology of White, Black, Colored, or Asian/Indian. This category essentialized differences between ethnically and linguistically distinct communities who had migrated southward over one and a half centuries ago and who became collectively known as the Bantu.3 The indigenous peoples of southern Africa are the still marginalized Khoisan, who suffered the most significant destruction of their culture, language, and social structure during colonial expansion. Notwithstanding the semantic complexities, it is the Bantu who are referred to as “African” in this chapter. Unlike the Afrikaner nationalism that had only extended state privileges to English-speaking whites, strategies to mobilize the entire population behind a restructured national project fell predominantly into Bantu hands.
The necessity for this project can be seen in the light of Isaiah Berlin’s view of nationalism as “a response to a wound inflicted upon a society” (cited in Rao 2012: 170), but one that, outside of violent transition, anticipated healing through reconciliation and dialogue. The imperative to accept and promote difference in the new multicultural nation-state required an inversion of apartheid policies that had translated difference into multitiered forms of exclusion. To safeguard and support South Africa’s fledgling democracy, a number of state institutions were provided for in Chapter 9 of the Constitution. Among the collective of “Chapter 9 Institutions” were the South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) and the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) that was “established to support constitutional democracy” and mandated to “promote respect for, observance of, and protection of human rights for everyone without fear or favour” (SAHRC 1995). These institutions became constitutional mediators and watchdogs of individual and/or community rights violations, most of which had roots in apartheid’s preoccupation with race, religion, and language. Prior to 1994, Christianity had been privileged in all state institutions as the moral and ethical foundation of society and was promulgated through Christian National Education to all population groups in South Africa. Through this system, almost 80 percent of blacks had converted to Christianity by the end of apartheid, and, from their genesis in the early twentieth century, African Initiated Churches (AICs) had developed into the largest religious groupings in South Africa. This growth was indisputably connected to their syncretism of traditional4 African beliefs and practices within an African-Christian context.
Christianity lost its privileged status in the new constitution, and in the reconfiguration of the religious landscape, the new minority religion of Paganism came to be represented by a growing number of multifocused groups and organizations through the 1990s. Initially, sharing information and networking through e-mail, some Pagans forged important links with well-known Pagans and Pagan organizations in the United Kingdom and America. Buoyed by the international presence of Pagan traditions, they were a fellow community constructing itself in a society now accepted as liberated from discriminatory rhetoric and persecution. Legislative change is not necessarily commensurate with changes in historically established mindsets and attitudes, however, and Pagans almost immediately confronted the fact that legal rights did not automatically translate into social or familial acceptance where the historical Christian associations of witchcraft and magic with Satanism and/or heresy were the ubiquitous concern. This conflation was also evidenced in a heightened media interest in individuals who self-identified with the terms “pagan,” “witchcraft,” and “magic” in a religious context quite antithetical to the Christianity with which white South Africans were conceptually associated.
In light of the historical and extant significance of these terms in South Africa, there was a striking absence of media interest in whether they shared any commonality with African cultural and religious beliefs and practices. Perhaps through wishing to dissociate from the colonial construction of paganism as synonymous with “unbelievers” and other derogatory epithets, Pagans publicly avoided any congruencies being made between themselves and traditional practitioners. Their distancing was reflected in their failure in 1997 to respond to a “Call to Shape the Face of Paganism in South Africa” made by Donna Vos (1997: 6) in her quarterly magazine Pagan Africa. In what to date is the singular statement of its kind, Vos stated that “The PFSA rejects the Eurocentric bias that is much of modern Paganism, for a balance between the inherent African (tribal) Paganism and a Eurocentric Paganism.” Vos’s call was made with good intention in the halcyon political climate of 1997 when restoring damaged intercultural relationships was fundamental to the nation-building project. Today, Vos (pers. comm., 21 June 2015) reflects back on her call as “a strategy to protect Paganism in Africa,” but it was one that provoked no intra-Pagan discussion at the time and did not translate into the appropriation of any African practices into Pagan traditions.
Processes to decolonize language highlight the legacies of racism and prejudice words carry in local contexts and can result in their avoidance as a strategy of reconciliation in times of strengthening national unity. A component part of the postcolonial African recovery of their own religious and cultural identities was the tacit rejection of prior Eurocentric category constructions within which they had been pejoratively labeled as “pagans” and as constituting a “native problem” that had necessitated a series of “Native Acts” through which their political rights were systematically and effectively eroded. Also mindful of Khoisan struggles for First Nations status, Bantus themselves have avoided referring to their religious traditions as a “Native faith.” Local Pagans, who avoided referring to African practitioners as “pagans,” simultaneously resisted debating these interpretive issues with traditionalists, who faced equal difficulties in publicly articulating their religious identities amid growing Christian conservatism that persisted in viewing magical practices as nonrational, if not heretical. In embracing a rainbow-hued nationalism, Pagans took little account of the post-1994 shifts in power relations that would inform the decolonizing process and reignite divisions between “the colonizer” and previously colonized subjects.
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