Civic Engagement as a Cultural Process: An Example

An extended example illustrates how the three proposed domains interact with each other in the processes involved in reconstructing cultural and historical narratives in a period of rapid social change, and how individual civic identity and efficacy are sustained by narratives, and positioning.

In 1994 at the time Mandela become South Africa’s President, Salie Abrahams interviewed a number of young people in a township in South Africa who were voting for the first time (Abrahams, 1995; Haste & Abrahams, 2008). They were all, according to Apartheid criteria, ‘black’ or ‘colored’ and their families were disenfranchised prior to that point. The interviews are full of hope about their own futures and also of new-found civic efficacy. They expressed very similar versions of a new cultural narrative which echoed Mandela’s message but which also translated into their own new identities. Here, extracts from the interview with JJ, an 18-year-old boy from a Sotho family, are discussed. First, we will consider the cultural narratives explaining the history behind Apartheid, the collective historical identity that he himself shares, the future agenda for his own group and the discourses around unity for the future. Then, we will consider how these extracts reflect two other civic identity processes, efficacy and positioning. JJ’s interview shows how his identity was framed by historical narratives about apartheid and how the new cultural stories gave him a renewed sense of self with new moral responsibilities.

We divide the material into four extracts. First, we will consider the narratives evident in each extract:

JJ 1: Jan Van Riebeeck [founder of Cape Town] came here and took everything he could take, they had no respect for us. They wanted everything that he saw, the land, the diamonds, the rivers, the mountain and the sea. They were gluttons and wanted to (eat up) everything. They not only took everything but they broke us up into splinters and made us powerless, because if we had remained one, we would have defeated them ....

They were extremely greedy but also extremely clever in a bad way. That is why they divided us up from the start, that was so ... shrewd.

Here, we see two narratives: one emphasizes the personal vices of the colonists and the other is a narrative of imperialist practice: divide and rule.

JJ 2: Apartheid was a big tragedy. We lost our land and lost our lives. We even lost our dignity and I even hated myself and my skin, why am I black, why did I have to suffer like this, why must I feel like a piece of dirt walking around here, we got nothing and they got everything. But, as I grew up, I learnt that I was somebody, I could be proud of myself. I am black and I know we will rule this land. That made me walk tall and feel proud.

In this extract, we see the new narrative of pride defined by the contrast with the preexisting narrative of shared identity of oppression.

JJ 3: [White people did] nothing, and then a few of them would [say] sorry, but just a few of them. We don’t want their sorry, we want justice.... Why did they not stand up when we were hurting? We can do the same to the whites if we want to. We can also make them suffer. But no, we must show them that we are better and that we are just and we need unity and that we see them also as people, human beings and not like dogs, like the way they saw us. That is what we have to teach these whites, that we are all human beings, all equal.

SA: You must teach them ?

JJ- Yes, that is our duty.

In this extract, there are four interwoven narratives. One reiterates past oppression. A second distinguishes those white people who did not endorse Apartheid but failed to stand up for the oppressed groups, so their moral failure is lack of courage. A third narrative is about unity and humanity, which transcends race and prescribes equality. A fourth is a significant new narrative, reflecting Mandela’s influence, that empowers the former oppressed groups by positioning them as having the moral responsibility to educate the whites in humanity.

SA: You talk about whites...what do you see yourself as?

JJ 4: The answer is South African! If I say I am black then the other person will say he is white and then we start racism again and all the divisions and then we have apartheid. That is why I say that I am a human being and a South African to stop that racism. Black and white was started by apartheid and that will keep us apart. But if we want to unite then we must get rid of that colored, white and black. ...

We are all human beings, all equal. We can’t start that again, it will be too cruel for the blacks to do it, we have suffered too much to do that to someone else. I sometimes think we should oppress them, but that will not fix anything, we have had too much anger in South Africa.

This extract elaborates the narrative of humanity and unity through both the transcendence of race under the category ‘human’ and the argument that labeling per se is divisive and undermines this. It also elaborates the narrative of moral responsibility for reeducation.

The example shows multiple narratives in interaction. They connect representations of past experiences, present situation and challenges, and future possibilities. The different narratives are part of a cultural repertoire available to JJ. However, what narratives he invokes and the meaning he makes of them evidence that JJ is engaged in a dialogic construction of his personal identity and agency. That is, cultural narratives are appropriated into individual identity, and different courses of civic action follow from this appropriation. This is a clear example of the interplay between the understanding of history and the sense of self, moral responsibility and civic agency.

We will now consider how these extracts demonstrate positioning; we see several examples. First, JJ positions the founders of the Cape Colony as morally egregious and by so doing, he positions the nonwhite population as victims of an immoral tradition. This positioning is developed through arguing that in consequence the victims are deprived of dignity. However, this is presented as a counterpoint to the repositioning of identity through the recent social changes. In the third extract, JJ differentiates those whites who are pro-Apartheid from those who are apologetic, but then further positions these latter as lacking in commitment. He then engages in the interesting argumentation, whether nonwhites should position whites now as victims, in retribution, or whether to position nonwhites as morally superior because they can take a comprehensively humanistic view. Finally in this extract he extends the positioning of moral superiority to moral obligation; nonwhites must teach the whites to be humanistic—elegantly positioning the whites not only as morally deficient but also as less powerful because they are placed in the role of students.

In the fourth extract, JJ repeats some of the argumentation about retribution, but also positions himself as a ‘human being’ and ‘South African’ explicitly to counter the positioning that he sees in Apartheid, which arose from the labels. These extracts are a quite transparent representation of the processes involved in reconstructing cultural narratives in a period of rapid social change, the appropriation of these into individual identity and developing the implications for action that follow from that appropriation.

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