Unity isn't the kind of strength SA needs
It may feel nice, but it is dangerous - and especially when the wrong people decide what we must be unified about
Siya Kolisi's Springboks have united us. The ANC is battling for unity. The United States of America have threatened the unity of the Western world, and Europe must unite or fade. Will North and South Korea unite?
Unity. It's everywhere, presented in a thousand speeches and news reports and films and television shows as something to strive for. Unity, we are told, is our collective shield against anarchy. Unity is a home in which all are welcome. Unity is a serene state of being in a scary and fractured world.
It all seems to make a certain sense. Unity has many real advantages. For starters, it feels fantastic. Roaring in unison with a legion of fellow roarers ignites the blood and explodes the brain. It allows one a taste of primal bliss, when we all sat in the forest canopy and whooped our gratitude at the euphoric dawn.
There are also practical benefits, like concentrated human settlement, which gave us division of labour, which gave us specialisation, which gave us the greatest invention of the last four billion years: dentistry. (Future generations of anthropologists will prove that we invented the idea of God was because we invented the idea of hell, and we invented hell because toothache had to come from somewhere, right?)
Which is why, on balance, I would prefer to live in a society that is more unified than it is splintered, or at least have the freedom to live as close to the city wall as I can stomach.
I remain, however, very, very cautious of fetishising unity and accepting it, uncritically, as a universal good. Unity can be admirable. It can be moving. It can force progressive change. But ultimately it is an idea wielded as a weapon by old, entrenched, hegemonic power.As such, it is something I treat with extreme caution. When I read that we need to unite against this or that social scourge, or unite to save South Africa, or unite to support some or other sports team, I try to remember that such exhortations are thousands of years old. The alleged benefits of unity – safety, strength in numbers, belonging, utopia, heaven – have been dangled by powerful and cynical men in front or frightened people since Babylon. Come inside the walls and be cared far. Serve the king and be fed. Submit to the empire and be safe. Pray to the one god and find love.
The basic problem with unity, of course, is that it doesn’t mean unity. It certainly doesn’t mean a common humanity, or genuine compassion, or an attempt to understand the human condition. All it means is picking teams. Unity, by definition, implies the existence of people living outside the wall. After all, if there were nobody outside the wall you wouldn’t be unified, you’d just be. And as soon as you have people outside the wall, you have power playing its games.
All of which is why I don’t believe that South Africa needs unity. What South Africa needs is education. It needs jobs. It needs security. It needs hard-working, dedicated, skilful people. It needs compassion in industrial quantities. It needs courage. It needs luck.
Without those, unity is not just futile but dangerous. Without intelligence, skill, compassion and talent, unity quickly becomes dogma, and then a uniform, and then a collective departure from humanity. You know who were really, properly, intensely united? The Golden Horde. The Spanish Inquisition. The Nazis. Those guys could stand together like nobody’s business.To embrace the idea of unity without examining what we mean by it, or who is using the word, is to be unwittingly complicit in the eroding of individual rights. Enthusing about the unity of a nation state feels good and affirming (the ancient architects of multi-generational power knew plenty about human psychology), but when unity requires the silencing of dissent, or giving up certain liberties in return for safety or acceptance, or the abandonment of a wide range of thoughts and beliefs in favour of an easily-digested middle-ground pap, then unity really just means surrender.
South Africa is not unified. We speak many languages. We imagine many futures. We worship many gods, or none at all. Our randomly drawn border encircles a multitude of nations and histories and realities. We are a big, noisy, exuberant, angry, beautiful, rich, poor, horrifying mess. We need to work. We need to elect people who know how to get stuff done. We need a break.
But unity? May God and the ancestors and the many gods and the spirits and the saints and the fairies and the flying spaghetti monster save us from such a fate.