Race, Decolonization, and Global Citizenship in South Africa

We are excited to re-share this interview with Chielozona Eze, originally published in the African Griot volume 18. Find out how Mandela became the focus point of this publication and what the future is of race relations in South Africa.

How Mandela became a focus for the publication

  Race, Decolonization, and Global Citizenship in South Africa looks at how South Africa’s historic transition to democracy has not only changed the negative narrative about South Africa but has also provided a model for a new form of ethical participation in the world. It examines in particular the possibilities of conviviality in the post-apartheid society, aided by cosmopolitan thinking. This book was inspired by Nelson Mandela’s role in the epochal, largely peaceful transition and therefore explores Mandela not only as a source of theory, but as theory itself.

Mandela is central in my life as an African intellectual. I was an undergraduate student of comparative literature in Bayreuth, Germany when Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize (1993) and the South African general election (1994), and when he instituted the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Like millions of others, I had the feeling that something of far-reaching global political and moral relevance was taking place in South Africa. Much later, as I read Mandela’s biography, Long Walk to Freedom, and Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness, I was drawn to the social and moral reach of the ideas that these leaders projected. They provided alternatives to much of what I had hitherto understood about the African political and moral landscape. I knew that they were transforming (South) Africa, but I did not have the language to articulate my thoughts about this transformation.

In 2004, when I was part of the UCLA Global Fellowship program as a postdoctoral fellow, I began to think seriously about the theoretical import of these two South African moral leaders and the historical relevance of the transition. The peaceful political transition and the moral premises of the TRC meant something larger than epochal historical events. They were a metaphor, a tool that can be used to explain the world in ways that could inform relationships between peoples in Africa and all over the world. Mandela showed me another way to approach my postcolonial African world in particular and global reality in general.

Anyone with reasonable knowledge of global history must be aware of the unimaginable suffering that the apartheid regime inflicted on the black and non-white populations in South Africa. The legacies of apartheid still linger on and are visible in every space in South Africa. There was a palpable fear that the black population would avenge themselves on the historical wrongs visited on them in their justified quest for economic and social justice. In the words of Njabulo Ndebele, the anticipated disintegration of the country in a “conflagration of violence did not take place.” Yet, the central issue that must be addressed revolves around how to rebuild the battered society.

In his life, Mandela seems to have raised the typical Martin Luther King Jr.’s question: Where do we go from here: chaos of community? Mandela chose community. When he was released from jail, he went to the Cape Town Parade where he shook hands with his former jailers and held an impromptu speech, in which he asked all South Africans to start working for reconciliation, for a common community. Parts of the building block of that community are forgiveness and openness. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting the past, nor does it imply a negligence of the necessity for the pursuit of social and economic justice. When he forgave his torturers and consequently appealed to his fellow South Africans to forge a common community by responding to the pain of others, I knew that there had to be ways of overcoming the legacies of a racist and colonial past other than inflating a resistance anchored in difference.

Deriving from Mandela, the ultimate questions that have occupied my intellectual attention are: How can we respond to the suffering and pain all around us in Africa? How can we explain and affect the system that controls our lives in such a way that we affirm the lives of people we know and are open to others we do not know? How can we understand being human in a world that is increasingly marked by hatred of others? Can Mandela’s vision of his society provide us with a theory of how to live in our globalized world?

In addition to engaging with Mandela and Tutu, this book considers South African cultural theorists, poets, and novelists such as J. M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Zakes Mda, Njabulo Ndebele, and Antjie Krog, all of whom have engaged with the struggle to overcome the legacies of apartheid and create a more humane society. Most of these figures share common cultural and moral traits with Mandela and Tutu, the most outstanding of which is their belief in the notion of global citizenship.

The future of race relations in South Africa

South Africa is far from being a promised land of conviviality. It is fair to state that the race relations in South Africa is not stable. I think though that it would be wrong to expect better relations in the face of howling economic and social disparity, a condition in which majority of the black population still live in townships designed under apartheid. The economic and social disparities in different sectors of society, which have spun several social unrests, threaten to plunge the country into anarchy and so, effectively bury the hopes and visions raised by Mandela and the writers considered in this book. The waves of student protests such as #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall have highlighted obvious cracks in the Rainbow nation. Sadly, the seven years of Jacob Zuma administration did not help to advance the visions articulated by Mandela. On the contrary, that period witnessed as of yet, the most corrupt, wasteful, and divisive time in the post-apartheid era. Much hope rests on the efforts of the current leader of the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa. Unlike Zuma, who capitalized on the racial and ethnic divisions in South Africa to enrich himself, Ramaphosa seems poised to continue Mandela’s project of cosmopolitan reordering of South Africa. There is, indeed, no alternative. Given the obvious fact of globalization and increased migration, there does not seem to be a better option for the world either.

The future of cosmopolitan thinking in Africa

Though the discourse in this book centers exclusively on South Africa, my moral and intellectual interests engage with the African condition in general. What can Africa learn from Mandela as a moral and political leader? Mandela believes that the future of Africa must be rooted in cosmopolitanism. He states that at a time that many people all over the world are touting tribal thinking and setting their national group against others “cosmopolitan dreams are not only desirable but a bounden duty; dreams that stress the special unity that hold the freedom forces together – [in] a bond that has been forged by common struggles, sacrifices and traditions.”

To me, Mandela has articulated the toughest challenge facing Africa today. The challenge is not necessarily how Africans can come to terms with colonial legacies or how they can live in peace with white people, especially in South Africa. The urgent question is how Africans can live with other Africans of different ethnic abstractions in a common geopolitical space. It is true that the colonial powers forcefully merged people of different ethnicities and nations into common geopolitical entities. The temptation is to resort to what some imagine to be the original condition or states of different ethnicities; that is, abolishing the colonial geographical boundaries. There was indeed such an effort in 1967 in Nigeria, when the Igbo agitated for independence. The result was one of the most devastating wars in Africa, the Nigerian civil war. Whereas other ethnicities might not be as daring, or perhaps foolhardy, as the Igbo in 1967, there seems to be simmering animosities between different ethnicities in nearly all countries in Africa. Politicians exploit these to their advantage. Even in South Africa, the question that runs underneath that of black and white relations is that between the different ethnicities such as the Zulus and Xhosas and others. Harping on ethnic difference might help preserve the uniqueness of different ethnic groups. The flip side of it though, is the raising of difference to an absolute level so that conviviality becomes impossible. This, I think, is where openness and the awareness of commonality become inevitable in the public imagination.

Mandela famously expressed the wish to see Africa that is at peace with itself. This, too, is my wish, and I believe that cosmopolitan moral and social attitudes could aid Africa in that regard. What is said of Africa applies to all parts of the world despite the obvious rise in tribal thinking.


Chielozona Eze is Professor of African literature and cultural studies at Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago, Extraordinary Professor of English at Stellenbosch University, and a fellow at Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies, South Africa. This interview was originally published in the African Griot Volume 18.

Race, Decolonization, and Global Citizenship in South Africa
by Chielozona Eze
9781580469333, Hardcover, £58.50 or $71.50