WP38: Understanding identity in Africa: A first cut


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Working papers
Mattes, Robert

A great deal of attention has focused on the effects of diverste social identities and their potentially negative consequences for achieving an overarching national identity, with implications for the stability of politial regimes and for democratic consolidation. This paper draws on representative attitude surveys conducted in South Africa since 1994 by the Institute for Democracy In South Africa (Idasa) and the Afrobarometer to address questions about the actual state of social identity in South Africa, and how it may have shifted since the inception of its new democracy.

We find, first, that South Africa has achieved what is perhaps the irreducible prerequisite of political stability and democratic consolidation: a near consensual agreement among citizens that the legally defined political community is the appropriate one, that they are indeed members of that community, and that they are proud of that membership. Second, race and ethnicity remain an important source of social identity, but this tendency may be decreasing, with parallel increases in the adoption of religious, class or occupational identities. Third, high levels of national identity and loyalty can coexist with equally high levels of identification with sub-national social identity groups. To the extent that there has been a nation-building project since 1994, it has s쳮ded not in transforming group identities into national identity, but in creating a transcendent national identity that overarches but coexists with group identities.