Rehana Ebrahim-Vally, Denis-Constant Martin
Apartheid was based on particular perceptions and hierarchical classifications of the human body. It aimed at separating people with different physical appearances in order to preserve the purity of the “white race” and its domination in South Africa. To understand the changes that have taken place in South Africa since 1990, to go beyond the surface of observable events and reach the social representations of these transformations that have developed among South Africans, the body, or more precisely images of the body, provide a good point of departure. The present study presents an experimental small scale survey aiming at uncovering social representations of the “new” South Africa shared by young South Africans at the dawn of the 21st Century. It argues that studies of social representations require, at least in their initial stage, the use of non-directive collective interviews; it shows that images of the body as displayed in TV commercials can be used as efficient prompts to start discussions about the present state of South African society. The survey used four commercials taped on South African TV in 2003; these clips were used as prompts in three non-directive collective interviews with young South Africans, to which was added a test group consisting of French students. TV commercials were analysed using methods inspired by the semiology of cinema; the transcripts of the interviews were analysed using methods borrowed from the French school of political sociology. The results of this experimental survey show that, if the transition from apartheid to a democratic non racial society is considered positive, it is perceived with ambivalences and sometimes contradictory feelings: the future of South Africa may at the same time be envisioned with great optimism and heavy anxieties; relations between South Africans can be described as harmonious and be lived amidst acute tensions. Ambivalences and tensions, which remain very often untold, are precisely the dimensions of the representations of the “new” South Africa among young South Africans that non-directive collective interviews help to apprehend more clearly.
In South Africa, the transition negotiated in order to build a post-apartheid political order has brought about a deep-seated transformation of the state. A central issue of this radical reform had to do with the territorial arrangement of the new state. Constitutional negotiations resulted in a hybrid federal type of system that distinctly reinforced the power of local government, particularly to counterbalance that of the nine provinces. At the same time, a smoother form of intergovernmental relations was introduced with the concept of “cooperative government.” In contrast to the centralized system that held sway under apartheid, local government has been strengthened by a new constitutional status, which in particular guarantees an “equitable share” of the national revenue. It also ensures that municipalities are represented nationally through intergovernmental structures involving the participation of local governments. The new space of autonomization that local governments henceforth enjoy nevertheless comes up against the centralizing tendencies of intergovernmental relations. In South Africa, cooperative government has turned out to be a means of consolidating national power. The configuration of the South African political party system also plays up this rationale. The dominant position of the ANC at every level of government thus has a centralizing effect on the management of center-periphery relations. Yet this dynamic is partly the result of a centralization “by default” due to the institutional weakness of sub-national governments. The use local governments make of the new constitutional space granted to them greatly depends on their own capacities, thus producing an asymmetrical dynamic of autonomization. Without their own resources, rural municipalities remain highly dependent on the central government. On the contrary, metropolitan areas manage to strengthen their power and position themselves as competitors with certain provinces, thus becoming central actors in intergovernmental relations.
The emergence of political movements, which have recently taken the centre stage in Eastern Europe and Sub-Saharian Africa, has raised once again the question of the preconditions for, and the forms of, political change. In particular it draws attention to the relationship between lasting phenomena -those which, at least in certain respects, indicate social continuity - and phenomena which fundamentally disturb the social order bringing in their wake immediate change. One two-fold interpretation of these developments has been particularly persuasive. On the one hand, as far as Europe is concerned, it is suggested that there has been a "return to a previously flouted identity" or "refinding of the past". As for Africa, these changes are described in terms of "tribalism" or "clanish reactions". Unfortunately such an interpretation does not help us to fully understand the interactions between long-lasting and short-lived phenomena. The paper proposes several ways to go beyond this dichotomy and to avoid over or underestimating phenomena of one kind to the detriment of those of the other. It suggests that the cultural impregnation of political systems, practices and representations can be analytically reconstructed within the concept of "political culture". This concept both embraces the idea of dynamism (giving impetus to political innovation) while taking into account the complexity of the means of transmission (assuring continuity). Arguing from the assumption that continuity feeds innovation, this paper examines three types of duality: the dialectic between external and internal dynamics; the emotional/rational dichotomy and the opposition between tradition and innovation. All of these must be observed both within the "official" political arena as well as in contexts that, while ostensibly non-political, can be "invested" by political thought and action.