In much activist and academic discussion, the National Question tends to be dominated by matters of race, nationality, ethnicity and identity – not least in South Africa, and for obvious reasons. These emphases are not misplaced. ‘Race’ and especially racism, along with related issues like ethnic rivalries and xenophobia, continue to be burning concerns in contemporary South Africa. However, an overemphasis on race (that is, on one or another form of identity politics) coupled with the second word in the term ‘National Question’ might further suggest that essentially we are dealing here with a puzzle, the persistence perhaps of backward prejudices, resurgent and problematic ethnic identities, or ‘race relations’ that require delicate management. Several recent African National Congress (ANC) Strategy and Tactics documents travel in this direction.
All this might then encourage us to conceptualise the National Question as a matter of ‘false consciousness’ as is the case with a colour-blind, liberal humanism which states that ‘there is no such thing as race’ – which in bio-genetic terms is of course true. This in turn grounds other contemporary arguments about ‘irrational’ voter behaviour based on ‘identity’. The association of the National Question with false consciousness also occurs in various more left-leaning perspectives, one of which could be summarised thus: ‘Nationalism is inherently and ultimately a bourgeois trick to obscure class exploitation’. Or, as Benedict Anderson (1991) asserts, nations are ‘imagined communities’.
We do not intend to engage directly and in detail with the substantial South African and international literature that has dealt with these important issues of race, ethnicity, nationality, the concept of the nation, and the like. Rather, we hope to shift somewhat the central focus of the discussion on the National Question. In doing this we are not entering into an old South African debate that surfaced in activist circles in the 1980s: ‘class versus race’. On the contrary, we are seeking to illustrate how the configuration of both class realities and racial/national identities have been shaped by the manner in which the capitalist political economy of South Africa has been (and remains) inserted within the global circuit of capitalist accumulation and reproduction.