German Ambassador Martin Schäfer: On pride, patriotism and proper pronunciation

14.04.2019 - Article

“I don't believe constitutional patriotism ever means complacency with the status quo. On the contrary, it means to me that it's crucial to get involved.” Here's Ambassador Schäfer's latest opinion piece News24.com. On pride, patriotism and proper pronunciation.

Ambassador Schäfer's column at News24
Ambassador Schäfer's column at News24© News24 (Screenshot)

Constitutional patriotism ever means complacency with the status quo. On the contrary, it means to me that it's crucial to get involved, writes Martin Schäfer.

Are you proud to be South African?

Am I proud to be German?

Patriotism is a difficult subject for many Germans. Too vivid are the images of the darkest chapter of our history. Images of a rampant racial nationalism, Nazis waving the German flag in the name of exclusion, totalitarianism, fascism, murder and destruction.

And even today, in an era of rising nationalism in many parts of Europe and elsewhere – is patriotism really something we should strive for?

The answer might surprise you: It is a solid yes!

And I think the history of both our countries is quite telling in this regard.

What does patriotism actually mean? National pride? Pride in the natural beauty of one's country? (South Africa would give plenty of reason for that – no doubt.) Pride in one's culture? Heritage? People? What does that even mean?

It is useful to look at where the word 'patriotism' actually comes from. The Encyclopedia Britannica enlightens us that patriotism, a feeling of attachment and commitment to a country, nation, or political community, is not synonymous with nationalism. In fact, patriotism has its origins some 2 000 years prior to the rise of nationalism in the 19th century.

Greek and Roman antiquity provide the roots for a political patriotism that conceives of loyalty to the patria as loyalty to a political conception of the republic. It is associated with the love of law, the search for the common good, and the duty to behave justly toward one's country.

What does this mean in the context of Germany and South Africa today?

Both of our countries have a troubled, complex history to look back on. This year, we are celebrating 25 years of democratic elections in South Africa. At the same time in Germany, we are celebrating 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. 2019 could in fact be labelled the German-South African year of freedom and democracy.

Some three decades ago, people in our two countries stood up against the injustices of the past. The circumstances were vastly different – of course – but in both our countries, a formerly divided nation had to find a way to come back together.

To seal the new beginnings in South Africa, new democratic rules and institutions were established. A constitution was written that would rally all South Africans behind a common goal – the path towards freedom, justice and democracy.

These common principles were much more than mere ink on paper. They were the basis of what should form a new sense of attachment, loyalty, belonging and commitment to a new South Africa. A new patriotism, perhaps?

The great Nelson Mandela put it this way: “Now it is universally acknowledged that unity and reconciliation are written in the hearts of millions of South Africans. They are an indelible principle of our founding pledge. They are the glowing fire of our New Patriotism”.

It is telling to consider the moment Mandela spoke these words. It was in 1996, upon the adoption of the new South African constitution.

And I think Madiba's words are providing a very clear answer to the question of whether there is merit in patriotism.

What was it that paved and cemented our two countries' democratic paths – the path from injustice to freedom, from suppression to democracy? The cornerstones and guarantors of that path are our democratic rules and institutions, common principles, and the constitution.

It is therefore a political, a constitutional patriotism that we should be celebrating in Germany and in South Africa. We should be committed to and proud of what is defining us as democracies. In German, we have a long and wieldy word for this, it is the philosopher Jürgen Habermas's notion of “Verfassungspatriotismus” (I challenge you to pronounce that without twisting your tongue…).

To me, this means a commitment to the democratic institutions and principles that brought Germany back into the international community after World War II. That's something I can be proud of as a German without even a blink of hesitation! I believe it's exactly this loyalty to our constitution that is protecting us against the rampant nationalism of the past.

I wouldn't elevate myself to interpreting how South Africans define their sense of identity, their sense of patriotism and belonging. That's not up to me to tell.

But what I can tell you is how I feel as a bystander and observer when I see the South African flag being hoisted at official events or – even more so when I hear Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika being sung by South Africans anywhere across the country. It gives me goosebumps almost every time. And that's because this wonderful anthem is the symbol of an achievement South Africans can be utterly proud of: of having overcome the past and of having rallied behind a new democratic order together.

This should be the source of pride, loyalty and commitment.

Of course, no system is perfect. That's true in Germany as much as in South Africa. The current election campaign is also highlighting this. Much criticism has been launched from across the political spectrum on a range of political issues – from how electoral lists are being put together, to concerns about disinformation campaigns and accusations of influence peddling or corruption.

I don't believe constitutional patriotism ever means complacency with the status quo. On the contrary, it means to me that it's crucial to get involved. To fight and defend the democratic principles one believes in. By asking questions, by taking a political stance – and, of course, by casting one's vote. That's what democrats should do and be proud of.

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