I asked my students in political theory 211 what constitutes a nation. Being that they are in their second year (roughly sophomores) it may have been the first opportunity to weigh-in on what a nation means.
There was not much coming back at me so I posed the question differently.
"What makes you South African," I asked.
"We live here," someone from the back shouted. "There has to be more to being South African than living here," I replied.
This scenario is not unique. When I taught students in the US and India I asked the same question and it played out similarly.
Just this morning I watched a live broadcast from my hometown of Kimberley as I readied for work here in the village from hell.
The broadcasters were interviewing folks attached to producing the spirit for the FIFA World Cup which is 50 or so days away.
"What does the World Cup mean to you," a reporter asked an official. "We get to show the world that we are truly South African, they come here and enjoy our wonderful nation and participate in our warmth and generosity to all," he replied.
Try as hard as he may, he did not sound convincing. The World Cup as a nation-building exercise raises more questions about what it means to be South African than anything else.
After a few more minutes of determined pressing some general consensus about the make-up of South African-ness appeared in class.
Our culture (all of them I guess); our languages (the 11 official and the many others I guess); religion (all of them I guess); our geography.
"None of these make us unique, except for geography (and Lesotho is completely surrounded by South Africa)," I said.
The one determined voice raised the inevitable.
"Our history. We are South African because of apartheid," she said.
"Is that a good enough reason to call ourselves a nation?" I asked her.
"Not really since our history divides us and that is why we don't speak as one," someone else said.
The point of the exercise was not to frustrate students or call into question our nation-state, for no good reason.
The point was to press just how artificial our reality is when we dig past fanciful comments like that of the official above.
What we are is a construction of reality and, therefore, open to manipulation.
The Fifa World Cup is the most prominent example of how power elites manipulate belonging into profit and power.
Marx may be of very little use at this historical moment but his critique of the falsity (false consciousness) that underscores nationalism is worth reconsidering.
I hope the students in 211 will spend more time thinking about what makes them a nation but I expect that they will stay stuck just like most of us.
There is a very naive impulse needed to depress the reality that nations are anything more than manipulated concepts.
Whether we will be any more South African after the World Cup is hardly a matter of hopeful speculation.
Those who will profit from the fiasco will be happy and the left-out majority will be left weighing in on the manipulation.
Huge stadia will stand empty and elected officials will bend words to explain the developmental advances that are yet to follow.
And we will be looking elsewhere to explain what it means to be South African.
So hollow is the nationalist posture of pretending to exist in conflicting terms.
UPDATE(April 22): See John Pilger's "Give sport back to the fans" for more on the FIFA fleecing of South Africa.