Friday, April 09, 2010


There's something that's pretty much always bothered me, and it seems to have come to a head recently, what with the You Know What just around the corner. That something is patriotism.

Patriotism is a love for and devotion to one's country. Of all the things to love and be devoted to, a country seems like a pretty strange one to me. What is it about a country that inspires or is deserving of such devotion? Devotion of that nature seems to be based around the assumption that one's own country is somehow superior to all other countries - I call this 'the patriotic assumption'.

Patriotic car

I've been seeing car after car, advertising and shop windows, even people's clothing displaying the South African national flag, often accompanied by the logos and colours of our national sports teams (for obvious reasons). Why is it that these people do this? Why do they decorate their cars and themselves with these things? Why do I get funny looks when I say that I'm not at all patriotic?

Funny looks or looks funny.
Let's take a look at the components that make up a country: Territory, nation and state.


This refers to the physical land area contained within the official borders of the country. When it comes to South Africa, I don't deny that we have some pretty beautiful places here. Table Mountain, the Waterberg, the Drakensberg, the Wild Coast, the Karoo and so on... all awesomely beautiful places endowed with a lush biodiversity. Aesthetically pleasing to look at and even scientifically interesting.

Not bad

But is South Africa somehow better than anywhere else? Is Knysna a better rainforest than the Amazon? Is the Fish River a better canyon than the Grand? Are the ruins of Mapungubwe better than those at Macchu Pichu or Giza? No, of course not. They're all lovely in their own right, but I don't see any valid argument supporting the notion that our physical terrain is qualitatively superior to any other.

I don't see any grounds for the patriotic assumption here. Moving on.


This describes the human population of the country: The people themselves, their history and culture. Are the South African people better than anyone else? How would we measure that anyway?

Let's postulate a metric, one that's often mentioned in tourist material as being a distinguishing characteristic of the South African people: ethnic diversity. Sure, we have quite a variety of ethnicities present here, some indiginous and many others who have settled here more recently. Is South Africa more diverse than anywhere else? Is it more diverse than China, or even the United States? No. And even then, the metric itself is problematic in that the definition of a distinct ethnic group is fuzzy at best.

"Rainbow Nation"

The same goes for just about any other metric one could postulate: economic, psychological, academic... you name it. There is always a better country somewhere, and in many cases we're near the bottom of the pile. There just doesn't seem to be any objective measure that could be used to support the notion that the South African people are somehow better than anyone else.


This refers to the administrative aspects of the country: the government, the law and the principles upon which the country was founded. Are these any better than anywhere else?

The South African government, while not the worst around, are known to be riddled with corruption - even our current president is a known fraudster who used political pressure to escape prosecution, while simultaneously lying about it to the public. Escalating riots around the country inspired by lack of service delivery demonstrate that the government is not only corrupt, but also incompetent. I submit that our government is an embarassment, not something to be proud of.

President Jacob Zuma

What about our laws and principles? Surely our constitution would be the embodiment of that. While it's a pretty good one, compared to many other national constitutions, there are a number of fundamental flaws in it. Among them, the lack of an explicit separation of church and state, the awarding of taxpayers' money to "traditional leaders" who are given limited government powers despite not having been democratically elected, and so on.

In the areas where our constitution is strong, like in guaranteeing freedom of speech, the press and other civil rights, it is vulnerable to perversion and even revision by the corrupt successors of the people who drafted it to begin with.

In short, the state of South Africa has little to nothing about it worthy of admiration, and I therefore see no grounds for the patriotic assumption here.

So what now?

Why do South Africans still fly the flag? Why do they clutch their chests and get all misty-eyed when they sing the National Anthem? Why do they wear Bafana Bafana shirts to work every Friday? Why do they care who the Springboks or Proteas have or haven't beaten this week?

I don't know. I really don't. If there was some kind of real or imagined benefit to doing so, I might understand it. But as far as I can see there is none. Although the manifestation of this patriotic fervour seems similar to a kind of religious devotion, at least in religion there's a kind of expectation that the deity in question will likely bestow blessings upon you in return for your worship and dedication. There doesn't seem to be anything like that when it comes to patriotism... there isn't even an implied suggestion of tax breaks or improved service delivery.

Patriotism, it seems to me, is even less rational and more useless than religion.


  1. Be that as it may, I would not want to live anywhere else for a number of reasons:

    1. The weather. The UK can keep its rain and Canada can keep its snow.
    2. The memories I have accumulated over three decades.
    3. Mrs Balls Chutney. Srsly.

    I could probably think of more reasons, but it has been a long day. And having just seen Malema's disgraceful conduct at the press conference today, I could probably think of many reasons to leave...but I wouldn't. Nie sommer nie.

    Does that make me a patriot?

  2. Great article, LOL!!!! Skeptical thinking in tip top condition. It all possibly has something to do with endorphins and celebrations.

  3. Ja, for sure, there's plenty of practical and sentimental reasons to want to stay here.

    I mean we have to live somewhere, and since we don't have (that many) urgent and compelling reasons to beat a hasty retreat I reckon it makes sense to stick around :)

    You're also right that there's nowhere that's the *perfect* place to live. In the UK there's bad weather and bad libel laws (a problem for me), in the US there's the religious right, in Canada it's too cold, Australia is infested with Australians and so on.

    That's also sort of my point... although I wrote the post from the South African perspective, I'd argue that a similar case could be made for just about any other country. Patriotism in general just doesn't make sense to me.

    Mrs Ball's chutney, however, does make sense. And if this is the only place we can get it, that's a pretty good reason to put up with a lot of crap from the crooks in Luthuli House.

  4. Patriotism is about a sense of identity, community and belonging for the insecure, as reinforced within a herd mentality — in many ways the same emotionally-based motivation that makes many people go to church: to be among those of a similar mind so that they can feel validated without having to think too hard about it.

  5. It seems many great minds (including mine :-)) agree with you:-

    Nationalism is an infantile sickness. It is the measles of the human race. — Albert Einstein

    Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. - Samuel Johnson

    Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious. - Oscar Wilde

    "Patriotism" is a word; and one that generally comes to mean either my country, right or wrong, which is infamous, or my country is always right, which is imbecile. - Dr Stephen Maturin in Master and Commander, p 173. Patrick O'Brian. 1970

    And so on...