The End of National Narrative? – STIAS Public lecture by Wamuwi Mbao

27 May 2024

Disappointment, disenchantment and disavowal have become, in many ways, the affective dominant that charges the present-day. Narrativised fantasies around which we have tended to organise our social, aesthetic and political feelings of collectivity have been pervasively disrupted, leaving little in the way of stable ground on which to establish a shared sense of belonging. National narrative is a kind of story we tell ourselves. What happens when the story no longer applies: what’s left, and how do we proceed?” asked Wamuwi Mbao in the third STIAS public lecture of 2024.

STIAS Iso Lomso Fellow Wamuwi Mbao during his public lecture on 16 May 2024

“I’m not forecasting. This is not about the South African elections, the fate of the African National Congress, white flight or white genocide (and the people who imagine that to be real),” he continued. “I’m looking at stories and how they work in our world. I tell stories.”

“I’m asking things like: Which way to what? Why these people? Why these events? Why these places? Why these stories and what do they mean? Why this order of things? How and why do we tell our stories? How do they shape our world? Why is national narrative protected and why is it discontinued.”

Mbao is a writer and literary critic. He has recently been promoted to Senior Lecturer in the English Department of Stellenbosch University. He is also lead fiction reviewer at the Johannesburg Review of Books. His edited collection Years of Fire and Ash traces political protest poetry across 20th-century South Africa to the present-day. He is a South African Literary Award recipient for his literary journalism oeuvre, and his short story ‘The Bath’ was chosen as one of the 20 best short stories published in the first 20 years of South Africa’s democracy.

He is an Iso Lomso fellow and held a residence-abroad fellowship at the National Humanities Centre in 2022/3. His research interests include cultures of knowing, South African apartheid history, and cultures of mobility. His STIAS project is about representations of discontent in South Africa in words and on screen.

What is a national narrative?

From 1994 images of the Rainbow Nation voting together for the first time to sporting triumphs like the 2023 Rugby World Cup Final, Mbao described national narrative as being about gestures, attachments and signs of how we place ourselves in relation to the national.

“We know what it is because we know what it signifies, its cultural weight and consequence. These stories are the scaffolding on which we build our lives,” he continued. “At a national level they are a way to imagine ourselves in the community. To imagine our collective self into being. And to bring us together at a specific point in time. They are also a space of potential.”

Parts of the national narrative may appear to be cast in stone while others may be more pliant and bendable – “objects of faith that may enter fleetingly and may only be tenuous and provisional”.  Mbao also explained that there is usually more than one version at any time and people may understand things differently.

“But the national narrative encompasses the mood, moment and hopes of the citizenry,” he continued. “I’m not arguing that it’s a good or bad thing. I’m tracing it in different forms, genres and styles.”

He noted that many key moments in the South African narrative are clustered around sport – “the rugby moment, for example, engaged with a long history”.

Describing it as a moment of nostalgia, he said: “It was fragmentary, illusory, with the anticipation greater than the felt effect and the wellbeing quickly evaporating.”

“These temporary moments of national feeling are becoming fewer and far between as one version of the national story is slipping away,” he continued. “The One Nation narrative is spluttering and dying. But the national narrative is never fully under the control of those who depend on it. There is no wizard behind the curtain.”

Burning flags and broken anthems

Mbao moved between examples from South Africa and the USA in his presentation pointing to “the “kindredness in their historical narratives, the colonial project and in psychosocial spaces with histories of violence”.

He pointed to the recent controversial pre-election advert by the Democratic Alliance which is a visual illustration of South Africa’s flag burning to depict South Africa’s future under an African National Congress/Economic Freedom Fighters coalition government, which has been described by President Ramaphosa as treasonous. “It has captured attention because of the symbolism attached to burning flags. People assume illegality but South Africa has no law about flag desecration, only laws that ensure freedom of political expression. But flags are always an exclamation mark in the national narrative.”

He also pointed to anthems like The Star Spangled Banner – “an already fragmentary piece with a bunch of questions, which is transformed when placed in the public space and often used as a symbol to bring people together”.

He indicated that national narrative often has the power to rescript reality and noted that music is also often used as part of the narrative. “Springsteen’s Born in the USA has a long history of misunderstanding of the song and desire to co-opt it politically. It’s about a war veteran and working-class uncertainty, not a cheerful acclamation of the USA. But supporters sang it outside the hospital when then President Trump was being treated for COVID. It shows the possibility of wilfully forcing a symbol to do narrative in a hostile context.”

“The national narrative is a repository for all the complicated circulation of fantasies that draw or repel us. Fantasies that structure our world in many ways,” he said.

Narrative fatigue and time for a new narrative?

Mbao described the 2015/16 #FeesMustFall student protests in South Africa as a part of the battle for the national narrative – a moment of contestation that gave us a “glimpse of something more”.

“For South Africans born post-1994 the One Rainbow Nation narrative can seem embarrassing – a curtain to disguise sustained wealth and privilege,” he said. “The disenchantment is obvious, especially in classrooms.” He described the challenge for those old enough to understand the buzzwords, vocabulary and discourse to teach students decades later when the consensus is fraying. “Students are not informed. They joined the national narrative in the middle, have only heard about the book, heard about events they weren’t present for. There is an increasing sense of different ways of being in relation to the national narrative. This is spreading precarity, but the end of one narrative can be a useful starting point for another.”

“A national narrative must tell and retell the national story,” he said. “What happens to the national narrative when the picture becomes fuzzy?”

“Different ways to tell a story might be deployed,” he added.

In this regard he highlighted and played a clip from the trailer of Milisuthando, a documentary by Milisuthando Bongela that offers complex thinking about being a black South African woman in the current moment (MILISUTHANDO | #DIFF2023 Trailers ( “It’s interested in asking questions, in looking at how black people situate themselves in relation to the national narrative. It’s recognisable and brand new at the same time. It dispenses with easy national-narrative images and centres itself through voices, history and mnemonics.”

He described the current moment nationally and also internationally as perhaps being about the collapse and dissolution of older models of collective feeling. “The sense of the world’s fixity is being destabilised, but another narrative is possible when we change how we pay attention.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph:  Ignus Dreyer

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