In 1898 French polymath Gustave le Bon published yet another timeless book, The Psychology of Peoples, in which he attempted to penetrate the soul of races.
Le Bon came to the following essentialist conclusion: “The life of a people, its institutions, beliefs, and arts are but the visible expression of its invisible soul.”
Those among us who have visited China beheld grand architectural designs that are uniquely Chinese. In India, the Taj Mahal embodies something particular about the people of that country.
The diverse buildings that populate the great cities of Europe communicate the cultural uniqueness of the denizens of Occidental countries.
Here in Africa, the soul of the Egyptians gained fixity in the imperishable pyramids that have continued to excite the admiration of humankind throughout the ages.
The character of a people also expresses itself through music. To suggest that mbaqanga music should be placed on the same aesthetic pedestal with blues would be to betray a bluntness of taste that blurs the line between the beautiful and the ugly.
The ideas and books that spring spontaneously from the individuals who constitute a nation mirror the depth of a people’s soul. They reveal the richness or poverty of its mental constitution.
To this day, the French are known for the flamboyance of their language, the elaborateness and delicacy of their culinary culture, and the showy complexity of their philosophy.
The English embody individualism. They fuse clarity, subtlety and cynicism. Their version of sceptical Protestantism has combined with a sense of exceptionalism to produce a national vanity that fancies itself the best of humankind.
After observing the Indians, Montesquieu came to the conclusion that repose defines their national character, that they are driven by the belief that things are perfect in a state of rest, contrary to the Western conception of life as motion.
This shows that Le Bon was correct to conclude that a “race possesses psychological characteristics almost as fixed as its physical characteristics”.
The psychological characteristics of a people constitute a fundamental core of identity, moulded gradually over centuries. What we call culture is essentially an imposition of the dead upon the living. It is a difficult yoke to shake off.
Traditions are a heavy yoke if they are bad, and a proud heritage if they embody the collective progress of a nation.
What is important is for a people constantly to examine all elements of its soul, to retain the good that comes from the past, and to shake off the bad practices imposed by the dead on the living.
This, to be precise, is a call for black people in South Africa seriously to re-examine their collective soul in order to establish if they are not on a path to self-destruction.
This call is limited to blacks simply because they are the poorest of all the races that constitute the population of our country. Indeed, we black people belong to a race considered culturally backward by all the people of the world – backward in the sense of high culture.
Following the demise of colonialism and the advent of self-rule, the nations of Asia have generally made progress not only in restoring the integrity of their national character, they have made demonstrable material and cultural progress.
As far as we black people are concerned, we have made a mess of our countries when colonialists handed power back to us.
Truth be told, the African continent is in a state of inferiority compared to other parts of the world. This is so after many years of self-government in most of our countries.
After two decades of a black government, SA shows signs that it is beginning to move in the same disastrous direction taken by other African countries. We say “black government” because that is what it is, contrasted with the white, racist regimes of the past.
When whites were in charge of South Africa, they did everything to advance the collective interests of their whole nations. The English did it for their people and the Afrikaners for their own.
While the Mandela and Mbeki years were a glimmer of hope, the past eight years have begun to confirm all negative stereotypes about us black people.
We must not wait for other people to talk about us. We must be the first to call for the re-examination of our very own soul. Why is it that everything we touch breaks?
By: Prince Mashele/SowetanLive