This qualitative study, located within a postmodern and social constructionist framework, explores how the social identities of retired white Afrikaner ex-military South African Defence Force (SADF) servicemen are constructed in South Africa. It considers how retired white Afrikaner ex-military South African Defence Force (SADF) servicemen have chosen to define and experience their social identities in view of the transformed political, socio-cultural and economic landscape and dominant discourses to which they have had to adjust.
The literature review describes the multiple, dynamic and socially constructed nature of identities, traces the reciprocal relationship between the individual and society, relates identity formation to the various social category memberships subscribed to by research participants, and elucidates the role of language in the construction of social identities.
In this study, ‘discursive threads’ of race (whiteness), culture (Afrikaans traditions, language, practices), gender (masculinity), role status (retiree, ex-soldier) were all woven together by the multiplicity of meanings contained in drawn-upon discourses, which constructed the social identities of research participants. Social identity can be viewed as a compromise between assimilation with and differentiation from others, where the need for similarity is satisfied within ingroups, while the need for distinctiveness is met through inter-group comparison.
Discourse analysis was used to analyse the texts produced during semi-structured interviews with five research participants. Additionally, the discursive psychological concepts of action orientation (and positioning were used to explore how temporal, multiple and fluid social identities of participants were constructed by their use of language and invocation of supporting, opposing and overlapping discourses.
From the discourse analysis, five discourses were identified as being realised in the texts, namely: a discourse of discipline; a discourse of ‘same-ness’; a discourse of ‘different-ness’; a discourse of ‘loss’: “Old Soldiers never die; they just fade away”; and a discourse of ‘camaraderie’: “Esprit de Corps”.
The participants’ accounts have highlighted the complexity, fluidity and multiplicity of identities and the impact of dominant discourses on the reciprocal relationships between individuals, groups and society.
This study contributes significantly to the existing knowledge regarding white retired ex-servicemen of the SADF in South Africa by offering insights into how this ingroup defines, re-defines, negotiates and maintains its social identities in accordance with and in reaction to dominant discourses of the past and present.