Simon Howell
Simon Howell

A reply to those that doubt South Africa’s future

I recently had a conversation/argument with someone who, I am only just discovering, shares the belief with many South Africans that now that Nelson Mandela has died the future of the country is in jeopardy. They believe that the metaphorical “night of the long knives” will come to pass, that the spirit of reconciliation will somehow vanish into thin air and that black South African’s will suddenly make violent amends for the sins of apartheid. This has thus far been prevented by the sheer power of Mandela’s political will, and that now that he has died so too have the magical barriers that have held back the tide of all-out racial warfare.

This view, and others like it, smack of a deep-seated racial prejudice that not only assumes a fundamental ontological divide between races, but that racial retribution will always haunt South Africa. It assumes, in short, that the present government is incapable of governance and is actively bent on seeking revenge for apartheid. Generally quoting problems such as “potholes” and “the state of the rand” comparisons with Zimbabwe are in no short supply. To compare the two is fallacious in the least; it is an inference that is almost impossible to make. It is, in other words, a laager mentality that should have died with apartheid but continues to persist.

Unfortunately, it is a view that is equally often peddled by the international media. Just a few hours after Mandela’s death a number of international broadcasters were already questioning South Africa’s future. Lining up political analysts and by interviewing people “on the ground” the international media constructed a specific albeit biased view of both the country and the continent. The view, in short, feeds into the “dark continent” discourse, a discourse which dictates that Africans are incapable of governing themselves, that we are somehow always on the brink of war, and that every African government is doomed to self-destruct. Once again, these views are only made meaningful by relying on implicit racial assumptions. They are all the more surreptitious because they are so well-hidden, masked by allusions to care, grief, and shock. Of course, this is not to say that there are many instances of bad governance on the continent. It is once more fallacious however to make the inference that because there are a few bad seeds the whole bowl of fruit is rotten. Europe too, for instance, has had its fair share of dictators and despots but I am sure that when Queen Elizabeth passes the future of Britain will not be in doubt.

How does one then reply to this doubt, this understanding that no matter what has been achieved we will always revert to our “true” natures? Even by taking the most hard-nosed realist stance I can think of, this doubt remains unfounded. The mythology of reconciliation, a mythology intricately interlinked with Mandela’s legacy, has far too much political capital and potency to be ignored by the present government. Considering too that next year is voting year, it would be political suicide to do anything but invoke Mandela’s legacy as a means of engaging with the public, and ultimately, in winning votes. I am not a realist though, and however useful such a response could be, it does a disservice to the very real spirit of what it means to be a South African. I cannot help but think that people that implicitly and uncritically question the future of South Africa have failed to look beyond the laager’s wagon wheels. There are good people doing miraculous and selfless things every day, even in the face of adversity. This is not to put one’s head in the sand though. We have many, many problems — education, freedom of speech and violent crime perhaps being the most pressing. Yet in comparison to where we have come from, I think we have travelled a long road with success.

Perhaps, however, there is no reply to those that doubt South Africa’s future. If people choose to alienate themselves from the country in which they were born, then so be it. Ironically enough it is precisely because of the new Constitution that they can make that choice. Criticism has its place in this country, something that the government is only just beginning to come to terms with. But outright pessimism and a refusal to engage with the building of this country for fear of some archaic notion of racial violence is not. We have a future because we are building one. Mandela taught us not only how to live with each other, but how to live with ourselves. Because of this we have hope, the most surefooted foundation upon which to build a future.

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    • Richard

      “Europe too, for instance, has had its fair share of dictators and despots but I am sure that when Queen Elizabeth passes the future of Britain will not be in doubt.” The Queen is a dictator or despot? Interesting.

    • Simon Howell

      @Richard: It depends who you speak to – personally I understand the attraction but not the cost. Tradition is safe and comforting, but not very effective. Sometimes I feel the royals are clinging to an understanding of the world that is no longer relevant.

    • http://www.mzansilife.co.za Paul Scott

      RIP Madiba!

    • Mark

      I think the author is looking at things very clearly here. For instance, back in the bad old days when apartheid was still in place the white suburbs were all serviced by the black population. Maids and gardeners got up at ridiculous hours to travel long distances, make sure that white homes and children were looked after properly, then were volintarily bussed back to the black only areas (which were not looked after).

      During this time, it surely wouldve been more likely that black people wouldve tried to emulate the MK and ANC struggle heros by killing white people in their homes with the police/army/security forces being unable to respond quick enough. This must be a valid argument that proves that the black population want a peaceful existance, even in the face of an oppressor pre 94.

      So I do not see how in 2013, in a democracy, the black population would suddenly turn on the white population and start a race war.

      The only battle we need to fight now is poor service delivery, lack of accountability and a dividing discourse.

    • Warren

      Mark wrote:

      ” ..in the bad old days when apartheid was still in place the white suburbs were all serviced by the black population. Maids and gardeners got up at ridiculous hours to travel long distances, make sure that white homes and children were looked after properly, then were volintarily bussed back to the black only areas (which were not looked after). ”

      So, tell me, how exactly has that changed for the vast majority of the black population?

    • Looking to leave

      The writing is on the wall people. Its time to stop deviating in and around the truth What is quite clear and evident in front of us we try to swipe under the rug.
      Sometimes the glass is half empty…. because the glass is actually half empty.

      The government do not have an ounce of contribution, empathy, sympathy , intellect or moral. Time to wake up people.

    • Vuyani

      An important challenge is to get all South Africans on the same page and put political agendas to the side, some might call it the Ubuntu Spirit. Develop ways of stamping out crime and poverty. Focus on building up education, people working together, fair realistic wages, building the economy and respect (self respect and respect for others). I was privileged to experience the rural Transkei in the ’70s, my family moved to Transkei in 1895. I cherish my African heritage, but I sometimes wonder whether things will return to normal. I am saddened that I cannot show my children this part of their Heritage that has become extinct. Hate speeches, squandering money on lavish lifestyles, corruption, accountability are at the other end of the spectrum, the side where we have no winners. My challenge to the Government is .. “have you got what it takes? if not get out! As we have waited 20 years and patience is finite.” Mr Zuma, how does alterations to your home add value to the Human Capital of South Africa?