Submitted by Suntosh Pillay

What a day they had to choose!

It’s ironic that the ANC’s Polokwane conference began on the Day of Reconciliation, December 16.

But first, here’s two stories about four men.

Zackie Achmat, leader of the Treatment Action Campaign, recently married Dallie Weyers, “an Afrikaans boy from the Free State”. They’re both gay, in love, but conspicuously different.

Achmat is 45, Indian, and from a Muslim family. Weyers is 25, white, and from a Christian family. Achmat is an internationally renowned Aids activist; Weyers has only recently finished his postgraduate studies. In addition, Achmat is HIV positive; Weyers is not.

The other story is about two politicians. They’re not getting married, but could do with some mutual affection: Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, the then ANC presidential candidates.

Zuma is friendly, approachable, but prone to making (big) mistakes. Mbeki is distant, aloof, and thinks he’s always right.

Zuma sings songs, wears colourful T-shirts, and even has his own CD. Mbeki quotes Shakespeare, wears Armani suits, and writes an online newsletter. And the big one — Mbeki is Xhosa; Zuma is a “100% Zulu boy”.

If I was organising a media campaign to promote reconciliation in South Africa, Achmat and Weyers will be my poster boys. Theirs is more than a high-profile love story — it is a shining example of what we are capable of if we look beyond immediate differences and find common ground. In addition to being in a gay relationship, which surely has its own complexities, these guys have reconciled differences in race, religion, age, families, and even HIV status. There is a lot that we can learn from this.

Mbeki and Zuma, on the other hand, have split the ANC into opposing camps, each one pretending like no war was raging. But on December 16 they came out of their political closets. This day, meant to promote national unity, was ironically suited for the start of a nail-biting battle of personalities. But what happened after December 20, when everybody left Limpopo?

South Africa unwittingly became led by an organisation pretending to be happy, when it’s really divided, angry, bitter, and confused. A post-conference ANC did not boost our national morale and get us excited about the top government officials we can look forward to after the 2009 elections. Instead, it has chiseled away at our attempts at reconciliation.

South Africa is unique because its transition from a twisted apartheid system to a democratic one did not result in widespread civil war, and we did not start jailing or hanging every perpetrator of an apartheid crime. We opted for truth and reconciliation. But did we ever become a truly united nation?

Reconciliation is still a big deal in this country. There are too few Nelson Mandelas, Desmond Tutus, or Mother Teresas amongst us, and in order to create a more peaceful, respectful, and loving society we need good examples to emulate. If the people who are in power cannot provide this, then the challenge becomes harder. South Africa is still a psychologically ravaged nation; tensions still glaringly exist, both in our everyday lives, and in big political parties. In order to heal the wounds of yester-year, we need more real-life examples like Achmat and Weyers, who are living the values of reconciliation, not just waiting for it to happen. We also need less melodrama amongst our leaders, who I am sure we would rather respect, than ridicule. Respect is difficult when they come across as no more credible than an Idols star trying to win over fans, while singing very off-key.

The ANC has taken their historic trip to Polokwane. The damage has been done. Our faith in the moral authority of the ANC has been battered and bruised. I can only hope that the future road South Africa will have to travel under an ANC leadership is a common path of national unity, filled with diverse people who, at the very least, respect each other as we strive to make this country the great place it can be. True reconciliation will go a long way.

Suntosh Pillay is hoping to leave his mark on the world, somewhere, somehow. He is completing his Masters degree in Clinical Psychology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Pietermaritzburg campus. He is also a columnist for the Witness, freelance writer, and a young opinion-maker trying to get his voice out there. He’s currently researching racial transformation of small towns in South Africa, and people’s everyday understanding of reconciliation. He also believes that the pen is mightier than the machine gun.

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