Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

South Africa, we can do and be better

By Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar

It would seem that racism is a divisive topic.

It seems to me that the rattling of that word bothers people. It brings out such defensive reactions. It is troubling to see how easy it is to become self-righteous, indignant and defensive. We must guard against this tendency. Let us not deny the impact of apartheid and racism on this country.

“There are so many ways of being despicable … but the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain.” – James Baldwin

For many South Africans, we are a country in pain and we feel that pain on a daily basis. We feel that pain when people attempt to deny that apartheid harmed South Africans and its citizens, we feel it when people deny us our culture or freedom to be, we feel that pain in solidarity with the millions of South Africans who struggle to survive today. This pain is a collective pain, the pain of generations, and the pain of a people that were oppressed and made less by a vicious system.

We now champion our freedom, we embrace our anthem, our culture and our Constitution with the vigour deserving of a people that have been able to throw off the shackles of apartheid and embrace something better.

However, there is still some way for us to go, there is a long journey ahead of us still. That journey troubles me, it is a journey, which collectively we must embrace in order to chart a better outcome.

We struggle with painful stains on our democracy, Marikana is the most striking and yet it seems as if we understand and know more about Ferguson then we do about own suffering.

There is a collective pain that South Africa has not yet dealt with. We see that pain play out in the stories we see and sometimes experience.

“Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be.” – James Baldwin

Surely, it is not enough for us to have efficiency as the benchmark of our democracy. There is something better that we want. After all, we didn’t simply take freedom in order to look at reports and pat ourselves collectively about how efficient things are.

We are a different people, we are a bold, a generous and a patient people and we want something more than just efficiency. We can have that if we are bold enough to collectively strive for something more by having the difficult conversations that we seem to avoid.

We are not looking to blame apartheid in the way President Jacob Zuma has done so recently when speaking about the current failures of Eskom instead of laying the blame at the collective leadership of government and Eskom itself. I cannot agree with President Zuma nor would I want to cheapen our discussion by using his words as guidance for how we should be engaging on this issue.

However, we must not discount the fact that apartheid has cost this country a great deal. We can’t regard apartheid as some generous benevolent period that provided us with infrastructure and institutions that we somehow should be grateful for.

No, that is not what we must do. Apartheid has left this country with historical and legacy issues that often have been worsened by the current government’s inability to confront these issues.

Apartheid did me no favours; it did not provide for me or give me anything better. Apartheid made millions of South Africans less, it enslaved us and used us as cheap labour for its own gains and in the dying days before democracy apartheid stole from us once more.

To paraphrase Baldwin, I love South Africa more than anything else in the world and for that reason I believe that we have the right to question its path and to criticise it from time to time.

There is a freedom that we now cherish and because we took that freedom we should be able to acknowledge that there are many problems facing our democratic project.

As you chart your next steps in the very interesting space that is South Africa, remember that there is growing inequality, that police brutality appears to be unchecked and that we need to invest in our democratic institutions and steer clear from the need for “big men”.

It has been a turbulent year and as we see the end of this 2014, we know that there will be much activity with the DA preparing for the 2016 elections, the EFF seeking to increase its 2014 gains, the United Front trying to articulate its own path and of course the ANC trying to make sense of where we are as a country but also what its next steps will be.

My fellow South African, it is your time to choose your step too as you with many others took freedom and made South Africa possible.

Compatriots, we can and must do better. South Africa is counting on all of us.

Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar, Mandela Rhodes Scholar, Mandela Washington Fellow, lawman and a proud African who is passionate about the possibility of change and charting a different path.

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