I was snooping around the archives of the South African Institute of Race Relations during a visit earlier this year, particularly drawn to the boxes on the constitutional negotiations.
One of these contained, among other things, the ANC’s position on a constitution for what would later become KwaZulu-Natal, academic and political discussions on federalism, and the opening remarks of the various role players at the commencement of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa).
My attention was specifically drawn to the latter because these opening remarks, for me as an outsider, set the tone for the historic moment and the momentous process that would, formally, follow; writing the blueprint and vision for a new South Africa.
There was the conciliatory but firm position of the ANC as put by Nelson Mandela, but the position of the DA’s predecessor, as articulated by then-party leader Zac de Beer, struck me in particular.
Here, more than twenty years ago, the party’s view on the urgent need for redress was put clearly and firmly.
De Beer’s exact words were, honestly, a surprise to me. I was too young to follow Codesa, and both the passage of time and propaganda by DA detractors made many question the DA’s track record on policies and programmes designed to redress the injustice of a racially divided, exploitative and oppressive past.
De Beer opened with an honest admission that “we are deeply conscious that we have to approach” writing the Constitution not as if “it were on a clean slate, but dealing with a society which is the product of centuries of wrong. Much rightly said of the terrible harm that was done in the name of apartheid: but we dare not pretend that injustice began in 1948.”
More poignantly De Beer saw “it is necessary but not sufficient for us to close the book on yesterday’s society and say: “From tomorrow we shall do justice, and there will be equal opportunities. We must do more than this, and achieve all that can be achieved to repair the damage of the past.”
Even twenty years later De Beer’s belief rings chillingly true, that “there can be no doubting the fact that the gap in economic standards between the elite few and the poverty-stricken masses in our country is intolerably wide, or that its rapid narrowing must be a tip-top government priority. But we may not run away from the equally indubitable fact that the wealth needed to close that gap is at present non-existent: it has to be created … this does not deny an economic role for government, but it must always be a supportive one”.
If these words sound familiar it is because they are a distant but firm echo of the more recent #KnowYourDA campaign, which aims to point out that the party not only opposed apartheid, but also supports policies and programmes that will redress its legacy and impact on our society.
As the #KnowYourDA BEE for jobs advertisement greets me every morning when I emerge from the Gautrain’s Park Station I am reminded that this, as De Beer held then, is as necessary and even more urgent today as it was twenty years ago.
We cannot properly honour our past without delivering on the promise of 1994 for all and making the rights, freedoms and opportunities contained in our Bill of Rights a reality for every person.
More importantly, we cannot fully own our future while the majority of our people are left behind, left out in the cold and denied the means and opportunity to advance themselves and share in the potential and promise of our country.