Today, South Africa observes Reconciliation Day with what can only be assumed to be a healthy dose of sobriety. 2016, infamous for its never-ending, unsuspecting and often unwanted surprises, has also proven to be a contentious year in the socio-political economy of the country. With unemployment reaching a 13-year high last quarter, a number of students left with uncertainty after the confirmed fee increases, a shortage of available spaces at some universities, continued high levels of inequality, and divisive racist and sexist outbursts on social media, it would be fair to look to December 16 2016 with cynicism, particularly after President Jacob Zuma declared that the theme for this day would be “Bridging the Divide Towards a Non-racial Society”.
Even in a historical reading of December 16, predating the anti-year of 2016, the irony is difficult to escape: events on this day include December 1838, when an army of roughly 10 000 Zulu soldiers were killed by 100 Afrikaans soldiers in the Battle of Blood River over land disputes. Or on December 16 1961, when after the Sharpeville Massacre, the ANC departed from its then non-violent stance to establish Umkhonto we Sizwe, its military wing co-founded by Nelson Mandela. December 16 can thus be said to represent an elusive conceptualisation of reconciliation, the term which in the presence of a precarious social contract, is made untenable by the very same conditions that make its modern day celebrations ironic. These include, but are in no way limited to, issues of land, wealth, service delivery and employment, which are elusive to the majority of South Africans living under similar structural violence as that underpinning the events of 1838 and 1961.
The dangers of romanticising reconciliation and terms like Ubuntu, is that they evoke a sense of national pride in symbols, without adequate consideration for the privileged access to services and employment that fall along contentious fault lines in South Africa, including but not limited to race, gender, ability and class. These dynamics help to explain why a number of South Africans express pride at being South African and a belief in Ubuntu, but have very low levels of trust for those from other identity groups. While the middle-to-upper income groups diversify (as more people of colour send their children to former model-c schools, ideally allowing for interactions on a level playing field that continues through to the workplace); it is the lower income groups that are alienated from the practical implications of the reconciliation narrative without adequate integration because their interaction is limited to the work place hierarchy where the maid-madam dynamic continues. However, the practical integration that is meaningful for creating a sustainable social contract requires that the state intervene in ways that bring into disrepute the current narrative of reconciliation – a baseless call for a symbolically integrated, but practically alienated society. Improving access to just and humanising service delivery, directly addressing spatial planning and land redistribution in urban and rural areas, and being responsive, adaptive and accountable to communities, are some of the ways in which the state can demonstrate that reconciliation is not a pacifying tactic designed to manage the legitimate expectations for the realisation of constitutional rights.
This is not to dismiss the utility of promoting mutual respect and integration in society, surely the transition to democracy in 1994 was relatively peaceful because of the renewed sense of unity and commitment to a South African nation-building narrative. However, while the narrative guaranteed a successful transition in 1994, it included a political settlement that would ultimately contribute to the further fragmentation of society. The establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that focused solely on gross human rights violations is an example of the challenges that emerged from the settlement that was useful for peace in 1994, but problematic for reform thereafter. The TRC allowed secondary perpetrators of human rights violations, including racism and sexist acts to detach from the public narrative of responsibility pitted against the foot soldiers of government agencies. A number of white suburban South Africans well-understood that they had not committed murder or aided a physical disappearance, rather they conceptualised their relative privilege as a function of hard work and not as a result of the structural violence of apartheid. Instead it was the foot soldiers of the AWB, NP and the Boeremag who despite the admission of guilt, were not the orchestrators of apartheid, some of whom were exonerated and left unscathed by the transition. Forgiveness then became the burden of those victims of gross human rights violations, who had to return to communities where countless of others on the receiving end of forced-land removals, intimidation, rape and harassment had to look to the promises of the Constitution for “equal opportunities”– pending available government funds.
It therefore comes with little surprise that the number of public protests have increased in the past few years, the most prominent of which have been the intersectional #MustFall movements emanating from university campuses. These movements call for equal urgency to address structural violence as that deployed by state agencies in response to physical violence. Equipped with the promise of equal opportunity and reconciliation on somewhat diverse campuses, the jarring reality of gross inequality, biased discourse and pedagogy, and the burden of forgiveness, has evoked a rage in the youth that is in revolt to the narrative of “Mandela’s Reconciliation”. These neo-black consciousness proponents push for a radical equality of race, class, ableism and sex and express frustration at the slow pace of social justice in the face of blatant state corruption and waste at the municipal level. And while they were initially broadly supported through canvassing efforts on social media, scepticism has begun to creep into public discourse as the movement is pushed into the ambit of “traffic inconveniences” and deviance, associated with other activist movements that have gone before them. That the state engages in brinkmanship also does little to support its so-called peace-promoting narrative of social cohesion that exists across multiple policy documents but with little impact at a societal level without adequate redress.
It goes without saying that rather than emphasise a non-racial society, as the state has so boldly done, what is necessary is the intersectional reading of privilege, power and inequality in South Africa – which displays all the characteristics of a racist, classist, sexist, able-ist society. The Restitution Conference hosted in Cape Town last month was one such attempt at surfacing tensions around redress, however moving from the Castle of Good Hope into the Waterfront and being confronted by the gross inequality that characterises Cape Town, one cannot help but think twice about the proponents of reconciliation and the choir that they preach to (myself included). As the upper-middle income diversifies it becomes easier for those of all races that live in relative privilege to deny the reality of the burden of reconciliation, because a more sober reading of what it might truly entail would serve to upend the very socioeconomic structures that perpetuate unrest for some but privilege for others. Instead of the narrative of unity in diversity, it is rather more necessary that December 16 be associated with the underlying conflicts that threaten the social contract if not adequately addressed for their legitimate concerns. Perhaps, 2016 will serve to heighten the sense of urgency for South Africans, as time seems to run out and patience in waiting for the promises of democracy wears thin.
This piece is based on research conducted at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Masana writes here in her personal capacity.