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SA still has a long way to go on reconciliation

Now that the Fifa 2010 football extravaganza is over and the strike is on hold, it might be opportune to reflect on how far we have, as South Africans, actioned the reconciliation project. The World Cup gave a picture of a nation in unison. Was that a façade? do we still see different races, with decorated faces, holding hands and dancing to the vuvuzela in the stadiums? With regards to the public-sector strike, what has it illustrated? Has it not demonstrated our unfinished reconciliation project? The social reality that some people remain significantly worse off while others are unexplainably well-off. It is probably in this context that initiatives such as Lead SA should be welcome but bear in mind that similar initiatives have not yet succeeded in SA.

Most people would have followed the recent appalling incident which characterises South Africa 16 years after the dawn of democracy — the Nxasana twins that were allegedly treated unfairly at Johannesburg’s Roosevelt High School because they spoke Xhosa. Xhosa is their family language, something that Dialo Diop has encouraged Africans to do because it is “not only the condition for an efficient promotion of languages, but also for rapid and massive development of literacy, which would allow the widespread dissemination of basic education and re-entrenchment of science to take place in Africa”. The chasm between whites and blacks in SA remains one of the pressing challenges of the post-apartheid SA. We might be all to blame, but perhaps a case can be made that the problem largely lies with the whites. This is not support for those who have argued or argue that whites should apologise, the point being made here is that the attitudes of some white people are a constraint in the completion of the reconciliation project. The case involving the Nxasana twins is just but one example of that. There are worse cases, including another recent school case in Heidelberg.

SA clearly remains a ticking time bomb, until such time that we at least make efforts to address the unfinished business of the reconciliation project. In essence, the whites have to come to the party and the blacks that might be constraining transformation should embrace the necessary changes that have to take place. It would seem that there are many white people in SA that have embraced the post-apartheid dispensation. But, there might be just as many that are not doing their part in bringing about the inevitable social change. We also, as society, need all of us to lead by example — especially our leaders and the public sector broadly. The workers, and those unemployed, see the excesses and the looting that takes place in the public sector. It is in this context that the public-sector strike is one the critical moments confronting post-apartheid SA, it could address the fundamental challenges in our society and also tilt the balance of power relations.

The complete reconciliation project would imply that there is mutual respect and collective effort to undo our ugly past. Surely this is a huge task. The issue is that it does not seem like we are paying attention to this — we remain a fractured nation and we do not seem to be doing enough to redress poor race relations and so on and so forth. Among the many people who have questioned the reconciliation project in SA is Ibbo Mandaza — one of the uncompromising scholars of our times. Mandaza, writing about reconciliation in southern Africa, argues that “it is because of the incomplete resolution of the national question that reconciliation and social justice become part of the new vocabulary that characterises the political discourse in southern Africa, the new ideology that masks the reality of power relations during the so-called transition from white minority rule to black majority rule, the new dispensation or the new non-racial democracy”. It may be important to indicate that the “national question” that Mandaza discusses refer to “the political, social and economic questions which were inherent in white settler colonialism and/or apartheid”. It is probably largely in the nature of the political settlement reached, culminating in the government of national unity, that the national question remains unresolved. However, this is not a passport to leave things as they are. As indicated above, we all have (under the leadership of the day) to do some things towards completing the reconciliation project.

Thabo Mbeki, in his address to the 1999 African Renaissance conference, stated that “with regard to our own country [SA], it is critically important that we not allow the revolutionary energies built up in the struggle against apartheid to dissipate, with the masses of the people disempowered and demobilised to a situation where they become passive recipients of the good things of life from their rulers — objects rather than subjects of change”. It would seem that the “revolutionary energies” are still alive and kicking.

The public-sector strike, which grinded SA to a halt, is an epitome of the revolutionary spirit aimed at completing the reconciliation project. The revolutionary energies are everywhere, for those who take a moment to observe. The interminable, intermittent, so-called public protests are another good example of the durable revolutionary spirit in our country. The calls for nationalisation and such are also an embodiment of the enduring revolutionary energies. It appears that a conclusion has been reached that our country needs fundamental change. The revolutionary energies are simmering in the 37.4% of our population, which is youth and of which make up about 70% of the unemployed people in SA — a number that has surely increased recently.

The controversial and justifiably celebrated Ayn Rand, in her timeless and acclaimed novel Atlas Shrugged succinctly captured what can go wrong with humanity and she offers pointers on how could humanity redeem itself. Among the many powerful conversations of her characters, the exchange that ensues between the “old man” and the protagonist, the unrelenting Miss Taggart, presents the state of humanity in the starkest manner as the “old man” presents his observations to Miss Taggart: “I’ve watched them [the people] for twenty years and I have seen the change. They used to rush through here, and it was wonderful to watch, it was the hurry of men who knew where they were going and were eager to get there. Now they’re hurrying because they are afraid. It’s not the purpose that drives them, it’s fear. They’re not going anywhere, they’re escaping. And I don’t think they know what is it that they want to escape. They don’t look at one another. They jerk when brushed against. They smile too much, but it’s an ugly kind of smiling: it’s not joy, it’s pleading. I don’t know what it is that’s happening to the world.”

Indeed, a big question remains: what is happening in (our) world? Why is it taking us this long to find each other? The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) document made a startling and unflattering observation that: “Our [SA] history has been a bitter one dominated by colonialism, racism, apartheid, sexism and repressive labour policies. The result is that poverty and degradation exist side by side with modern cities and a developed mining, industrial and commercial infrastructure. Our income distribution is racially distorted and ranks as one of the most unequal in the world — lavish wealth and abject poverty characterise our society.” Sadly, 16 years since the publication of the RDP document we still see “lavish wealth and abject poverty”. How could those that lost family members and friends under apartheid find peace when they continue to live in dehumanising conditions and they see lavish wealth and patronising attitudes from some sectors of our society?

In conclusion, the fundamental answer is in completing the reconciliation project in its totality. Government has to do what is feasible to correct the historical imbalances. The whites that are not coming to the party should come to the party and blacks should welcome them as well as do whatever is needed to complete the reconciliation project. The revolutionary energies should not dissipate; they might be our last hope. Let us look at one another and not jerk when brushed against. In other words, let’s each do out bit and have more tolerance — what happened to the Nxasana twins shouldn’t be happening in a non-racial democracy! How about more compassion, ubuntu and/or vasudheva kutumbakam, lest we remain in a critical moment!


  • Vusi Gumede is a professor at the University of South Africa, also with the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute. He was previously an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg and he has also lectured public policy at the Graduate School of Public and Development Management (now the School of Governance) at the University of Witwatersrand. He worked for the South African government, in various capacities, for about twelve years. He serves on various boards and committees, including the Presidential Economic Advisory Council, the International Preparatory Committee of the Pan-African Federalist Movement and the National Council of the South African Association of Political Studies. He holds postgraduate qualifications in economics and policy studies, including a Ph.D in Economics (2003) from the erstwhile University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal). He has been Distinguished Africanist Scholar at Cornell University and Yale World Fellow at Yale University, among other fellowships. He was in the boards of Southern Africa Trust and ActionAid South Africa and he is the former coordinator of Afrocentricity International for the South African chapter. He currently also holds an Honorary Professorship at the University of Cape Town. He has published 14 books and numerous journal papers & book chapters as well as written many essays and opinion articles and blogs. He is Editor-in-Chief for Africanus & Africa Insight as well as serving in various Editorial Boards/Committees.