In the movie 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup asks, “What difference is there in the colour of a soul?”

Such a question will raise eyebrows and tempers in South Africa, where the word “colour” sends a rush of emotions flooding down to angry hands from polarising thoughts. We are a rainbow — but our colours are far apart, as we saw this “festive” season when Mrs Sparrow showed her true Hart.

For Solomon Northup, the 1840s African-American violinist who was captured and spent over a decade as a slave, the question was more than skin deep. Here was a man with soul and skill. To master the violin, more than 20 years before liberty mastered slavery and abolished that injustice, speaks of the unquenchable resolve of an unquenchable human spirit. Northup’s song still sings today as it did the day he was freed from his shackles, in 1853.

But souls can have other colours too — emotional tones that paint them and hue their lens to see the world, not as it is, but as they are. “He that hath a froward heart, finds no good …”, said one sage.

So what is the colour of South Africa’s soul? Some days I hear it hum a lively sunny tune. Sometimes it scares me.

As kids we were taught to sing Zulu creche songs about the “Ingwe … ” to entertain us while mom and dad attended church meetings. We sat in a circle, knee-to-knee, clapping out the tune round and round with our ring-leader, Gladys, “die ousie”. Somehow this woman was good enough to watch over us at night, but not quite human enough to use our toilet: That was the harsh, messed-up colour of apartheid’s soul. It sounds less entertaining now.

Gladys was our “ousie” and I was “klein-baas”, and that is our dark collective past — living memory can be a powerful antidote to ignorance.

Anger shouldn’t surprise us – who wouldn’t be
Far from my childhood in Mpumalanga, I imagine growing up in Zandspruit, Honeydew’s dusty squatter-camp. Waking up in a shack, washing in a bucket, walking the dirt road up the hill, past the shebeen and the Ethiopian gazebo-hairdresser to go and wait for a piece-job at the petrol station on the corner. Tonight; Black Label – check. Tata-ma-chance – check. Education, healthcare and dignity – no check. I would be angry too.

This is where our story converges with Solomon’s of 1853. He was a free music man, but history didn’t do him any favours. The unforgiving fact of racial prejudice and socio-economic subjugation ripped his violin out of his hands and replaced it with a shovel. There couldn’t have been much of a melody in that instrument. But the human spirit has a funny way of bending a tune out of the most hardened of objects — ringing truer the more severe the duress. It bellowed out;

Go down, Moses,

Way down in Egypt’s land;

Tell old Pharaoh

To let My people go!

Collective anger or collective guilt?
Democratic, free and fair South Africa: just when we thought we were “free”, we found ourselves bound by forces beyond our control. Instead of Gladys going home to sing to her children, her African daughter now sings for mine.

Forces of foreign capital taking flight, local capital taking everything it can get its hands on. Today it is ratings agency downgrades, tomorrow it is strikes and layoffs and the bailout of state-owned enterprises. We give SAA billions when the average South African will never ever set foot on an airplane of any kind, not to mention owning a mere bicycle.

Mate, you can “Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika … ” until the cows come home — if we don’t have a socio-economic miracle that blou van onse hemel gaan op ons need bliksem sooner or later.

So this is where we are stuck — angry and divided — and we’ve created a game of national finger-pointing as a result. Black people blame white people for inequality. The whites blame the blacks for crime. Coloured people blame the rest for forgetting their forefathers, the “foundation nation”. The only group not blaming anyone is the Indians, who are too busy banking. These are of course the erroneous racial stereotypes that bind our thinking to the past and blind our vision of the future — everyone competing for the victim seat in a nation of post-traumatic survivors. And so our song and our soul changes colour.

South Africa is complicated. So, by truncating our actual socio-economic problems into neat and nasty racial categories we lobotomise our own capacity to be constructive — and construct we must — but you can’t build anything when your grey matter is drowning in prejudice.

Here is a colourblind list of our collective crisis:

– Most young white kids have never seen the inside of a shack, and never will. Ignorance is bliss.

– Most young black kids have never seen the inside of a university, and never will. Ignorance is brutal.

– Mineral resources “under the soil” are just that: dirt — until you extract them, add value to them and sell them at a return. Investment is vital.

– Investment, however, is the product of confidence, which is the product of consistency of policy, competitiveness and certainty in the environment.

– Ignorance is rhetorical radical economic transformation.

The list goes on …

‘Shosholoza – saamwerk’
There was another song in my childhood, that we learned by witnessing collective work. It wasn’t a fun song like “Ingwe … ” nor was it a pretty song as I imagine poured out of Solomon’s violin. Shosholoza was a song of sweat and swaar dra. Without needing explanation, we understood it to be the song which lulled the pain while we get the job done.

I doubt if there is a difference in the colour of a soul. After all, “If you cut me, do I not bleed?” What I do know is that an angry soul cannot sing. And this country badly needs a new song to sing.

Who will set the tone?


  • Marius Oosthuizen is a faculty member and researcher at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. He teaches leadership, strategy and ethics, and heads up the Future of Business in SA Project. He is passionate about ethical and strategic leadership and writes about political-economy and current affairs. Marius completed the Oxford Scenarios Programme at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, UK. He holds a masters in strategic foresight from Regent University, Virginia Beach, US an honours bachelor in systematic theology from the University of South Africa and is pursuing a masters in applied social and political ethics. His expertise is in the field of stakeholder dialogue, scenario planning, strategic foresight and systems thinking. He is a member of the advisory council of the Association of Professional Futurists and recent participant in the London-based School of International Futures’ Scenario Retreat on European Union Foreign Policy.


Marius Oosthuizen

Marius Oosthuizen is a faculty member and researcher at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. He teaches leadership, strategy and ethics, and heads up the Future of Business in SA Project. He is passionate...

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