Confront the anger with deep roots in a troubled land
To build better race relations, it is time for South Africans to engage in very honest discourse about the country’s past
In the wake of the debate about expropriation of land without compensation and radical economic transformation, which must be unsettling to many white South Africans, it is time we confronted our past and perhaps found a less alienating trajectory to nation-building.
However, to build better race relations in South Africa, it is time for South Africans to engage in very honest discourse about the country’s past, admitting the roles played by each racial or ethnic group’s ancestors in committing atrocities against others. It is time to work harder for our desired future.
It is time to move beyond the shaky and dishonest basis upon which the foundations for democracy were built from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s. This will help build afresh on more solid ground of honesty, responsibility, true forgiveness and mutual commitment.Understandably, the political elites during the transition could not be too firm on enforcing accountability, responsibility and corrective action as South Africa was highly fragile and could easily regress to authoritarianism or civil war.
But, 23 years into democracy, there is a mutually acknowledged need for common existence among South Africa's diverse peoples.
They might not be sufficient to hold the nation at all costs, but they are perhaps strong enough for the majority of the people in South Africa to commit to the idea of sustaining the diverse nation.
To start right, white people in South Africa need to come to a place where they recognise the right of black people to have deep-rooted anger against the historic injustices committed by the whites-only governments in the country, and therefore whites in general.
Secondly, they need to acknowledge the historic guilt of whites in re-engineering black lives as largely poor, landless and trapped in self-reproducing cycles of socioeconomic exclusion, through land grabs, cattle theft and illegitimate and arbitrary trade and tax practices and laws.Thirdly, whites need to acknowledge that intergenerational white privilege exists, notwithstanding the specificities of their personal family stories.
Lastly, while there may be justifiable basis for copping out of some level of direct ancestral responsibility for black destitution, the general role played by settling whites in the colonial and apartheid period was that of conquering the majority.
Black people, on the other hand, need to realise that the younger generation of whites were not even born during apartheid and never voted its politicians into power.
They must recognise the sometimes collaborative roles played by some African chiefdoms and kingdoms in conquering fellow African tribes and displacing them.
Blacks must realise that many working-class white families had their share, albeit hardly fair, of the brunt of the exploitative and greedy capitalist regimes before democracy.Inequality has always existed in capitalist systems, even with policies like job reservation. Not all whites were sharing equally under the racist capitalist regimes; some were more equal than others. But access to property, urban or rural, seems to have been for all whites.
Those blacks who are ignorant of the sterling contribution made by some whites in the struggle for liberation from colonial times through apartheid need to open themselves to that reality. Many white people, including youths, sacrificed their lives for a free and democratic South Africa.Once the historical facts have been accepted, it must be acknowledged that historic claims for recompense and restitution were not the kind of discourse upon which the country’s nation-building efforts were premised in the transition to democracy.
Following the “miracle” of the transition in the early 1990s, South Africa suddenly became a “rainbow nation” supposedly united in its diversity.
But the basis for forging racial harmony in the country was an elite settlement among leading politicians with the masses compelled to comply with no genuine acknowledgment of deep-rooted pain and racialised historic injustices, mutual acceptance, understanding, and forgiveness.
The truth and reconciliation process provided a way out of the political impasse for those engaged in the “war”. The confessions they made at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were primarily part of a process to determine whether or not the perpetrators could receive amnesty, not genuine national healing per se.
The latter was certainly hoped for but mainly as a by-product of that process, notwithstanding assertions to the contrary.
There was no genuine thoroughgoing national healing in the country. The TRC process must be acknowledged as having accomplished only but a fraction of the work necessary.The residual pain and intergenerational humiliation of dispossession and dehumanisation suffered by Africans was not addressed. It needed a multifaceted process in which government, the private sector and citizens at large bound themselves to work harder to use their means to solve the national problems confronting us as a result of our past.
As a result of such a process, massive investments by all stakeholders to create better lives for the poor would have needed to follow. The national history of the country needed to be included in almost every aspect of our lives in order to create a nation that is not ignorant of its past – one that realises the urgency of contributing to change every person’s life.
A more conscious and humane nation would see private citizens taking responsibility to pay low-wage earners better, and more aware and conscious of the needs of others in society. We could have long created a nation where not only its government cares, but all those who are privileged.Acceptance of our bitter past and acknowledgement of some responsibility would have created a population that cherishes the values of ubuntu, the idea that all human problems are our collective problems.
Indeed there are pockets of excellence wherein employers, both black and white, invested in the education of their own children and the children of their helpers. There are NGOs that have been doing great work in this regard. But we have generally failed the nation-building project.It is no wonder that the younger millennials in South Africa waged a ferocious struggle against the memory of Cecil John Rhodes, a colonial master who even their great grandparents are likely to have had only vague memories of. That action symbolised the deep-rooted anger among young people over the prevailing system.
We need to create the right basis for nation-building and racial harmony in this country. We need both black and white children to grow up with a strong sense of belonging. They must not have a sense of insecurity.
The anger underlying agitations for land expropriation without compensation and radical economic transformation in our lifetime gives all of us the push we need to create a more inclusive socioeconomic settlement. Anything less genuine will take us back on a trajectory we would not wish for all our children.
Ongama Mtimka lectures South African politics and international relations at Nelson Mandela University. He writes in his personal capacity.
You have reached the end of the Edition.