In search of SA’s ‘God particle’

2012-07-06 07:33

There is some divine irony to the fact that the Higgs boson particle was discovered on the same day the South African government hosted its social cohesion summit.

If President Jacob Zuma had his way, the two would be near-equal in significance. In his opening speech he mentioned the summit in the same breath as other big local events from history, like the 1955 drafting of the Freedom Charter.

In an effort to rekindle this magic, the summit was held in Kliptown, Soweto, where this document had its birth.

This social cohesion gathering had been a long time coming, as far back as 2009.

It was Zuma’s idea, following attacks on his polygamous lifestyle before his election, and he mooted it again in 2010 after he controversially fathered a baby with Sonono Khoza, to whom he’s not married.

Mention of the urgency of the summit was also made following the rift caused among men and women and black and white about The Spear painting, depicting Zuma with genitals hanging out of his pants.

Cynicism aside, there is much need for social cohesion – or at least some kind of common purpose among South Africans.

Social cohesion is about how we relate as South Africans across race, gender and income group and it is important for the well-being and prosperity of any country.

Recent public race spats, regular and violent protests in poor communities, and the schism that issues like The Spear have caused, show South Africa isn’t quite yet where it should be.

But the unity South Africans felt amid the euphoria of the Soccer World Cup in 2010 gave us a taste of what we could be.

Of course government had to take action. It is the duty of our elected leaders under the Constitution to promote nation-building.

Government also has the power to run programmes to help the poor and facilitate economic equality and justice.

But the problem with government is that it is political in nature – and South Africans reckon that our politics divides.

The Institute for Reconciliation and Justice’s Reconciliation Barometer for 2011 found politics is second on the list of things that keep South Africans apart (22% of respondents said political parties divide).

Top of the list was income inequalities, 32% of respondents said.

The first day of the social cohesion summit, on Wednesday, was filled with speeches.

Apart from the late start it felt a bit like a particularly long session of Parliament, when it ups and sits in the provinces in big tents.

Much of it boiled down to petty politics. After both Arts and Culture Minister Paul Mashatile and Gauteng Sports MEC Lebogang Maile nobly resisted jibes at the Congress of the People, the party named after the gathering which conceived the Freedom Charter on the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication, where the large marquee was pitched in which the hundreds of delegates gathered, Zuma succumbed.

When he got to the bit in his speech where he mentioned the congress of the people, he had to point out, with a self-satisfied chuckle, that he’s not talking about that congress of the people.

Instead of sticking to the social cohesion script, and emphasising the things that bring us together, Zuma set a divisive tone by making an ANC in-joke about a shambolic party that still hates him.

Fortunately the speaker from Cope later made such a singing entry, and such an uproarious speech, that he couldn’t be jeered even if someone had wanted to.

But then Corné Mulder from the FF Plus took to the podium.

Despite displaying an inappropriate amount of self-pity for how white people are treated, he was right about some things, like pointing out that the way in which government changed place names wasn’t always correct.

He was also right when he said the feelings of nationhood we have at sports events like world cups and Olympic bids don’t last because the spirit isn’t always followed through by government programmes.

But then he called for a ministry of minority affairs, which seemed to betray an apart-ness and an unwillingness from his side to get with the nation-building project.

His suggestion was ridiculous, but the reaction from many members of the audience – cackling and jeering – was equally so.

Fortunately, Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, when it was her turn to respond to the speeches, lifted the level of engagement when she told Mulder she thought his idea came from a feeling of racial superiority.

For two days this week people from civil society organisations and government searched for proof of the existence of South Africa’s Higgs boson – that elusive particle that will keep us all together.

That eureka moment won’t come from politicians and experts. It’s something we’ll have to figure out in our everyday interaction with one other.

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