Living the values of Freedom Day

2013-04-23 00:00

THIS weekend will be the 19th anniversary of our first democratic elections as a free South Africa. In the run-up to April 27, we have torn our nation further and further apart with divisive dialogue about transformation versus merit, white male judges versus black male judges and employment equity. But this dialogue is a necessary reminder that we should use Freedom Day to reflect, individually and collectively, on fears, prejudices, and objective conditions that divide us.

The racially divided public discourse reflects the reality of our failure to fashion a post-racial society. Studies show frequently that the objective condition of our society still reflects the divided past, although there are emerging signs of a united post-apartheid future. In our public discourse, we blame the “other” side for our problems and seldom own up to our own failures. We grandstand a lot. We easily blame apartheid or transformation. We blame the whiteness system or black government for all the failures that are actually ours collectively.

Too quickly we forget that whatever exists of a new South Africa is the result of many who sacrificed their own dreams fighting for a better country, from the Khoisan in the 17th century to anti-apartheid movements of the 20th century.

The negotiated settlement was a compromise between apartheid-linked forces and anti-apartheid movements. The compromise Constitution was a bold attempt to envision a post-apartheid, although it can be used to prevent post-apartheid. A painstaking process of reconciliation, nation-building and development began in the nineties and is far from finished, for this must take a generation, at least, to accomplish. Approaching 20 years means we still have another 20 to 30 years to continue working at building a new nation to the level where we do not need transitional measures like affirmative action, empowerment, land reform, transformation, national cohesion, and transitional justice.

Changing the entrenched cultural attitudes that divide us is a complex process. Albert Einstein once joked that it is much harder to crack prejudice than an

atom. In the current generation, we may succeed in correcting structural distortions if we work systematically at undoing them, but mind-sets may need the generation contaminated with apartheid and its pains to alter.

It is very likely that our public discourse and politics will cease to be polarised along racial lines or along the notion of defending or attacking privilege accrued as a result of the colonial and apartheid past.

This process of change has to be an organic one incentivised through open dialogues and building on small successes such as our esteemed global status. We have to provide more spaces for young people born after 1994, who are incorrectly called born-frees, when in effect they are born in transition and are not yet free from prejudice, historical advantages or disadvantage, structural poverty and inequality.

Comprehensive education that includes theories of emancipation should play a crucial role. It is not enough only to produce the skills our economy needs to undo the socioeconomic inequalities, it is also necessary to produce new mind-sets, attitudes and the cultural pluralism needed for the building of a new post-apartheid society. To do so, both public and private education will have to strengthen the teaching of social studies, as we have done with maths and science. Teachers should see themselves as dedicated change agents rather than wage-earners. The government has to take radical steps to improve the quality of education, including its relevance in Africa, the quality of leadership from top to bottom, facilities, and the standard of service provision.

Media and public figures should model this post-racial and post-prejudice society we desire. We should have more acrimonious debate for it is cathartic. But it must cease to be the dialogue of the deaf; instead, all sides must debate without self-righteousness. We should learn to say sorry and forgive.

We should show our commitment to post-apartheid by being involved in programmes designed to change society, from crime-combating campaigns to school renovations, from social activism to volunteerism, and from mentoring great leaders of tomorrow to philanthropy. Otherwise, our complaints and criticism are sheer hypocrisy and meaningless self-righteousness. Let us use April 27 to show whomever we criticise how to be efficient and effective in changing society for the better.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue.

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