Regarding reconciliation

2014-07-29 00:00

AS well as films, the annual Durban International Film Festival which ended last Sunday, also featured a number of workshops and panel discussions, including “Unmasking reconciliation: 20 years on … moving beyond the cliché”.

This discussion was an extension of topics raised by the film A Snake Gives Birth to a Snake directed by Michael Lessac, which featured a group of South African actors as they travelled to various countries torn apart by conflict where they shared South Africa’s experience of reconciliation.

Alex Boraine, former member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and author of the recent book What’s Gone Wrong? On the Brink of a Failed State, said economic justice was a vital part of reconciliation but that the “current government has forgotten about reconciliation and economic justice”.

Boraine added that the government had never acted on the recommendations of the TRC regarding reconciliation, and called for the creation of a “new economic social pact” that involved the whole of society. “The state can’t do it on its own.”

Albie Sachs, former Constitutional Court judge and writer, said he agreed with much that Boraine had to say but tended more to “jubilation” rather than “lamentation”. “There’s a lot not right but, gosh, we’ve achieved so much,” Sachs said, adding that “we have had five elections”, a “lively press”, an independent judiciary and a Constitution that provides the “space to deal with the stuff Alex is concerned about”.

These glass half-empty, glass half-full responses likely reflect two different personality types than any current social realities. Both men have achieved much, and given much, for this country.

Sachs lost the sight of an eye and an arm courtesy of an apartheid government bomb. But today the lives of both men and the spheres in which they operate lift them above the experience of the average South Africa dealing with life at the sharp end, faced with deteriorating health services, education, security, and all the other woes that get lumped under the phrase “lack of service delivery”.

But that doesn’t negate their insights and Sachs brought some cool thinking to bear into the lip service paid to the word reconciliation.

He pointed out that many people equate reconciliation with forgiveness but that the word forgiveness only really means something to people who come from a “confessional tradition”, in other words Christians, and then only particular denominations of that religion.

Sachs went on to recall that someone said to him how surprised they were to find that Nelson Mandela never used the word forgiveness in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.

According to Sachs, this reflected the man, and that Mandela’s approach was one, not of forgiveness, but one of acknowledgement and then transcendence. He would deal with the presenting issue then move on to the next task.

How do we apply such an approach to our present situation?

Boraine certainly identified real areas of concern. And there is a feeling abroad that we are nearing another juncture in our history every bit as critical as the overthrowing of apartheid: the watershed moment where we either ensure that our hard-won democracy works in the long term or allow it to descend into a tender-grabbing plutocracy where the rich — of all races — become richer and the poor, poorer.

When will South Africans really reconcile and move forward? Some people — mainly white — take the view that “hey, this all happened over 20 years ago, get over it”. An approach that is hurtful, disrespectful, and essentially ignores the past as if it never happened. Just as unhelpful is the idea that reconciliation can be brought about by a daily singing of the national anthem or the current craze for rewriting our history. That will only work if true knowledge leads to an acknowledgment of the past and not an air-brushed version of it constructed to suit the current regime.

Boraine says government can’t maintain a just social order on its own. But who exactly is government to do it with? Boraine poured cold water on faith groups — despite himself being a Methodist minister — saying that their voice in the new paradigm was rarely heard and when it was, it was but a whimper.

Max du Preez, social commentator and author, who was also on the panel, said there were two versions of South Africa, that of the politicians — “and most of them are bloody useless” and the other, the people. “I think our present government is awful and I think our people are spectacular.”

So when do the people get to do their thing and break the current political socioeconomic logjam?

Du Preez suggested the idea of non-racialism needed to be revisited as a way of cutting across current divides to find a shared vision behind which the country could unite. “I cut my political teeth in the UDF and non-racialism was a pillar of that,” he said. “That work needs to start again.”

However, Du Preez had no answers as to who would take up the cudgel and lead the way forward, a role traditionally taken by a political party. Maybe it’s a case of comes the idea comes the wo/man. The discussion continues.

• Stephen.Coan@witness.co.za

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