Unity without strength

2010-05-29 00:00

GOVERNMENT has been mute about the 100-year anniversary of the existence of South Africa as a unitary state since the Union of South Africa was formally established on 31 May 1910 by bringing together the then Cape Colony, the Orange River Colony, the Transvaal and Natal.

Amid all the hoopla about the Fifa World Cup, the silence about union has revealed an a-historical tendency on the part of government — or is it political amnesia?

The century as a unitary state has been marked by overlapping phases:

• A bitter struggle between English and Afrikaans speakers following the destructive Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902;

• The build-up of a racial fault line with vain attempts at territorial separation; and

• A battle over the past two decades to establish a non-racial (read multiracial if you like) coexistence in one country.

In the same way that almost everyone oohed and aahed about the miracle of the Rainbow Nation in 1994, there was also excitement on the eve of Unification in 1910.

On one hand the future of a big country (with an abundance of gold and diamonds) anchored in the British Empire was beckoning, while for Afrikaners it was a kind of reunification from the Cape to the Limpopo.

It was a time during which nothing came of British promises about rights for the black population. Olive Schreiner’s brother, W P Schreiner, a former premier of the Cape Colony, pleaded in vain in London for the qualified franchise to be extended to the other three colonies.

South Africa, as a unitary state, is irrevocably the result of unilateral white decision making.

Within a mere 75 years following the Great Trek, the establishment of white-dominated societies in the areas outside the Cape Colony, and then the bitter liberation struggle with debilitating concentration camps in which 25% of the women and children of the two Boer republics were wiped out, English and Afrikaans speakers came together in a series of conventions to discuss a unitary state.

The co-operative agreement was based on former President M T Steyn’s moving plea for equal language rights for Dutch and English as the only basis for lasting national reconciliation.

John X Merriman and others were convinced and a basis for unification was found.

The establishment of a unitary state was something the original indigenous populations had never been able to achieve. South Africa’s birth as a modern unitary state remains (in racial terms) a “white” act.

Could this be the reason for the ANC’s political amnesia?

How can they commemorate something that took place outside of black involvement?

In spite of its profession of nonracialism the ANC is, at heart, pure black empowerment. They stole the thunder of the Pan Africanist Congress, just as Julius Malema is dishonestly claiming Sharpeville as a feather in the cap of the ANC.

The first tube of adhesive that held South Africa together as a unitary state was its incorporation in the British Empire, while retaining its self-determination.

The economic development of the Union as well as its participation in World War One, which led to a rebellion, were aimed at British interests.

This in conjunction with Afrikaans speakers’ attempts to attain political dignity, brought about a bond, but it was a unity with relatively little social contact across the language line.

The glue started weakening with samesmelting (fusion), but when General Jan Smuts aligned South Africa with Britain in the war against Nazi Germany, it was over.

The irony is that precisely those steps that should have strengthened bonds with Britain carried the germ of detachment, which took place when South Africa became a republic and left the Commonwealth.

Afrikaans speakers mobilised and scored an election victory in 1948, leading to the rolling out of apartheid, honest day jobs for Afrikaners — who, until the 1970s, cycled to their places of work at the SA Railways and Harbours (lunch boxes clamped on carriers) — and the proclamation of a Republic. An Afrikaner paradise was established.

But then the trouble started: sports boycotts; Outspan oranges unwelcome overseas; increasing isolation; and pressure.

At home, Soweto ignited over the use of Afrikaans as medium of instruction in black schools. This led to draconian security legislation and, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission showed, the rape of the law by units in the security forces.

The glue became brittle.

The irony is that a policy that should have entrenched Afrikaner security and liberty thoroughly undermined it.

The unbanning of the ANC inaugurated the negotiation phase. Much violence — spontaneous, but also stoked by security forces — created a cauldron of uncertainty.

Through the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, an interim Constitution and a new dispensation was arrived at.

Nelson Mandela as an almost mythical figure and Thabo Mbeki’s poetic speech at the adoption of the final Constitution had everyone rejoicing: a Rainbow Nation! Everyone is an African!

Now the glue threatens to come unstuck. Crime is flourishing and poor service delivery is increasing, along with sewage levels in rivers and potholes on roads. Electricity and reasonable care in state hospitals is in short supply.

Among poor black people, the simmering pots keep boiling over. Yet inefficient employees in failing formal government institutions continue to receive their pay packets.

Promises of security, better service delivery and economic progress are becoming increasingly less credible as time goes on.

The irony: A policy that should have brought about cohesion through nonracialism on equal terms, along with the upliftment of the poor through black empowerment, has become a camouflage for the privileging (both legally and fraudulently) of a black elite.

The ruling party is failing the kindergarten aspects of statecraft, as can be seen in:

• The loss of the monopoly over the power of the sword, as evidenced in criminal gangs and increasing privatisation of that sword power in the form of security companies;

• Poor service delivery; and

• A lack of respect for an independent judiciary (how many court orders against the government have not yet been complied with?).

In so doing, the government is weakening the process of bonding as a unitary state.

In the townships people are talking about the failure of land reform, bad teachers and corrupt police, and see signs of a Zimbabwe situation.

White and black — Afrikaners, Zulus, English speakers, Xhosas — are responsible for this desperate situation.

A hundred years as a unitary state is a short time.

Is there still some glue somewhere to bind the country and its people?

Facing the realities and pondering our history and all the wasted opportunities would be a good place to start. But attention is being diverted from these things, as well as from poor service delivery and corruption, to intoxication with the round ball.

Is it political amnesia — or rather a deliberate denial of past and present with a Marie-Antoinette-like response: Let them watch soccer!

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