What reconciliation?

2009-12-23 00:00

RECONCILIATION as a concept in the national discourse and a process undertaken since 1994, places equal responsibility on both sides in our ugly history to work towards a shared future. So, looking back at last week’s celebrations, we cannot help but scrutinise the extent to which both whites, who were privileged in the past, and blacks, who suffered, have taken seriously the moral obligation to walk together up reconciliation avenue.

While matters of bricks and mortar or material development have come to preoccupy all of our attention and absorb our energy, this does not diminish the need for better focus on nation building through reconciliation, transformation, holistic development and other national projects.

All countries where national liberation is achieved confront a serious dilemma arising from competing demands between the complex and long-term process of building a new nation and the immediate task of meeting the material needs of a poverty-stricken population.

To get the balance right, progressive post-colonial leaders must see and promote long-term perspectives and sound strategic planning even as they respond to immediate needs. They should lead national conversations aimed at finding ways of adapting the overriding ideology, language, concepts and rules of engagement to give expression to the realities of post-colonialism.

This applies to post-apartheid South Africa. But South Africa’s case is slightly different from the common experience in Africa in the sense that freedom was achieved through negotiations between the oppressors and the oppressed. The consensus reached in these negotiations entailed power transfer to the majority and a process of forging a new nation firmly founded on values encoded in the new Constitution and stewarded by a voluntary government of national unity. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided a carthartic space for victims and perpetrators of human rights violations alike.

There was limited reparation for those affected by the conflict. A few days were designated for commemoration as part of nation building and reconciliation. These were meant to allow for mixing among races and communities. So we were supposed to use April 27, June 16, March 21 and December 16 for mingling and building cohesion as a nation. The forging of a new nation required­ a much more organic process.

The Government of National Unity was a short-lived experiment in political accommodation and collective leadership responsibility for nation building and reconciliation.

The failure of the white political and economic establishment to make significant symbolic efforts at the national level rendered national reconciliation a one-way process. Even the patient Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela warned the nation about this in the nineties.

Worse, a careful scrutiny of the state of the nation in the past decade reveals, as the result of a recent survey by the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) and the Presidency’s Microsocial Trends Report, that disunity, racial separation, discontent and low national pride have persisted through the years.

These analyses also suggest that, as a country, we jettisoned the process of reconciliation and nation building for service delivery as early as the late nineties. We abandoned inclusive dialogue on the nation we hoped to build. We moved on and hoped the new nation would somehow evolve. National days and events became a ritual involving one side in the apartheid conflict, namely blacks.

Of course, individuals from white communities joined in as white institutions and leaders retreated into the laager. One doubts whether the government and leaders of the new nation did enough to mobilise and involve ethnic minorities. Actually, some events became too associated with the black experience to encourage active participation by all.

Against this backdrop, it was hard to believe it when President Jacob Zuma declared on December 16 that much has been achieved by reconciliation efforts. If this is simply to recognise the disproportionate contribution by former victims, then it is a half-victory­.

The desired two-way process has not materialised. The formerly privileged have failed to make serious efforts towards a united nation. It has been a one-sided affair with very little reciprocation.

The new administration’s motto, renewal, provides an opportunity for the leadership to seek a change in our attitude, which has lead to an under-estimation of nation building. The nation has to enter into various conversations, especially at community level, about the country and nation we want to build.

Then December 16 will become a moment when we reflect on and celebrate work done at the micro level, especially. It will become a moment to honour heroes and heroines that continue to work hard to build united and working communities on the ground. This would encourage active citizenship. Thus, reconciliation and nation building would combine with holistic development to constitute our national strengths, a source of soft power for us to project as we continue to place South Africa favourably in world affairs.

There will be national days and major events like the Soccer World Cup next year. We ought to use these opportunities to build a united nation at peace with its different components. If we don’t, we will not avoid a disintegration of the facade of unity we have.

• Siphamandla Zondi works for the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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