Self-centred leaders derail reconciliation

2012-12-16 10:00

Last week, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation issued its yearly reconciliation barometer.

According to the barometer, only one-third of South Africans often contact each other across racial boundaries and almost half rarely or never talk to someone of a different race.

It was also established that interracial marriages and multiracial schools are increasingly being rejected.

This is not good news, but at least everything is not lost. More than 60% of South Africans believe that unity is desirable.

We at least want to reach out to one another across the chasm of historical divisions. This is something on which we can build.

There is something else revealed by the barometer that we should take note of.

A quarter of the people who took part in the study identified economic inequality as the main reason for the division.

Earlier this year, the National Planning Commission launched its national development plan.

In its report, the commission states: “South Africa’s biggest challenge is to reduce poverty and inequality.”

How bad is the situation? The international breadline is $2 (R17) a day.

This is equivalent to R524 a month. In 2008, the national development plan said 48% of South Africans earned less than R524 a month.

How do you survive on R524 a month?

How do you feed and clothe your family, and give them a roof over their head for R524 a month?

How do you send your children to school or to the doctor if they are sick?

Interestingly, the national development plan further states that the strategy for combating poverty and inequality must be anchored in “social cohesion”.

The gap between those who have and those who do not is increasingly a class separation that does not necessarily coincide with “race”. There is a division between the poor and downtrodden, and those with money and power.

What makes matters worse is that many people – both leaders and followers – put their own interests above the general good.

This is why we see self-enrichment through corruption, nepotism and tender fraud.

The protests against poor service delivery, the strikes, the tragic massacre at Marikana, all these are warning signs.

These warning signs tell us that people feel their dignity is not being respected and that their rights are being trampled on. And this leads to increasing social anger that we should take note of.

Reconciliation requires that we bridge the gulf that separates us. Race and class are well-known division lines in our society.

However, there is a new and emerging division line that I’m concerned about; the line of ethics and morality.

On the one hand, we have the good people of our nation and on the other, we have people who do not care for anybody else.

The latter group might say that they do care – from the stage where they speak as our leaders – but their actions show the opposite.

What makes this behaviour dangerous is that people are starting to lose hope.

Poverty is one thing, but when there is despair, that is when it becomes dangerous. When people have nothing to lose, they will do anything.

If they do not have the prospect of a better life, they do not care about the consequences of their actions.

What can we do about this? We must fight poverty by giving people hope for socioeconomic improvement. But this hope must not be empty or false. It must be based on deeds, not just words.

If we are serious about reconciliation, let us start with responsible leadership. Let us act in the best interest of the poor and the downtrodden.

This is how we will truly give content to the view that Africa’s gift to humanity is ubuntu – the idea that you are only a person through others and that your humanity depends on others.

Let us promote reconciliation by fighting poverty.

This will provide a solid foundation for the next 100 years as a nation standing united for the principle of justice for all.

» Botman is the rector of the University of Stellenbosch.

This is an edited version of a speech he delivered at the centenary celebrations of the Msunduzi Museum, incorporating the Voortrekker Complex and the Ncome Museum

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