We still speak past each other

2013-11-18 10:00

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Two decades after the onset of democracy, South Africans still find themselves speaking past each other.

Last weekend, during a voter-registration drive in Limpopo, I was explaining to a Seshego resident why it was important for her to vote in next year’s elections.

Among other things, I said it was important that South Africa not go backwards. Speaking in Sepedi, I said we don’t want to go back to a time where we are under the control of “the boers”.

This comment later caused consternation in some quarters, with claims that I made derogatory statements about Afrikaners in particular and whites in general. I did not, and I would not.

The comments were never intended to refer to any section of our population and it’s unfortunate they have been interpreted in that way.

It’s unsurprising that some political parties have seized on this issue in an attempt to gain mileage ahead of the elections.

But this issue goes far deeper than party politics. It illustrates that South Africans from different backgrounds and with different histories still find it difficult to understand each other.

For most black South Africans and for others who are familiar with the traditions of the liberation struggle, ‘the boers’ is a term commonly understood. Picture: Lebogang Makwela

Among most black South Africans, “the boers” is a term commonly understood to refer to the former apartheid oppressors. In this context, it does not refer to Afrikaners, farmers or whites.

For most black South Africans and for others who are familiar with the traditions of the liberation struggle, this distinction is clearly understood.

But what is clear, based on the reactions my comments have generated, is that this distinction is not understood by all South Africans.

The self-proclaimed representatives of white South Africa – principally the Freedom Front Plus and the DA – have said the use of this word is racist.

They have accused me of trying to polarise South Africans.

They are wrong on both counts. The problem they have is that they have failed – perhaps even refused – to understand the language that black South Africans use to describe their history.

They have decided for themselves what the term means in this context, ignoring what the people who use this term actually mean by it.

It is unfortunate that this miscomprehension is not limited to political parties, which find it useful in the pursuit of their narrow agendas.

Many whites and many Afrikaners similarly find it difficult to see the distinction between a reference to those who perpetrated the crime of apartheid and whites as a group.

We have always said that the liberation struggle was fought against white supremacy, not against whites.

When the Freedom Charter was adopted in 1955, it proclaimed that South Africa belonged to all who live in it, black and white. That principle remains at the heart of the policies, programmes and pronouncements of the ANC.

That is why when I spoke in Seshego, I said that South Africa could not afford to go backwards. Just as we cannot squander the progress we have made over the past 20 years, we need to be wary of those who seek to erode the very achievement of democracy.

We need to build a better South Africa in which all South Africans can prosper.

This was the same message I delivered on the same weekend to a predominantly Afrikaans audience gathered for the “saamstaan vir ’n beter Suid Afrika [standing together for a better South Africa]” music and prayer meeting in Kempton Park.

I said that for South Africa to overcome the challenges it faces, people need to work together.

We each need to take responsibility for improving our society. Wherever we come from, whatever our political views, we are all South Africans and we all seek a better South Africa.

This event provided clear proof for anyone who may have doubted it that Afrikaners are concerned about the challenges facing the country and are determined to be part of efforts to overcome them.

There is no contradiction between my support of the event in Kempton Park and the comments I made in Seshego. In both instances, I delivered the same message: we need to work together to build a better country.

There are few who would disagree with this message, so why the outcry from some quarters?

Perhaps it is because we, from the side of the liberation movement, have not worked hard enough to explain the words we use and what we mean by them.

Perhaps it is because those who take offence at these words have not made an effort to understand what they mean to those who use them. I suspect it is a combination of both.

If we are to create a new, united nation, we need to stop speaking past each other. Instead, we need to start speaking to each other.

» Talk to us: What does the word 'boer' mean to you?

» Ramaphosa is deputy president of the ANC

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