‘Adapt or die’

2010-02-13 00:00

MINORITIES will have to strike a ba­lance between preserving “their own” and adapting to a multicultu­ral, multilingual and changing society, says Gwede Mantashe, chief official of the ANC.

“If they withdraw into a laager and insist on protecting what they see as their own (without trying to adapt), then our society is obviously going to be polarised.”

Look at the debate surrounding the name change of Pretoria, argues Mantashe: it is the name Afrikaners want the capital to have, but for many people the city is important as the site of Chief Tshwane’s village — right there where the Union Buildings stand today.

“We have to start talking about the wars during which people were dri­ven off their land — that is the reality. Reconciliation must include that admission.”

The only way to find a solution that will satisfy everybody when it comes to such matters is by consultation and negotiation.

Sharp politician that he is, Mantashe refers to the compromise reached on the national rugby co­lours, with the protea on the heart and the prancing springbok on the right side of the chest.

But, he says, “I have a problem with organisations whose objective it is to protect privilege. If you do that, you focus only on protecting what is yours, without also looking for ways to adapt.

“Our situation requires that people preserve but also adapt. There must be points of contact. But there is still too much talk about preservation and too little about adaptation.”

He understands that there are people who were born or started thinking about things after apartheid and that they believe they should not be bound by measures like affirmative action.

But, he says, that is an illusion, and people should make an effort to understand why the ANC does not agree with them.

“I was listening to the radio on the way back from Hermanus yesterday [where he was involved in an outreach effort] and heard what the young people were saying. Many of them said they had no part in apartheid and that surely everyone now has equal opportunities.

“This message is beginning to sink in, but the reality is very different. If you are born into a poor family, then just because the opportunities are equal today, that does not mean you are equal or are treated equally.

“It will take a generation to correct the true inequalities.”

National legislation has stabilised South Africa’s social environment, but there still exist some unwritten conventions and glass ceilings that handicap those who are from less privileged and disadvantaged communities — equal opportunities or not.

“Affirmative action? Drop it. It’s a measure that is working against an established and very strong system,” says Mantashe, and then defines the system as one where built-in and very subtle prejudice exists against black workers.

“Organisations that are saying affirmative action should come to an end are right — in theory. A lot still needs to be done to level the playing field.”

But is the striving to protect something — whether it’s language rights or place names, for instance — not being misunderstood by the ANC as retreating into a laager?

“I have no problem with the protection of language — it’s in the Constitution, and I also try to protect mine. What worries me is that children in the cities today speak Xhosa like Americans. They think English is the in thing.

“Fighting for language rights? I agree. It’s right.

“Fighting for culture? I agree. It’s right.”

He explains that, although he lives in Boksburg on the East Rand, he makes a point of taking his children to the family farm near Cala in the Eastern Cape during holidays and of exposing them to their culture — just like him, his son has been through the traditional initiation process.

He gets the arguments about language and culture.

The problem, however, is that integration — preservation and adaptation — cannot be taken for gran­ted. Yes, national legislation has le­velled the playing field, but does not change approaches and attitudes. It also does not change reality.

He falls back on his favourite ana­logy: rugby (at 33 he was still playing wing and centre for teams on the mines). “Why are the country’s under 19 and under 21 sides always representative, but when it comes to the senior teams, that is not the case?”

Exclusion still operates everywhere, and Mantashe experienced it recently when his son was refused admission to an undergraduate course at the University of Pretoria. Even though he initially met all the requirements for a B.Com degree, the university upped the admission requirements and his admission points score was too low.

“That is exclusion, if provision is not made for children from schools that are not at the same standard as former model C schools. We must fight against that.”

This example, too, boils down to preservation being right and good — but only if it is accompanied by adaptation.

“It seems to me as if the majority has to forgive and bend over backwards, while the minority has no responsibility. That is dangerous in the long run.

“The minorities have to realise that they also have a part to play in reconciliation. If they don’t co-operate, there won’t be reconciliation,” Mantashe said.

The ruling party finds itself in stormy waters: tension is running high in the alliance, local government is under pressure, and last night Jacob Zuma delivered his se­cond state of the nation address in the midst of a public storm about his personal life.

Mantashe is the man who has to manage these problems and he admits that Zuma’s bedroom issues have been a difficult matter for him, especially because it has been so personal, while Zuma is a public figure.

He draws a distinction between the debate around the head of state’s polygamy and the child born out of wedlock. “Fortunately, my father was not a polygamist and fortunately I am not one either; but I am not one of those people who throw up my hands in the air about it.

“Inhlawulo [the damages Zuma had to pay] is not a problem in our culture. You just pay it, finished. Whether it has harmed his image? That depends on which community you find yourself in. In some communities his image probably has been damaged; in others it doesn’t bother people.”

He laughs about the increasingly noisy succession debate that has suddenly erupted, and the ANC Youth League’s statement that he must be replaced by Fikile Mbalula.

“It isn’t really a concern. The reason is that the senior, older leaders are not taking part in this. We are in 2010 now — eight, nine months into the government’s term of office. We have work to do now.”

Those concerning themselves with it are on the fringe, and he rejects the accusation that positioning and the succession debate are the party’s focus: “It isn’t the party’s, but, well, some people’s pastime.”

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