Rainbow nation myth?

2008-03-10 00:00

How can living together be a positive experience?

We were in Imfolozi (yes, the spelling has changed). We came to a hide over a water pan. There on a hot Zululand midday was an amazing medley of animals. Baboons sat motionless in the shade of some rocks over the pool.

In the pool wallowed some warthogs. In the lazy heat nobody moved as they waited their turn to drink — first the zebras, then the rams, then the various ewes according to their kind. One by one they took their turn, each species knowing its place in the pecking order. In the pool, hardly noticed by anybody, swam a small skilpad. And in the hide, not noticed at all by anybody, were we.

But the peace was broken. A herd of wildebeest arrived, skittish and noisy. Two of the young bulls were having mock fights. Down they rushed to the water hole, butting each other as they came. Into the pool they plunged, continuing their battle. The mud swirled, the water turned black and undrinkable. The other animals took fright and drew back.

The wildebeest left as noisily as they had come. Peace returned.

I thought the scene might be a parable in nature of our beloved land. The water hole seemed like the national economy on which we are all dependent, sometimes muddy but all that we have to draw on. Each species tolerated the presence of the others but ignored them, each keeping to its own.

I thought the skilpad swimming busily but unnoticed might represent the various small NGOs that are so busy in our society and so neglected. Perhaps the nervous giraffes were like the earnest white folk who want so much to be loyal but aren’t sure how safe they will be or how welcome.

The warthogs, the nyala rams in their finery, or the confident kudu ewes scared of nobody — I am not going to stick my neck out and identify them with anybody. Readers may have fun making up their own fantasy.

And the noisy young wildebeest who have stirred up the mud and given everyone a fright — they surely are the Free State Four, the sad young men who betrayed the friendship offered to them by black workers. Of course we should be angry with them. I hope indeed that criminal charges will be laid.

But the shock and surprise and horror on everyone’s lips is surely hypocritical? We all know that such racism is all around us. None of us is entirely innocent of it, although we might never (I hope) express it quite so crassly.

We all know people who still speak of “the boy” or “the girl” and defiantly refuse to see how demeaning their vocabulary is. Let’s not pretend that the goings-on at Reitz come as any kind of surprise.

Perhaps, then, multiracialism is the best we can hope for in South Africa. Will our entrenched racism mean all we can hope for is a sort of multiracial truce, staying with our own kind but trying to be polite to others as they take their turn in the national economy?

That seems to be as far as most of us can go. We gather with our own kind. Our friends are drawn from a single group. Other groups remain distant and strange, even when they work for us or alongside us. And because they are distant and strange, every now and then a racial upset occurs.

Is the Desmond Tutu dream of a rainbow nation no more than a myth? Of course it is a myth — but a myth is not just a fictional story.

A myth is not false or untrue. A myth sometimes looks back to the past which never exactly existed — the Zulus to the golden times preceding Shaka, the Afrikaners to the heroic acts of the trekboers, the British to the days of the Empire when England (never Wales or Scotland) ruled the colonies with impartial justice. But the fact that the past was never exactly like that does not falsify the myth.

For a myth, whether it is linked to a past history or not, is about the hoped-for future. It is about a reality, which is not yet, but still dreamt of — when we will all live in ubuntu and with hlonipha as the Zulus may hope, with righteous fear of the Lord as traditional Afrikaners may hope, with firm and impartial respect for law and order as the British imperialists may have hoped. Myths motivate us.

Myths give us a lodestar to guide our steps. The myth of the rainbow nation is not false. The rainbow nation doesn’t exist yet, or not much (perhaps occasionally a quick and hazy glimpse through the clouds?). But as a hoped-for future it is something to inspire and motivate us.

The mud stirred up by the Free State Four will settle.

A sort of peace will return; but what will we settle for — a tolerant co-existence, each in our own kind? Or a society where the ethnic and cultural groups interact and create a blaze of light and colour?

May the myth still inspire us. May it one day come true. Mayibuye.

• Ronald Nicolson is a retired academic.

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