Reconciliation on one hand, division on the other

2007-12-15 00:00

December 16 will be important for two reasons. Firstly, it is the Day of Reconciliation. Secondly, the African National Congress begins its national conference in Limpopo, an event that will ultimately affect every one of us.

But first, here are two stories about four men.

Zackie Achmat, leader of the Treatment Action Campaign, will soon marry Dallie Weyers, “an Afrikaans boy from the Free State”. They are both gay, in love, but conspicuously different.

Achmat is 45, Indian and from a Muslim family. Weyers is 25, white and from a Christian family. Achmat is an internationally renowned Aids activist, while Weyers has only recently finished his postgraduate studies. In addition, Achmat is HIV positive and Weyers is not.

The other story is about two politicians. They’re not getting married, but could do with some mutual affection — Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, the ANC presidential candidates.

Zuma is friendly, approachable, but prone to making big mistakes. Mbeki is distant, aloof and thinks he’s always right. Zuma sings songs, wears colourful T-shirts and even has his own CD. Mbeki quotes Shakespeare, wears Armani suits and writes an online newsletter. And the big one — Mbeki is Xhosa, while Zuma is a “100% Zulu boy”.

If I was tasked with organising a media campaign to promote reconciliation in South Africa, Achmat and Weyers would be my poster boys. Theirs is more than a high-profile love story — it is a shining example of what we are capable of if we look beyond immediate differences and find common ground. In addition to being in a gay relationship, which surely has its own complexities, these men have reconciled differences in race, religion, age, families and even HIV status. There is a lot that we can learn from this.

Mbeki and Zuma, on the other hand, have split the ANC into opposing camps and each division hesitantly admits the other’s existence, if at all. But on December 16 they’ll start coming out of their political closets. This day, meant to promote national unity, is ironically destined for the start of a nail-biting battle of personalities. But what will happen after December 20 when everybody leaves Polokwane? Will South Africa be unwittingly led by an organisation pretending to be happy, when it is really even more divided, angry, bitter and perhaps even confused? Beside the economic and political effects, what of the real human effects? Will a post-conference ANC boost our national morale and get us excited about the top government officials we can look forward to after the 2009 elections? Or will it start chiselling away at the attempts this country has made at reconciliation?

South Africa is unique because its transition from the twisted apartheid system to a democratic one did not result in widespread civil war and we did not start jailing or hanging every perpetrator of an apartheid crime. In an eagerly anticipated moment of liberation we became, even if just for a moment, a united nation.

Reconciliation is still a big deal in this country. There are too few Nelson Mandelas, Desmond Tutus or Mother Teresas among us and in order to create a more peaceful, respectful and loving society we need good examples to emulate. If the people who are in power cannot provide this, then the challenge becomes harder. South Africa is still a psychologically ravaged nation in which tensions still glaringly exist, both in our everyday lives and in big political parties. In order to heal the wounds of the past, we need more real-life examples of people such as Achmat and Weyers, who are living the values of reconciliation, not just waiting for it to happen. We also need less melodrama from our leaders, who I am sure we would rather respect, than ridicule. Respect is difficult when our leaders come across as no more credible than an Idols star trying to win over fans, while singing off-key.

As the ANC takes this historic trip to Polokwane, I hope that the future road South Africa will have to travel under an ANC leadership is a common path of national unity, filled with diverse people who, at the very least, respect each other as we strive to make this country the great place it can be. A little understanding might go a long way.

• Suntosh Pillay is a psychology honours student and a freelance writer.

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