Guest Column

How to keep hope alive

2017-04-09 14:12
Hundreds of residents from Khayelitsha township in the Western Cape are building houses on private property. Picture: Denvor de Wee

Hundreds of residents from Khayelitsha township in the Western Cape are building houses on private property. Picture: Denvor de Wee

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Njabulo S Ndebele

It was a heady moment.

The broad national consensus behind the adoption of the Constitution was an indication that South Africans strongly desired to have something close to a solemn commitment that signalled the beginning of a new phase in their history.

As the minister of rural development and land reform decides on appointing a special master to ensure that pending land claims will be processed, April 6 marks 344 years since Jan van Riebeeck landed at the Cape of Good Hope to begin a phase of history that our Constitution intended to formally bring to an end.

The Constitution would set a framework for new relationships among South African citizens, based on an agreed set of fundamental values from which would be derived rights, benefits, duties and responsibilities of shared citizenship.

But this begged the question: How do South Africans begin to live together on the basis of a new document when, for more than 150 years, they have known one another largely across crude, binary simplifications of master and servant; the civilised and the uncivilised; the educated and the ignorant?

Within this crude world of binary simplifications, relationships between political and economic groups were fundamentally transactional in a manipulated kind of way, such that the direction of power was predetermined one way: from powerful whites in control to powerless blacks under control.

Having to know one another as a people without predetermined identities, in a new constitutional democracy, and to become socially, politically, economically and culturally welded into a new national community was, while desirable, a condition that could not simply be declared into being.

It needed work. Was that work identified? How would it be undertaken? Over what period of time would it yield its results in ways replicable into the distant future?

Another question arises: On which segment of the broad South African population would the burden fall to bring about a new society?

Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, in his seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, answered this.

Those who embark on a self-liberation cause – no matter how long it takes across generations of struggling people – do more than free only themselves.

They also offer the gift of freedom even to their oppressors.

That brings about its own question: Will the also freed oppressors recognise their gift, from sources they least expected?

An invitation to humanity

The gift of the oppressed to their erstwhile oppressors will not be the schools, factories, shops, clinics, roads or dams normally listed as achievements.

These kinds of public and private infrastructure are in the achieved new space of freedom; they are a given. They were produced by the organised, even if mostly enforced, efforts of all South Africans who participated in their making.

What distinguishes one society from another is not so much the enablers of human effort, but whether the human context in which they were achieved is worthy of the intellectual, moral, ethical and cultural respect of universal humankind.

This is the gift of the oppressed to their erstwhile oppressors: an invitation to humanity.

All the infrastructure inherited from colonialism and apartheid is not the gift of the colonialist or the apartheid racist to enfranchise their erstwhile victim.

Embodied in its creation are the efforts of all humans who gave of themselves, despite the profound injustice in the distribution of the rewards of effort.

The challenge of the new Constitution to all South Africans is the invitation to humanise the national environment.

Not any more unearned privileges; not any more geometric wealth so gargantuan, even its owners are unable to imagine it; not any more unequal opportunities across national life.

If the South African town and city were the site of colonial energy, the townships are the current sites of the new, democratic energy.

How that reality will evolve is the greatest historic challenge of our times.

The adoption of the Constitution saw the abundance of visionary policies and legislation in the Mandela and Mbeki presidencies.

They remain a testimony to the goal of the envisioned democracy.

But as the years pass, it increasingly seems that the reality of being a new nation appears not to have measured up to the idea of actually becoming one. And that speaks to the almost total absence of vision in the current presidency.


Yes: there is always a silver lining. But the silver does not shine enough to be a beacon.

In the current presidency, in making room for the participation of citizens, government did so without maintaining the visionary orientation of the struggle for freedom.

The legacy of the commonwealth of the South African economy continues to be overwhelmed by the rapacious laws of wealth-making that created it and is now evolving into a politics of a criminally syndicated government poised to abort a constitutional democracy in its third decade.

There is not much silver light in the dramatic retreat from the public community, the envisioned commonwealth. It is being overshadowed by the atomising tendencies of capitalism in the colony still driven by extractive orientations.

Township energy has yet to activate itself to achieve its best.

Until that happens, newly enfranchised black elites extract by emulation, without a township spatial grounding to invest in.

Raiding the Treasury is their criminal obsession. Not much will come out of the wealth stolen that will uplift the quality of life among the vast poor.

That is why 19 000 land claims can get lost, while the misery of land claimants is overshadowed by the dizzying speed of blue-light convoys.

This observation opens a window for me to make two assertions.

Firstly, there is a disconnect between the humanistic, democratic aspirations embodied in our Constitution on the one hand, and, on the other, the historic foundations of our economy on invasive capitalism, whose extractive habits for natural resources and human labour are still orientated towards Europe.

The democratic aspiration becomes harder to visualise against the reality of extractive orientations, whose structure remains firm, but with only one historic difference: they are now also served by new, numerically small recruits who labour under the illusions of self-empowerment as they, in fact, consolidate the dependence of our economy on foreign, colonially embedded needs.

There is no counterbalancing township vision (the source of the new) to reorientate towards a groundedness in which to invest.

Secondly, it has been a major failure of the black collective imagination in 23 years of democracy to continue to resort to race in understanding South Africa’s predicament.

Against some realities of history, race is part of the explanation, but it has never been fundamental – although it has been made to seem so until it seemed to have become an unassailable reality.

What is fundamental is the story of humanity in this part of the world.

It is often forgotten in today’s South Africa that two major threads running through a century of struggle for freedom here have been antiracism and antitribalism.

The latter has been so phenomenally achieved that its power to be deployed against the historic fiction of the former has not been fully realised and appreciated.

I elaborate with some observations.

Firstly, section 1(b) of the provisions of our Constitution should have added “nontribalism” to “nonracialism” and “nonsexism”, in recognition of the solemn undertaking of the multitribal, multilingual and multinational gathering of those who met in Bloemfontein on January 8 1912, as the SA Native National Convention declared that its aim was “to bring all Africans together as one people, to defend their rights and freedoms”.

Against this background, it is reasonable to speculate that, as a result of the deployment of race in the political and economic history of South Africa, the relationship between the so-called races was prioritised among the negotiating parties of the Convention for a Democratic SA.

I believe that the reaffirmation of unity among the oppressed should have led to a follow-up congress to that of 1912 in Bloemfontein. This kind of unity was evident in the existence and broad social activism of the United Democratic Front.

The unity of the oppressed was as important as its antiracist, antisexist stance. Instead, the antiracist stance predominated out of proportion to its diminishing demographic relevance.

The tendency towards multi-ethnic and multinational convergence had been happening for much of the 150 years of South African capitalism.

Significantly, there has been a new wave since 1994 which has added an imported cosmopolitanism to South Africa.

In this regard, the Southern African Development Community, with its 300 million Africans, becomes an extension of regional cosmopolitanism that drew workers from southern Africa.

Mandela’s government in 1994 was the first one in 150 years to formally put at the centre of national concern the conquered, dispossessed, dispersed, decultured and oppressed.

The Constitution was the symbol of that recentring effort. The extent of the challenge was vast.

None of the conquered tribes had ever lived together voluntarily under a single constitutional obligation.


But the cosmopolitan and multitribal convergence speaks to an even larger matter of historic significance.

The multinational, multicultural, nonsexist, nontribal, cosmopolitan community of southern Africa, its axis located in South Africa, does not need “whiteness”, “white racism” and white people as a reference point to define its identity and sense of self-worth.

They have been here for more than 1 million years.

In that, 150 years of brutal repression is but a drop in the ocean.

The human community that has evolved over those 150 years has an enduring sense of itself and the capacity to create a civilisation once more in this part of the world.

It derives its historical sense of self from Zimbabwe, Mapungubwe, Congo, Mali and Zambia, among many others with cross-cutting cultures that define collectively a distinctive space of culture: one more gift to the world.

Perhaps my last word is to the so-called white South Africans.

I recall addressing them 17 years ago, at the first Steve Biko memorial lecture.

I said: “Wherever the white body is violated in the world, severe retribution follows somehow for the perpetrators, if they are nonwhite, regardless of the social status of the white body ...

"This leads me to think that if South African whiteness is a beneficiary of the protectiveness assured by global whiteness, it is an opportunity to write a new chapter in world history ...

"Putting itself at risk, it will have to declare that it is home now, in South Africa, sharing the vulnerabilities of other compatriot bodies.

"South African whiteness will declare that its dignity is inseparable from the dignity of black bodies.”

Whiteness as ideology or lifestyle in an overwhelmingly black demographic environment in Africa in the 21st century is impossible to sustain.

From the perspective of whiteness, the township is no longer the source of labour and profit, but a site for the co-creation of new living environments that have evolved a new awareness of themselves.

Perhaps Hilton College will not wait for the minister of rural development and land reform to decide on appointing a special master.

Perhaps Hilton College will write on its website: “Mr Mndeni Sikhakhane and Mr Bhekindlela Mwelase, and those that have passed on, are the fathers of all our boys.

"They will rest on their land as future generations of boys tell their story, our story: the story of Hilton College.”

Then again, perhaps the minister will surprise us and proclaim the idealism expressed in our Constitution.

He may confirm his and his government’s allegiance to it “as the supreme law of the Republic”.

He may own up to a blurring of vision in his department and commit to restoring dignity to our men and their families, ensuring that it is respected and protected as the very reason for government in a constitutional democracy.

This is part two of a speech Professor Ndebele delivered at the inaugural Jabavu Lecture last week at the University of Fort Hare as part of its centenary celebrations held jointly with the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London

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