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Dr. Alec Boraine, TRC deputy chairperson and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Chairperson) at a TRC hearing. (Photo by Gallo Images/Business Day/Lori Waselchuk)
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Reconciliation as we knew it then (mid-nineties) is overworked. The challenge now remains – how do opposing groups dialogue and overcome the structural divides, writes Leon Wessels.
"I am tired of listening to the battles fought by old men."
I was astonished when this argument was thrown at me. My explanation of the journey South Africans travelled to become a democratic country irritated the audience. This was my first encounter with the "FeesMustFall" generation.
These millennials mocked me and said Nelson Mandela was a "sell-out". For them the present matters and the past has no meaning. Democratic South Africa had not been kind to them: they were born in poverty and find it demanding to escape the poverty trap.
To defend Mandela was a novel experience. For years I stood my ground whenever FW de Klerk was called a verraaier (traitor). Mandela and De Klerk received the Nobel Prize for peace (1993) because they tried to end the racial conflict in South Africa. The beneficiaries of this peace now trash their legacies.
This leaves me perplexed: how do you live the present without understanding the past?
Generations have struggled for today's generation to be free; we must acknowledge that we have also left them with unfinished business. We have burdened them with many challenges. Dealing with the vestiges of apartheid is no small matter.
I would like the new generation to be fleet footed and race towards the future; not running away from the past but knowing that their hopes for the future is stronger than the shackles of the past. I would like them to appreciate that there was a past – a brutal one at that – and that you can't get rid of the past by ignoring it.
We battle to get to the future. South Africa's past just will not let us be in peace.
The residue of colonialism and apartheid is still there. A few democratic elections cannot undo this. It does not only revolve around those things that lie behind us, but also around the values and rights that we now want to make part of our daily existence. These new values form the basis from where we reach out to the new future.
The drafters of the transitional constitution realised that the transition to a democratic order only would be possible if there was a commitment to reconciliation and national unity.
Now, years after the 1994 election, there are segments in our society where people are still very far apart. Some jump up and down when you dare to suggest that we still live in two worlds. "You keep on harping on the past and do not allow us to move forward," they say.
I see these different reactions when I participate in radio programs. On the one hand some are concerned about the crime situation and the abundance of human rights violations: their children are abroad because they can't find work as a result of affirmative action programmes; they are concerned about property rights and language rights. To them, human rights mean nothing because it is just words on paper.
Others talk about poverty and the high level of unemployment. They ask aggressively: "Wessels, do you know what you are talking about? Have you ever been in one of our townships? There can never be reconciliation in this country if one section of our society lives in poverty."
Although not all young people necessarily know the injustices of apartheid from own experience or the great moments of apartheid, the legacy of apartheid has left them with deep scars. And nowhere is it as clear as in the gap between those who have and those who have nothing.
Reconciliation as we knew it then (mid-nineties) is overworked. The challenge now remains – how do opposing groups dialogue and overcome the structural divides? The old settlements will unravel if tangible solutions are not found for these unequal divides. This will unfortunately have to happen outside the reach of politicians because they politicise every opportunity for political gain.
Although we want to settle the past, there can be no future without an understanding of the past.
The sulky and finely formulated apologies of the past did not always impress and often fell well short – they are noted now as chances that had been trifled away. To cast a rich man's cheque book into the debate now is simplistic and shall not buy the good dispositions wanted. What our fellow countrymen had longed for (then) was an admission that apartheid had scorched our land, that we are aware of it and that we want to join in building a better future together, as equal partners.
Charity that is not offered with sincerity will fall in a bottomless pit. The good disposition of all South Africans now can only be gained by working shoulder to shoulder and by helping to build a shared future.
- Dr Leon Wessels was deputy chairperson of the Constituent Assembly between 1994 and 1996 and later became a human rights commissioner.
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