Mondli Makhanya

We need to stop spitting on our legacy

2018-05-27 06:02
Mondli Makhanya

Mondli Makhanya

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One of the most often repeated truisms is this quote by German philosopher Friedrich Hegel: “What history teaches us is that we learn nothing from history.”

This is because we, as the human race, are prone to repeating the mistakes of our past. We had two world wars within the space of half a century. In the immediate aftermath of Nazism, apartheid was made official policy in South Africa. The Holocaust in the first part of the 20th century was followed by genocides in the Balkans and Rwanda less than 50 years later. The reckless exuberance of uninhibited capitalism, which contributed to the Great Depression in the 1930s, was emulated in the 1980s and again in 2008. One can go on and on.

The real truth behind the truism is that it is not just that we learn nothing from history; it is that we choose to learn nothing from history. As humans, we regard history as a pesky parent or teacher who always wants you to do the right thing even when there are less resistant and more fun paths to follow.

Which brings us to where this wonderful republic called South Africa finds itself. History teaches us that this country was supposed to be the laboratory for nonracialism, anti-racism and the war against bigotry. It was here that racism and bigotry were taken to their extremes. And it is here that the most valiant struggle against racism and bigotry was fought.

The South African struggle was the most novel revolution of the 20th century and is the one cause that managed to unite people in every capital and village in the world against one system. In standing up against racial oppression in South Africa, the global anti-apartheid movement, and the billions of people it inspired, was a “not in my name” statement by the decent inhabitants of our planet.

In thinking, presence and form, the South African revolution was special. It married Pan-Africanism, Black Consciousness, Charterism and liberalism in the dream of defeating apartheid and building a beautiful new world.

Contrary to the bogeyman view and populist interpretations of Robert Sobukwe, the father of Pan-Africanism taught us that “there is only one race, the human race”, and that we were divided only by the physiological differences brought about by factors such as geography and climate. Black Consciousness icon Steve Biko preached that “whites must be made to realise that they are only human, not superior” and blacks “must be made to realise that they are also human, not inferior”.

The Freedom Charter, which was the Bible of the bulk of the liberation movement, declared that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white”. The liberal Allan Paton dreamt of a South Africa in which the “world will take pride, a nation in which each of many different groups will be making its own creative contribution”. The socialism espoused by the Communist Party of SA envisaged an equal, racism-free country.

These doctrines, all premised on the creation of a nonracial and just society, mobilised millions to resist oppression. The struggle they inspired laid the foundation for one of the most widespread international solidarity movements ever seen.

This movement has outlived the struggle against apartheid and its global activists play a key role in many of the persisting causes around the world – be it against climate change, the war on poverty or human rights abuses. This is something of which we should be proud.

Yet here we are, unlearning our history and spitting on our legacy. The nation that told the world that racism, bigotry and racial division could be overcome is now in the race to become the poster child for the perpetuation of that against which we fought. Let us accept it – we are always just one breath away from the next race-based incident or racial confrontation.

The blow-up in the SuperSport studios last weekend, in which an exasperated Ashwin Willemse let loose the anger of an undermined black man, is evidence that we are sliding back into the days of hate.

The scene was typically South African. There were two white men, rugby legends, who subliminally or consciously believed that the black man they were sharing the studio with had been given a leg up and should be grateful to be in their presence.

There was a black man, himself a rugby legend, who is arguably greater than the two who shared the studio with him, who had had enough of what South Africa considers to be normal.

The black woman also present seemed to be nothing more than a prop, something we see all too much of in our patriarchal society.

The divided reaction of South Africans was telling. To most white South Africans who commented on the matter, Willemse was an entitled darkie who couldn’t hold his own against the “real” legends. He was just typically playing the convenient race card. In black South Africa, it was a case of “you see how these whites are?”

To SuperSport and MultiChoice, it was “business as usual”. The contrived handshake, like the forced, cold post-match acknowledgments between José Mourinho and Arsène Wenger in the old days, was enough to make the MultiChoice and SuperSport bosses feel warm and fuzzy inside.

This lowly newspaperman does not wish to go into the intricacies of the incident, save to say that it put to rest the notion that we are this happy rainbow nation. We are in fact a cauldron of resentment and wrath.

So can the dream of a nonracial society be salvaged? Can we again be that laboratory of nonracialism in a world that is sliding into hatred and ethnic populism? Who should do what to get us back on track? What is the responsibility of political leadership, religious leadership, business leadership and civil society? What are our individual responsibilities as citizens of this republic?

If there is anything we can learn from history, it is that for good to triumph over evil, we must recognise and then reject evil.

Currently we are in denial, either refusing to diagnose our ailment or unable to accept the diagnosis. The fact is that the bulk of white South Africa has not full grasped what apartheid was about, nor does it recognise the magnitude of the damage it caused.

This tendency to minimise the impact of apartheid fuels the arrogance and impunity of those who – a quarter of a century into democracy – still see blacks as inferior and treat them as such.

Apartheid denialism is also behind the inertia around transformation and the fight against racially entrenched economic inequality. The bottom line is that if you see nothing wrong with the status quo, you will never see a reason to fix it.

But one of the biggest culprits in our fight against racism and racial division is the ANC, the governing party of this divided republic.

The ANC’s failure is twofold – an inability to aggressively implement its constitutionally mandated transformation agenda and legislated policies, as well as the fact that it resorts to populism to cover up its shortcomings in this regard.

Had there been political will to unapologetically pursue legislated transformation objectives – albeit limited – South Africa would be a vastly different place. Those who still resist transformation and see it as reverse racism would know that it is an imperative and not a nice to have. If the ANC had grown the economic pie and ensured that it was shared accordingly, the bitterness around racial inequality would not be as sharp as it is. And if the administration of the past decade had not been as dirty and plunderous as it was, the racists in our midst would not be as bold as they are.

The ANC’s other culpability is its regression to populism. The ANC that once led the struggle for a nonracial society now panders to the noisy vagabonds who have no responsibility for leading society. The ANC of the past few years has become a stoker of fires rather than a considered leader. It is as if the ANC was just a victim and not a party in power. Today, it is hard to distinguish the ANC from the unkempt rabble-rousers and the ahistorical woke crowd who have little clue what the struggle was about.

As the biggest political force in the country, the ANC carries the biggest responsibility for halting the slide into a hateful society. But so does the opposition, which is dominated by those who deny white privilege and those who benefit from fuelling racial anger. Business also has to come to the party by being as resolute in pursuing transformation as it has been in fighting state capture.

But the solution has to come from a sector of society that stepped up to the plate during the state capture war – the clergy. As it did at the height of apartheid and during the worst moments of state capture, the religious leaders of all faiths have to use their influence, credibility and deep reach into communities to do what political parties may not be able to do in election season.

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