Let us revisit the idea of a rainbow nation

Some 24 years after the dawn of democracy, millions of South Africans still feel powerless against the daily scourge of racism in schools, hospitals, places of work and all manner of public places.

As a nation, and for the sake of generations of South Africans who will come after us, we cannot afford to be overwhelmed by it.

We have to confront racism head-on. We have to fight racism in all its manifestations. Racism has no place in a democratic South Africa that is legitimately trying to build social cohesion and forge a national identity that will be embraced by all her people across ethnic affiliations.

There have been serious incidents of racial hatred and victimisation in the recent past, too numerous to count here, save for a few. They include the case involving two white men forcing a black man into a coffin; a school in Pretoria requiring young black pupils to wear their hair in a particular manner; and a school principal in KwaZulu-Natal expelling a black pupil from class for wearing an isiphandla – a goatskin wristband. Family members are sometimes required to wear the wristband after a goat has been slaughtered for a spiritual cleansing ceremony.

These incidents all make the notion of a rainbow nation, so eloquently coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the early years of democracy to describe the new South Africa, such a distant and rapidly disappearing dream.

Of all notions of shared visions and of a cohesive and united South Africa, the idea of a rainbow nation is the most useful handle or framework that we could deploy to interrogate all that went wrong in Nelson Mandela’s South Africa and beyond, starting with the most obvious question of this moment in history: Why are we not a rainbow nation 24 years after democratisation?

We are a country, to paraphrase former president Thabo Mbeki, of two nations – one black and poor, the other white and rich.

We can never be a nation united by the colours of the rainbow as long as we choose to bury our heads in the sand by pretending that deeply divisive socioeconomic realities do not exist. Our massive unemployment rate (26.7%), mainly affecting black people, makes ours one of the most unequal societies in the world in terms of wealth distribution and one that has hardly changed from the apartheid profile.

Not only do deep sociopolitical fault lines exist in the new South Africa, they are corroding all efforts aimed at building a cohesive society and triggering other social maladies such as serious crime, generalised and unfortunate hostility and hatred by black people towards white compatriots. We have to acknowledge these fault lines as a point of departure. There is no other way.

Having said that, a new social compact that revolves around both black and white South Africans making genuine socioeconomic compromises is arguably the best practical way of forging a cohesive society that shares a common vision about the kind of South Africa desirable for current and future generations.

Confronting basic realities honestly and openly will be a great start.

White people need to accept black people as equals, period. They need to let go of the idea that they are superior human beings. Black people need to accept white people as South Africans who are here to stay, period.

Building a united and prosperous country is not possible without fixing the mess that is black South Africa’s early childhood development and primary schooling. Every child needs to be afforded an equal opportunity during the early phase. Quality early childhood learning and primary schooling for white children on one hand and poor early childhood learning for black children on the other is a recipe for a divided nation, and needs to be nipped in the bud and acted against decisively.

The state has a fundamental role to play in this regard by moving with speed to eliminate dual education and abolish all forms of private schooling at all levels. This is a political compromise that white people will have to make. If they accept that white and black children are equal, and that black people are their equals, they should not have a problem in accepting this. White teachers and parents could be roped in to donate their time and resources in helping to uplift black children.

Many young black people drop out of both high school – and never get to write matric examinations – and the first years of university, swelling the ranks of unemployed young people. While the state has an important role in alleviating the plight of these young black people through public works schemes and training programmes, the private sector can help by employing black youth without matric by offering apprenticeships.

Private companies should voluntarily embrace the spirit of affirmative action and employment equity laws with the aim of building cohesive and productive workforces, which could only be good and profitable for businesses, rather than viewing such laws as punitive measures that undermine operations.

Persistent wealth inequalities in favour of white people are a highly emotional issue for millions of black people. It should not be difficult for white people to recognise that this is a critical legacy issue that needs to be addressed with urgency and honesty.

Land hunger is a case in point. A situation in which tracts of arable black land were taken with the force of military arms at the start of colonisation of the country and given to white minorities is a ticking time bomb that will soon explode. The land question is highly explosive and emotional and has the potential of destabilisation. Both black and white South Africans must come to the table and make reasonable compromises and avert a disaster.

A public health system mainly patronised by black South Africans on the one hand and a world-class, well resourced private health and hospital system that is overwhelmingly accessible to white South Africans and a sprinkling of the black middle class on the other hand, is highly divisive and undermines social cohesion in a fundamental way.

This is precisely why a National Health Insurance that will make quality healthcare accessible to all South Africans, should be embraced by all, including by doctors in private practice and by pharmaceutical companies.

- George is the secretary general of the Federation of Trade Unions of South Africa.

This article forms part of a selection of pieces written for Anti-Racism Week 2018

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