Solly Moeng: The 'ag c'mon, move on' brigade just keeps on growing

It is not the first time that South Africans have been subjected to recent insensitive, disrespectful and insult-filled utterances by former President FW de Klerk that apartheid was not a crime against humanity.

Afriforum CEO Kallie Kriel said the same thing in May 2018 and many people in the South African white community supported him. Unlike FW de Klerk, Kriel has never retracted his utterances and apologised for them. Many of the people who supported him at the time claimed that, whether or not apartheid was a crime against humanity, was just a matter of personal opinion.

Others threw the word "genocide" into the mix and unfavourably compared what happened to black South Africans over a sustained period to horrific historic events in places like Nazi Germany and Rwanda. When it was pointed out to them that even the United Nations had declared apartheid a crime against humanity, many chose to dig in their heels and continued to insist that the UN did not have a final word on this matter.

Ostensibly, they did.

In reality, black South Africans might have been treated as children who are incapable of figuring things out for themselves for too many decades. They really do not need third parties to describe the pain of apartheid to them, or to sanitise and label it on their behalf.

A lot went down during those many decades: loss of lives, dignity, homes and other personal possessions. Many times their self-esteem was trampled upon in all manners of insulting ways. They have, on the whole been magnanimous in their forgiveness. This even if it was never always clear that enough numbers of white South Africans saw the need to ask for forgiveness and at least, acknowledge their pain.

Instead of diminishing in size, the "ag c'mon, move on" brigade seems to keep growing.

The temptation keeps rearing its head to suspect that the attitude one has seen over the years, in some white South Africans, is based on innocent ignorance of what was done in their names, for their comfort and benefit, over many decades. But even such a temptation must be dismissed when one considers that it has been more than a quarter of a century since negotiations began for a post-apartheid South Africa and that Mandela and other former political parties were freed and their organisations unbanned.

New Constitution

It has been a quarter of a century that a new Constitution and bill of rights were developed and promulgated. Many opportunities have been presented for those who didn't know to find out what had really happened. They could at least develop a sense of empathy towards fellow human beings, whose very humanity had been deliberately trampled upon with the purpose of breaking them forever. The brokenness remains to this day.

It is not enough for white South Africans to remind black South Africans that they willingly voted to scrap apartheid in that a "whites only" referendum paved the way to formal multi-party negotiations.

With silly smirks on their faces, many are wont to remind us of the referendum as if their responsibilities ended there. It is as if they gave the rest of us a gift we should be forever grateful for and forget the rest of what went down, never to be mentioned again.

Similar to those who like to claim that the De Klerk government could have chosen to drag apartheid on for a few more years, instead of ending it, some of those who like to brandish the referendum in our faces also seem to think they can make us believe that they too had a choice. As if they could simply have said no in the referendum and allowed apartheid to continue. They do not understand our ungratefulness.

We all have pain…

We're still a wounded people, all of us South Africans. We're a wounded people without physical scars. And the absence of physical scars makes it easy for others and, strangely, especially fellow South Africans, to dismiss our pain or the stubborn memories of the events that crafted it over time.

Invisible scars

Our invisible scars are results of things that happened in different periods of our collective history. In a strange way, the slow turning of the wheel of time has made sure that each group of us had its turn at the bottomless trough of human pain and suffering. And the pain, or memories of them, resurface at unexpected intervals in our contemporary life.

In a South Africa where levels of empathy were never sufficiently nurtured and are, therefore, almost non-existent, the triggers of our pain or the memories of the events that led to them come easily and in many forms. It takes an utterance, a stare, a decision that seems to be laced with prejudice and other forms of racial and ethnic profiling - real or imagined - to lead to conflict.
South Africa has been taken through a lot of tribulations in recent years - deliberate, man-made tribulations. The damage they have wrought is reputational, material, and social.

There have been massively diminished levels of trust in the institutions that were created at the dawn of our democracy. These institutions were created to hold our diverse nation together and to help us heal from the past while we jointly create a more just society.

We easily turn on one another when things go wrong. We insult one another. We remind one another of the sins and crimes committed by others who might look like us in a fast receding past and blame one another for those sins and crimes.

Building together

But we must build together.

To recover over time, each one of us must shift at least some of our attention from our own pain in order to understand the pain of the other without prejudice or judgement. It should never be a matter of trying to compare pain, trying to determine whose pain is bigger, more important or less significant. Such determination will always remain a matter of personal judgement and lead to fruitless, unwinnable battles.

What we need is to reach out to one another and to listen more actively. In doing so, we need to cultivate higher levels of empathy and hold one another's hands. We should agree that no one comes out a lasting winner when we lose sight of the things that should hold us together as a pained nation that must still build a shared future.

If we fail in any of the above, only extreme left or right wing political formations stand to benefit. And we might as well forget about any prospect of recovering together from our more recent tribulations before they too become engrained in us and define how we forever relate to others and to the world around us. 

* Solly Moeng is brand reputation management adviser and CEO of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley Reputation Managers. Views expressed are his own.

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