True reconciliation not just about forgiving and forgetting - Zuma

Reconciliation Day event at the  Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth. (Derrick Spies, News24)
Reconciliation Day event at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth. (Derrick Spies, News24)

Port Elizabeth – Building the physical landscape of the country is easier than building the soul of a nation, President Jacob Zuma told a crowd celebrating the national Day of Reconciliation on Wednesday.

"Our people had been brutalised over many years. However, they have not had the time to reflect and heal. There has not been enough time to find one another," he said. 

Zuma called on the nation to bridge the divide between the different segments of society and build a South Africa that worked towards a national developmental state.

Speaking at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s Missionvale Campus, Zuma arrived with a strong military and police escort.

He was accompanied on stage by Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa, Eastern Cape Premier Phumulo Masualle and Nelson Mandela Bay Executive Mayor Danny Jordaan.

The Matthew Singers choir entertained with various songs, including the controversial Awuleth’ Umshini Wami.

Despite a number of other dignitaries, including ministers, deputy ministers, MECs, municipal councillors, traditional and religious leaders and a strong media contingent, attendance was poor, with a number of seats at the back of the hall and along the top tier being left empty.

Strong military contingent

A strong military contingent lined up in front of the stage when Zuma took to the podium 

Zuma said that when it took power in 1994, the ANC set out to build a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic, united and prosperous society, and national reconciliation became one of the key policies of government.

"The name of this holiday tells a story. It is a reminder that this country went through centuries of war, divisions and conflict. We went through a system of government that was designed to promote divisions and hatred.

"To maintain its unjust rule, the apartheid state had to use violence. People were murdered in the townships and villages locally, and in many countries where freedom fighters had sought refuge. Survivors were maimed and traumatised," he said.

Zuma said all who had lived through apartheid were traumatised in one way or another, as it was a brutal system of government.

"The message since 1994 has been that we are one nation. We have to unlearn the divisions of the past and build one nation, united in its diversity," he said.

Zuma said true reconciliation could not be achieved by simply forgiving and forgetting.

"It must be accompanied by a deliberate collective resolve to deal with the material basis of social divisions such as poverty, landlessness, as well as economic inequality.

"If we fail to do this, we will not succeed in uniting all our people regardless of race, class, religion, culture, language and other social constructions used to divide humanity," he said.

Focus on injustices against black majority

"One of the challenges is the assumption that is made at times that reconciliation simply means the absence of vengeance and retribution," said Zuma, adding that it was a collective responsibility to confront these misconceptions. 

He thanked the black majority for not taking matters into their own hands.

"Our country is what it is today precisely because, despite the terrible injustices meted out against them, the black majority made the choice not to seek revenge. They chose to build a country that belongs to all who live in it, black and white.

"It was a bold and courageous act of patriotism which puts the interests of our country first," he said.

"For obvious historical reasons, income distribution and growth is racially skewed in favour of white South Africans, with the African still at the bottom. The Census of 2011 stated that the income of the average white household remains six times that of the average African household," said Zuma. 

Reversing the legacy of apartheid

Zuma also lamented the lack of transformation in business.

"However, the good part is that we have programmes in place to reverse the legacy of apartheid. Millions of people now have access to services that they did not have access to before, such as water, electricity, housing, health, education and others." 

Zuma praised the students, black and white, who united in a joint cause against increasing university fees.

"A short-term solution for the 0% fee increment is already in the process of being implemented. The R2.3bn that is required will be shared by government and universities."

He warned, however, that although the right to protest was protected and supported, all students, student leaders and formations should renounce anarchy and the destruction of university and private property.

When Zuma had finished his speech, the Matthew Singers choir once again sang Awuleth’ Umshini Wami while the president danced on stage.  

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