Joe Kitchen | Redefining the idea of the 'Rainbow Nation'

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We are creating our own idea of a 'rainbow nation', writes the author.
We are creating our own idea of a 'rainbow nation', writes the author.

We are closer now to the idea of a "rainbow nation" than ever before. But it isn't going to look anything like liberal parties and liberation movements imagined, writes Joe Kitchen.

"Perhaps Tutu's greatest strength is in his ability to long for unseen realities."
- 'Desmond Tutu: A Spiritual Biography of South Africa's Confessor" by Michael Battle (Naledi, 2021)

Are we finally waking up?

Our country, our people, our nation?

Yes, we are.

We are waking up because we have looked in the mirror and have seen ourselves, and we were shocked into awareness. What we saw was not a pretty face.

We have all been accomplices to the state of decay. We are all guilty of the collapse of Mzansi, our fatherland.

We have been surrounded by hunger and need, but we looked the other way.

We blamed one another for our own shortcomings.

Emotional isolation

We were all victims of a pandemic that was much worse than the coronavirus-pandemic: the pandemic of emotional isolation.

It is time we take hands.

It is time to see one another's needs.

It is time to understand who we really are.

It's time to tell each other: 

"Let's fix up the things that are broken."

Let's sing the national anthem together. The entire anthem, the whole thing. The bits in Xhosa, the bits in Zulu, the bits in Sesotho, and also the bits in Afrikaans and English.

This is the first step. We must learn each other's languages.

Mmusi Maimane said it, and so do I.

There are also other ways. We can get involved with our communities, even if it is just with small things. Taking part in the local neighbourhood watch. Donating old clothes to organisations that help the homeless. Starting a creative hobby, contributing to the arts.

This does not sound like much, but if more people do these sort of things, it will certainly make a difference.

Our country is the most beautiful country in the whole world.

We can become an example to other countries in these dark and confusing times.

We can show everyone what can be achieved when people roll up their sleeves and decide to become part of the building-up process instead of the breaking-down process.

The last couple of years we have been overwhelmed by a collective sense of futility and helplessness. We have looked to our leaders for guidance, but they were unable to give any.

We wanted to punish the guilty ones. We were constantly looking for scapegoats. We felt the need to hurt one another because we could no longer endure our own pain.

This brings me to the third way in which we can take hands.


We can strive towards reconciliation.

"Reconciliation". It is not an easy concept to master. We all have an almost innate prejudice towards people who think and behave differently from us in the first place. And very few people really understand what "reconciliation" actually means.

When we think of the lofty examples set by figures like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, we tend to view "reconciliation" as some grandiose, lofty, all-embracing and perfect ideal.

We think of Tutu's imagery of the so-called "rainbow nation", and in our mind's eye, we envision a dream utopia utterly free of crime, corruption, poverty and all forms of racism.

Of course, such a perfect country, such a dream utopia, is totally unrealistic.

READ | Adriaan Basson: The rainbow nation reloaded - let's not mess it up again

The truth is: we will NEVER be such a country. The poor will always be with us, even if the unemployment figures should improve. Politicians will still be corrupt, there will always be racists among us, and there will always be differences of opinions.

But is this unreachable utopia really what Tutu had in mind when he spoke of a "rainbow nation"?

Perhaps one of the gravest mistakes the ANC have ever made – and there have been numerous grave mistakes – was their constant insistence on what they called "unity".

Of course, all liberation movements strive for "unity". And, of course, they never achieve it. The National Party, which also started out as a liberation movement, had a credo which they called "Eendrag Maak Mag" (unity creates power). This, they could not achieve either.

I myself once viewed the idea of a "rainbow nation" as a pipe dream, a rather kitsch thought construct. 

That was before it dawned on me what a rainbow looked like.

A rainbow is all about diversity. There is nothing about a rainbow that suggests bland uniformity.

A packet of smarties 

Tutu probably did not literally mean that everybody should be entirely similar, even if we were all to be equal before the law. I can hardly imagine that he envisioned a nation of little purple, blue and green men. We are at most different shades of a sort of brown. South Africa is more than a packet of smarties!

The one achievable ideal is the ideal of a country in which diversity is accepted as a given. Diversity, not just of cultures, but also of opinions. There will always be different ideological frameworks, creative utterances, and perspectives on life.

READ | Opinion: Reconciliation - there are still challenges before we feel united

We are ALLOWED to have different viewpoints. We don't HAVE to agree about everything. The only thing we need to learn is to respect one another's contributions.

The biggest mistake the liberal establishment ever made was the fact that they tried to deny such differences. "We are all the same except for the colour of our skin." They tried to wish away the reality of race and culture. This mistake was the opposite mistake of the liberation movements, emphasising black and white nationalism, but it was just as bad. By pretending that racial differences don't exist, Helen Zille's DA, in practice, became obsessed with race almost to the exclusion of almost everything else. One after the other black leaders were appointed, and once appointed, the DA attempted to "paint them white" to try and turn them into liberals.

Far from perfect

I suppose these mistakes were probably unavoidable. They were all learning curve on our journey to maturity as a nation. We are, however, now outgrowing those naïve assumptions.

We are seeing reality for what it really is, and we are forced to discard our unworkable ideas. All our rigid ideologies will eventually end up on the rubbish dump of history.

In the midst of all these growing pains and in spite of every crisis we faced, a type of consensus has gradually been growing and taking shape among the people of Mzansi. A new national identity is being born as we speak. We are becoming aware of ourselves as members of civil society. 

Of course, the situation is far from perfect, and will in fact never be perfect. And yet we are, paradoxically, now closer to the idea of a "rainbow nation" than ever before. However, this rainbow nation does not at all resemble the "rainbow nation" envisaged by the liberation movements and the liberals.

- Joe Kitchen is a South African musician, singer, songwriter and writer who sometimes goes by the name of Koos Kombuis, André Letoit and/or André le Roux du Toit.

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