OPINION | Reconciliation: There are still challenges before we feel united

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Incidents such as protests in Senekal and Brackenfell makes one wonder if the centre of SA politics is narrowing, says the writer. (iStock)
Incidents such as protests in Senekal and Brackenfell makes one wonder if the centre of SA politics is narrowing, says the writer. (iStock)

There are some positives in our country that we should embrace so we can limit the potential for racial tension and clashes, and to prevent the political centre from giving way to its harder extremes, writes Chris Jones.

The year 2020 will not only be remembered for the way in which Covid-19 has disrupted the social and economic life of many societies and communities, but also for the racial tension in the eastern Free State town of Senekal and in Brackenfell in Cape Town’s northern suburbs.

In Senekal, the tension was caused by the murder of Free State farm manager Brendin Horner and in Brackenfell by a private farewell function held for Brackenfell High School’s matrics at a wine estate, apparently excluding learners who were not white.

Actions like these so easily threaten the rainbow nation concept started and driven by former president Nelson Mandela and emeritus archbishop Desmond Tutu, as well as a sense of belonging and well-being among South Africans.  

What we have seen in these two incidents, among others, makes you wonder if the centre of South African politics is not being narrowed while the extremes are growing– extremes such as the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Freedom Front Plus and other conservative white civil society organisations.

On Reconciliation Day, we should ask ourselves the following questions: How many Senekals and Brackenfells are there in South Africa? And what does reconciliation really look like 26 years into democracy?

These are pertinent issues given that this particular day celebrates the end of apartheid, fosters reconciliation between different ethnic groups, and intends to promote better national unity, social cohesion, democracy, human rights, and equality through constitutional values, to bind all South Africans together. 

Proudly South African

According to the South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB), a cross-sectional, iterative public-opinion survey conducted regularly by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in South Africa since 2003, 77.1% of respondents indicated in 2019 that South Africa still needs (more) reconciliation, while 56.9% agreed that we have made progress regarding reconciliation since the end of apartheid.

Closely related to reconciliation, are national unity and identity. A vast majority of our population are proudly South African, "with 81.6% agreeing that they want their children to think of themselves as South African", 80.5% reported that "being South African is an important part of how they see themselves, and 79.7% [agree] that people should regard themselves as South African first".

Around 77.7% of our population support and want unity, 71.4% agree that a united South Africa is possible, and 69.9% reported that there is more that unites South Africans than keep them apart, despite our differences. It seems that 2019 revealed the greatest optimism in this regard since the inception of the SARB in 2003.

Are there other Senekals and Brackenfells in South Africa? Definitely. But if you look at the aforementioned statistics, as well as other relevant information in the survey, you discover that it is probably in the minority by far.

I want to believe that the far-left and right political groups have a ceiling, because there is so much goodwill and yearning for reconciliation and unity in many communities across the country.

This is positive and we should embrace and promote it so as to limit the potential for racial tension and clashes, and to prevent the political centre from giving way to its harder extremes.


However, we do have challenges in our country that we need to address to achieve true and lasting reconciliation. Almost 85% of South Africans agree that we won’t be able to reconcile as long as corruption continues, and 74% reported that "reconciliation is impossible as long as political parties exploit social divisions for political gains – thus highlighting the need for transparent, responsible and accountable (political) leadership".

Almost 80% of the population agree that corrupt government officials often get away with corrupt acts, and "a staggering 86.8% of South Africans [agree] that politicians talk too much and take too little action". Around 71.9% of South Africans reported that they can rely on each other rather than on politicians, and 80.3% indicated that those elected to Parliament soon lose touch with the people.

Many (73.5%) feel that residential areas in South Africa are still racially segregated, with 72.8% agreeing that we won’t achieve reconciliation as long as transformation is measured by racial categories.

In this regard it is important to refer to the National Development Plan that envisions a South Africa in which people will be more aware of what they have in common, than their differences. It envisions that, by 2030, South Africans’ lived experiences will "progressively undermine and cut across the divisions of race, gender, disability, space and class" and that South African citizens will be more accepting of people’s multiple identities.

Interpersonal trust

Many South Africans believe that the responsibility to reconcile, lies "both with those who were oppressed and those who were not oppressed during apartheid". But, the "glue" that binds a community or society together, is interpersonal trust. It serves as the foundation for good relationships and dialogue needed to overcome tensions and conflict, and to create an environment favourable to sustainable ties, hopeful aspirations and confidence within such communities and societies.

To achieve a more united and reconciled future that so many South Africans want, we’ll have to uphold and respect the Constitution and rule of law, grow a stronger democratic political culture, as well as enhance human dignity and social justice.

We’ll also have to address the factors that limit reconciliation such as inequality, racial divisions, landless people, a lack of interaction between people of different racial groups, ongoing violence, persistent stereotypes, and a lack of safety for all. If we can manage to overcome these challenges, we will be one step closer to achieving genuine reconciliation.

- Dr Chris Jones heads the Unit for Moral Leadership at Stellenbosch University.

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