The death of an iconic figure and how she or he is subjected to public assessment and national soul-searching says much about the character of a society. It says much about how decent it is in being careful in its dissection of the life of the dead, realising that there are grieving survivors, while understanding the deceased can no longer defend themselves or correct interpretations.
Needless to say, I am thinking about the past few weeks and the hotly contested commentaries about Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy. As we do in more modest funerals for the ordinary, when everyone goes home after the celebration of the life of the deceased, there stays behind a silence leaving the grieving survivors to begin the hard work of privately coming to terms with their priceless loss.
Certainly in the lull between Madikizela-Mandela’s burial and this moment, we need to create a sustainable space for what all the public controversy really meant, and still means, about the elephants in the room, which were in full view of the nation and the world.
Perhaps the biggest of all elephants now is how much South Africa, like its historical white supremacy-ruled peer nation-states such as Australia, Brazil, Britain, India, Israel and the US, remains a deeply troubled and racially divided society.
South Africa in the eyes of an ignorant world is supposed to be the bastion of reconciliation due to the way in which the master narrative of the emergence of the post-apartheid state was crafted. There are many South Africans of all hues who go to other lands peddling the idea that they know so much to help other nations with their reconciliation needs. I heard that myth uttered just the other day by a major South African academic. If I had not lived here for a while, I would have easily believed him.
The difficult news for South Africans to swallow now is that, like in the case of other white supremacy derived so-called democracies, they live in a society that has been racist from the very beginning. Like in the case of their peer nations, their society is premised on hate, anger and separation, thus there has never been togetherness. It is why when we strip away the rosy cover of myths such as the rainbow nation, let alone reconciliation, we see a society that remains separate and violent, which has always been the case since its bipolar Afrikaner-English colonial origins. The walling up of white communities, the mass migration of white people rather than authentically embracing black people and other races was the first response to the emergence of the 1994 black majority rule. White people, who very much remain in control of business, media and education, smugly hold on to their racist colonialism, unconcerned about miseducating youth and misinforming publics – while casting stones at black governance and treating black people in their homes and workplaces in patronising ways.
Frankly, as an African-American, I tire of going to meeting after meeting where white people, even when they are in the minority and are the least competent, dominate the floor and demean or patronise any black person who dares to challenge them. I also tire of black people who bow their heads in public silence in the face of white people, but talk big in private about their concerns about how they are treated with no respect. I tire of their lashing out angrily or ignoring the fact that this country, though black majority, was freed from apartheid rule through the sacrifice of generations of black and non-black liberation struggles. It is a grave injustice to deny recognition of those who went to jail, had their lives destroyed, and died for the freedom of all South Africans.
But this is the South Africa that really exists folks. It explains why so few white people showed up at or tuned in to the 1990s’ Truth and Reconciliation Commission or Madikizela-Mandela’s funeral. It explains the rude, indecent remarks made in South African blogs and other media about her life, quite like in the US and elsewhere in the global white supremacy world where there is no decent respect for the black dead and for the feelings of their survivors.
In the case of white iconic figures who die, there is at least a honeymoon period to give survivors respectable time to bury their dead and grieve. But like elsewhere in the white supremacy world, there is no respect or concern for black bodies alive or dead.
I still hear South African thought leaders pat their society on the back, claiming to be different in resolving major racial problems. But in the past two weeks, it has become clear to the world that South Africans are like the rest of us who experience the daily terrors of racism even when we do not know it because we are ignorant of the histories of our lands, or because we are naively unaware of what racism is, owing to our privilege and growing up in societies which hide what race is and its horrible impacts in human life.
The question is not how it is that reconciliation in South Africa has somehow fallen off some mystical wagon, which never existed in the first place since this society. Like its peers, South Africa has never experienced genuine togetherness across racial lines as a common heritage. It is how to, for the first time, be real in building a plural society from scratch. It is something the government needs to mandate rather than pretending will happen through osmosis from economic investment pursuits. You cannot build a viable economy in a nation still premised on a hood of historical hatred and divisions, where people smile and pretend to be open, but are not.
South Africans delude themselves into thinking that somehow they can become one, with a booming economy, while emotionally, spatially and culturally living apart. Using fancy language like reconciliation, retribution, dialogue, transformation and rainbow nation means nothing in a society where people cannot even look at each other in the eye cross-racially, and are so cross-racially dismissive of each other verbally and bodily.
Talk all you want about becoming one people, but like economic development, that will not happen in a society like South Africa’s.
The beauty of this is that, if South African leaders care to shed their mythological exceptionalism so dramatically now stripped away for global view, there is still hope. There is hope that they can seize the opportunity to use best practices from the continent and around the world to develop a democracy that is authentically reconciled. This will build a society in which people don’t just talk retribution, but reconcile daily in their homes and communities, and in their workplaces, faiths and consumer lives. The global policy designs and implementation of best practices are here to build the kind of society that post-apartheid South Africans proudly claim to have, but don’t.
If South Africa is to become the kind of society it boasts to be, then let’s get down to business.
Otherwise South Africans, you are no different than the rest of us in these horrible white supremacy-ruled societies where the grotesque invisible and at times visible operations of racial mythologies distort and destroy the interpersonal understandings essential for building sustainable and viable economies, schools, neighbourhoods, faith communities, and authentic and inclusive democracies.
- Stanfield is the founding director of the Institute for the Advanced Study of African Renaissance Policies Ideas