South Africa: on the precipice of healing

2016-03-04 07:17

It’s been twenty-two years since the advent of democracy in South Africa. Twenty-two years of freedom, where all citizens are seen as equal before the law, all of us protected by a constitution that is hailed as one of the most sterling examples of a human rights mainstay on the planet. The world watched as something incredible unfolded in a country down at the southern-most tip of Africa; we defeated the vilest of evils in the most unexpectedly egalitarian way. This can almost exclusively be attributed to the astonishingly amicable nature of the monumental leaders of the ANC from days past. 

Nelson Mandela stood on the balcony of the Cape Town City Hall and sold us a dream. He said, "I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.” These are the kind of words spoken by a true leader, and even more than that, we all know he meant every word when he said it. Today we find pockets of the Nelson Mandela dream of peace, unity and freedom for all, that have survived against all odds. Yet in truth, that once-in-a-lifetime boost of Madiba Magic now lies buried, resting peacefully in the ground at Qunu. 

Racial tensions are at an all time high, with the subject of race sending many people running swiftly for the hills to avoid any form of discussion about it. People are afraid to speak their minds for fear of being publicly shamed. National student and service delivery protests are dominating our cables, wires and screens. Our parliament, which is the sacred home of our constitution and government, is in disarray. Our economy is one small shuffle away from junk status, and our leader seems to have little regard for his contribution to this mess. 

How is it that we got here, a mere twenty-two years later? 

The answer to this question is multi-pronged and highly complex, and I could never propose a satisfying and all-encompasing interpretation. I can, however, hazard a guess at certain aspects in our democracy that have lead us astray. My theory’s origin goes right back to the early 90’s, and interestingly it starts with something very positive. 

On 17 March 1992, former President FW De Klerk initiated a whites-only referendum to assess the amount of support he would have towards spearheading urgent minority government reform. A staggering 68.6 percent of South Africa’s white population voted in favour of negotiations that would bring about an end to Apartheid. This was perhaps the first time the black population in our country witnessed a significant anti-Apartheid sentiment from the white population. Regardless of what the motivations were behind the ‘yes’ vote in 1992, it cannot be overlooked as a defining moment where white South Africa agreed that the status quo needed to change. 

Also in 1992 we saw the second part of the historic Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) talks, which lasted until the latter half of 1993. These were volatile discussions, fraught with disagreements and disjointed views as to what a new constitution and government should look like. In June 1993 the Afrikaner right-wing unsuccessfully tried to derail these negotiations by assembling in large numbers outside the negotiation venue, and eventually using an armoured vehicle to smash into the foyer. But even then, we didn’t allow our path of progress to be destroyed by extremists. 

The following year, in 1994, South Africa was blessed with a miracle unlike any other. After centuries of racial inequality and white domination, we came back from the brink of civil war, almost overnight, to cast our votes in the first free and fair election in the history of this land. All the while the entire world was watching this remarkable display of compassion and absolution from afar, probably envious and surprised at this unbelievable transition from oppression to freedom.

So far everything is going fairly well, but now that we had freedom, we had to deal with the pain.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in 1995. This commission, chaired by Archbishop (now emeritus) Desmond Tutu, was mandated to investigate human rights violations during the Apartheid years. The TRC sought to offer a process of reconciliation by means of facilitating dialogue between victims and perpetrators, as well as implement a form of payment of reparations to victims, and to offer amnesty to perpetrators. Various studies, such as the report compiled by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation & the Khulumani Support Group, have found that the TRC was not wholly effective in achieving reconciliation. 

What is the key to reconciliation? 

The aforementioned study found that there were a few important needs that had to be met, in order for reconciliation to be achieved. Firstly, truth was a vital starting point. Victims felt that they needed to hear the perpetrators come clean about the violations they participated in. If perpetrators weren’t completely honest, then forgiveness was not possible. Secondly, justice needed to run its course. Victims needed to see perpetrators actively participating, in material and financial ways, towards the rehabilitation process. Thirdly, the victims believed that each person had a unique and individual experience of violations committed against them, and as such each case should be treated on an individual basis. This meant that perpetrators would have to atone to all the victims of their actions. Lastly, most victims felt there could be no reconciliation without reparations, and some felt that amnesty was an obstacle to justice. 

According to international law, "reparation must, as far as possible, wipe out all the consequences of the illegal act and re-establish the situation which would, in all probability, have existed if that act had not been committed.” - (Permanent Court of Arbitration, Chorzow Factory Case (Ger. V. Pol.), (1928) P.C.I.J., Sr. A, No.17 at 29.) The question we have to ask is: has this process been sufficiently facilitated in post-Apartheid South Africa? My feeling is that it hasn’t. 

The post-Apartheid process of reparation payouts and institutional and land reforms has been riddled with controversy. Measures such as The President’s Fund, a fund set up after the TRC in order to issue financial compensation to families of victims, have been largely ineffective due to administrative hurdles. Institutional reform programmes like Black Economic Empowerment have also been ineffective in its implementation. According to Sim Tshabalala, Group Chief Executive of the Standard Bank Group, "Throughout the South African economy, 70% of top managers and 59% of senior managers are white. The unemployment rate among Africans is 28.8%; among white people it is 5.9%.” This is a concerning factor, considering that the size of the black middle class has now exceeded the size of its white counterpart. 

Obstacles to transformation.

The process of transformation is a very complex, multifaceted operation, and although it will take much more time yet to transform organisations and structures, we can each do our own bit towards social transformation. It starts with us, as individuals, who operate in the everyday social spaces where we engage with one another daily. Here, we can start making a difference today. 

Don’t blame eclectic aspects of our past and present for our current lot. Rather see it as a combination of factors, past and present, that have resulted in where we are. It cannot be pinned on one institution or group of people. We are all responsible in some way or another. For example, we cannot solely blame the failings of the ANC for lack of transformation. Apart from the fact that the ANC has also had many successes (which are often overlooked), there are debilitating lingering effects of Apartheid inequality that still manifest in various forms. Even if the ANC was a superhuman body capable of miraculous powers of political intervention, we would today still be dealing with the backlog of Apartheid policies. 

Similarly we cannot expect social transformation to occur while racial hatred still parades unashamedly through the corridors of public discourse. Those of us who engage with online forums are well aware of this racism scourge, often perpetrated by nameless and cowardly individuals. Apart from the overt and obvious racists, there are also those who aren’t as candid, and their manifestations of racism are much more insidious and dangerous because they often go unnoticed. These beliefs must be stamped out as and when we notice them. If you have racist family members or friends, tell them it’s not acceptable. We must also admit that over and above social racism, there’s a pertinent problem with institutionalised racism, which is having a crippling effect on our progress as a nation.

Look for the truth, and not just what suits your interests. There are various versions of truths being circulated in the public sphere. In addition, as is often the case, these so-called truths are accepted according to the personal biases of those receiving the information. This is a breeding ground for untruths that contribute to national tensions among citizens. It also means that many of the real horrors of Apartheid, which families are still dealing with today, are either lost amongst a conglomeration of false accusations, or completely erased at the mercy of the denialists.

A vital part in the process of healing and transformation is the acknowledgement of that which has caused the pain. More and more white people are beginning to speak out about the white community’s uncanny ability to deny and blame. This is seen by many of the deniers as a form of white guilt. This notion has always puzzled me. It’s juvenile to assume that those who speak out against their own kind are either anti their own, or self-loathing. Without self-reflection we stagnate, which is precisely the ailment which is currently stunting the West. After World War 2 the German people were consumed with something which was called “Kollektivschuld", or collective guilt. Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung famously noted that this collective guilt was "for psychologists a fact, and it will be one of the most important tasks of therapy to bring the Germans to recognize this guilt.” To feel guilt about past atrocities either directly or indirectly perpetrated by your own kind is merely a natural condition of our humanity which can be curbed by a showing of empathy, care and love. 

It’s time to get uncomfortable.

Sim Tshabalala also wrote, "To build this better world for future generations of South Africans, a little patience and a degree of sacrifice is required from all of us. This is not an extraordinary burden.” We will need to accept the fact that if meaningful transformation is to take place there will be times where we will feel uncomfortable. This discomfort could be in the form of being confronted with painful memories or stories, or perhaps even in the form of realising that the rainbow nation dream is no longer relevant and that a new dream and vision for South Africa will have to be created. During this process of reinvention we might see more protests and expressions of anger and pain. We cannot sit in the comfort of our homes and condemn these processes. Instead we should try to understand them, engage with them and see where and when intervention is helpful and to respect when it isn’t. 

If we collectively put aside our differences, and truly invest in conversations that are respectful and open, we may even be able to begin a new truth and reconciliation process; revive the TRC if needs be. The truth will be in the form of telling the untold stories, listening to those who are aggrieved, and affording them the dignity of recognising their pain as valid.  We must all revisit our history to discern between fact and propaganda. In recent years many profound revelations have dominated the field of history, which have shed new light on old beliefs. These findings, which have been validated by science, have completely turned some of our past understandings upside down. For example, it is wrong to assert that South Africa was a barren landscape before the arrival of colonial settlers. The truth is in fact that there were many indigenous cultures and civilisations that flourished for centuries in pre-colonial southern Africa.   

Don’t shy away from terms like White Privilege, or Whiteness, or White Fragility. These are very important terms that one should spend time trying to understand. At first glance they may seem dismissive and derogatory, but upon further examination one really gets a sense of their aim and validity. In a recent article for PoliticsWeb, RW Johnson foolishly denies these terms. He also vehemently denies any culpability on the part of white South Africans in our current state of affairs. This is the same man who was publicly shamed in 2010 for comparing people living in townships to baboons.  

Apply, at all times, a level of emotional intelligence. Emotions are what drives us, and if we allow them to control us we are placing ourselves at the mercy of that which is completely irrational. Taking time to understand yourselves and other people, whilst consistently developing your capacity for empathy, are some of the basic steps to growing your emotional quotient, or EQ. In many ways, a high EQ is more important than superior intellect or a high IQ. At the root of all our insecurities, which we try to mask with arrogant displays of false bravado, there is a human being who is just as confused, scared and needy as anyone else is. 

There’s still much hope!

It’s not all doom and gloom. South Africans are robust people and we can overcome our hurdles once more, but we have to move towards each other in order to do this. Achille Mbembe wrote, "What makes us human is our capacity to share our condition – including our wounds and injuries – with others.” 22 years later we’re sitting with a neatly bandaged wound, but it was never cleaned, so the pus is starting to seep through the bandage and ooze out. The only way to heal the wound is to uncover it, examine it, apply an appropriate course of treatment, and to stitch it up for good. We’re standing at the precipice of an unknown future. We can either allow our society to crumble and disintegrate, or we can work hard towards unity, transformation, equality, justice and a better life for all. I sincerely hope we will opt for the latter. 

Follow Pieter on Twitter: @PieterHowes

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