What is Reconciliation on an Empty Stomach: The Fallacy and Myth that is Reconciliation Day

2014-12-16 14:42

I’m a big fan of public holidays, mainly because they are, well, holidays. But I’ve always held the view that the significance behind the holidays themselves is lost somewhere in the footnotes of the calendars on our walls and desks. Of course this does not apply to religious holidays which we so love; it applies only to holidays of political and historic significance which speak to the very fabric of our society (your Women’s Days, Youth Days, Freedom Days come into mind). The Day of Reconciliation, arguably the most important of the public holidays as it aims to bring together a clearly fragmented people, has become one of those days with very little significance in our lives as individuals and as a nation.

The sad fact is that Reconciliation Day will forever remain a myth and a day used instead to nurse hangovers from the previous night’s festivities for as long as black people are relegated to eating crumbs under the table while white people continue to consume the vast portion of this country’s wealth and resources. Race and economy are precisely what divided us in the past and they continue to do so today.

Of course, we cannot ignore the strides made (and being made) by the ANC government in ensuring that we get to a stage of reconciling our differences as a people. The most significant undertaking was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a daring endeavor indeed, aimed at gaining reconciliation through the speaking of the truth. This achieved some success as it allowed some people an opportunity to gain much-needed closure. It also acted as bulwark against a wave of anger from millions of wronged people who were ready for retribution. At the time the TRC was necessary and we must appreciate the wisdom of the farseeing President Mandela. The government has also attempted to achieve reconciliation through sports and recreation and this also had some success as it somewhat united people from different walks of life behind a common banner. (It is worth noting, though, that sport still remains one of the most racially-divided spheres of our society. This is why some segments of society are calling for quotas.) These efforts, commendable as they may be, have gained little success in forging reconciliation because they failed to address the fundamental cause of our differences.

Consider this: I cannot take your house and force you live in a hut that I built for you in the back yard and then years later seek forgiveness from you for taking your house by taking you to a rugby match and telling you the “truth” about how I took your house while I live and flourish in that house, and still reasonably expect us to reconcile. That would be positively silly of me.

The history behind the 16th of December is, in itself, an ironically divisive one. On this day in the year 1838, warriors of the Zulu Kingdom fought against the roaming Voortrekkers in the Battle of Isandlwana/Blood River (depending on which side you're on) in Ncome River, KwaZulu Natal. Afrikaners, in particular, also remember this day as the Day of the Vow, in rememberance of a vow they made to God to the effect that they will forever use this day, of the 16th of December, to always and forevermore celebrate the victory they achieved over the Zulu people. Also on this day in the year 1961, the armed wing of the African National Congress, uMkhonto weSizwe was launched as a response to the oppressive Apartheid regime after concerted attempts at peaceful engagements had failed. And so, while others celebrate the bloody victory that their (Afrikaner) forefathers had won against the people they must reconcile with today, other people are celebrating the launch of an armed struggle against the people they must reconcile with today. While it was a noble idea, full of good intentions, to try and combine these historic events in the new democracy, the reality is that this day simply means different things to different people. The day itself is a demonstration of the dichotomy of our histories.

You see, reconciliation is a very nice English word, but is, in itself, a very elusive concept; many people have different interpretations of what it truly means. What is important to understand about reconciliation is that there are two parties involved. One party must be willing to humble themselves and seek forgiveness from the other party; there must be heartfelt remorse for whatever wrongs that party did. The other party must be willing to also humble themselves and accept the other’s sincere apology Reconciliation is a bit more that forgiveness; for reconciliation to occur there must be a complete meeting of the minds between the two parties. Where forgiveness is a unilateral endeavor, reconciliation is a two-way process.

What is happening now is that one party, the whites, have theoretically sought forgiveness from black people and blacks have theoretically accepted the olive branch. However, in reality, there has not been any meeting of the minds and it would be very foolish to imagine that there has been true reconciliation. Consider my analogy above: it is easier for me as the current owner of the house I dispossessed from you to believe that we have reconciled our differences, but it will harder for you living in the hut on a hungry stomach to believe that.

Remember, there were two major things that divided us; namely race and access to the economy. Thus, for there to be “true reconciliation” there must be a paradigm shift in the economic and political landscape. Thankfully, we have attained the very necessary political freedom; the first step towards reconciliation was thus achieved. What is now left is the re-engineering of our economy to ensure that the previously disadvantaged groups also benefit from it.

While I'll never advocate for the removal of the public holiday itself, we really must be honest to ourselves and admit that the Day of Reconciliation is a cosmetic, window-dressing exercise with very little societal and political significance. (And with that said, I will now proceed to nurse my hangover from the 15th and prepare for my birthday on the 17th.)

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