Scars Of The Past Are Still With Us
As a nation we have come a long way in dismantling the legal infrastructure of apartheid and racism, something that is worth reflecting in the two decades of our democracy. This, of course, was not a walk in the park, but exacted a great deal of sacrifice, where political leaders from across the political divides had to temper their narrow self-interests in search of grander and unifying ideals. Fixing minds on the bigger picture was a necessary discipline if we were to have a constitutional arrangement that is inclusive and established upon the ideals of democracy, non-racialism, and non-sexism, amongst others.
Without question, these ideals drew heavily on the political values propounded for many decades by the African National Congress (ANC), and shone hope to a future that would be vastly different from the brutally discredited system of apartheid. The principles underpinning our constitution were meant to be the cornerstone of a new society that affirms the dignity of every human being and facilitate the redress of the inequities of the past.
The burden of our history and the deep call of the future required that we work hard to change the racialised template our politics in general, and to create meaningful economic benefits for black people in particular. Carefully working to build greater degree of social cohesion in the long-term, while privileging in the short to medium-term those groups that were disadvantaged in the past, remains the core challenge of leadership today.
This is all the more important as there is a growing perception that the dream of a racially integrated South Africa, based not just on rhetoric but genuine economic justice for black people, is turning into an unattainable fantasy. This perception is, to a considerable extent, informed by the reality of black people living in wretched conditions on the margins of the economy. It is also view shaped by observing the diverse manifestations of racial violence and discrimination in social or professional spaces.
Although the legal infrastructure that was meant to keep black people at the bottom rung of social hierarchy has vanished, economic power remains inequitably distributed today. Proportionally, black people still form the bulk of the unemployed. Notwithstanding marginal gains under the ANC government, the majority of blacks still exist in the same dismal conditions created by apartheid– in arid rural places or townships located far from economic activity.
Further, economic power and decision-making in corporate boardrooms still remains by and large in the hands of a white managerial class. Where change is noticeable is with the fraction of the new black elite created through a minimalist Black Economic Empowerment programme that tended to advantage ANC’s cronies than fledgling entrepreneurs in townships and rural areas.
This disturbing reality of the continuing thread of apartheid’s social structure into democratic rule, even when the legislation that sustained such a system has disappeared, is one of the contributing factors to the swing of pendulum towards radicalism amongst the black electorate. It is the reason why parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters are growing in numbers and confidence. It is also why, in an attempt to play catch up, the ANC’s policy pronouncements are also laced with radical, but vacuous, rhetoric.
The failures of the ANC government in building on the initial steps laid in the first decade of democracy to manage economic change in an inclusive manner, has been one of the biggest disappointments of our democracy. The ruling party’s ineptitude has emboldened those who are intent on resisting change and protecting apartheid-derived privileges to frame South Africa’s core challenge as only about poor governance and nothing else.
Yet, even if the ANC was to be out of power tomorrow, which will eventually happen in not so distant future, the deep-seated challenges of race and social exclusion will continue to stare us frighteningly in the face. They will still cry for an honest and compelling response. Improving education and skills, growing the economy, and creating job opportunities are necessary but not sufficient to finally heal the scars of the past.
What kind of responses are required today if we are to make a bolder advance to the ideals we initially set ourselves to achieve and avoid a fall over the cliff of racial tensions? The first thing to recognise is that solutions are not the exclusive preserve of political parties, as obsessed as we are with political messiahs. Political leadership has an important role to play, but more is needed if we are to make real progress.
There is also a critical role for civic leadership to promote dialogue about how our past still echoes a shrill voice into the present, with many disappointed about unrealised promise of economic justice; as well as to help us navigate better solutions and to converse positively about the future. We still are a nation that is tense, characterised by lack of inter-racial trust, and that pretty much gets by through pretence. We also seem to be fast losing the capacity to envision a future based on a shared social purpose. Beyond elections, remoulding the creaky foundations of the future should be what we concentrate our minds upon.
A version of this article was published by the Sowetan on the 25 February 2014