For all of us to start moving forward together, we have to start agreeing on what happened in the past.
In Death of a Colonialist, the character of Harold Smith says: “It’s a dangerous thing to hate the place you call home. We all have shares in the country.” How big a claim each of us is entitled to is where the rub lies.
So much of South Africa is about the past that it often feels to me that what the young (and foolish) have to say is considered irrelevant. We weren’t there, after all. Then again, this country will be ours soon, warts and all, to do with as we please. So, indulge me as I whisper a word to the wise. Let’s focus on this common heritage business, then.
I think it is a macabre enjoyment of trans-fatty acids, carbohydrates and oil that is most common to all South Africans. It manifests itself in the stuff we braai, fry and boil every day. We’re so proud of our vleis, pap, atchar, chakalaka and gatsbies. This is our heritage, isn’t it? The eventual explosion of the heart in our own chests because of the stuff we eat.
Our heritage certainly isn’t rugby. It took Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman to make a mockery of the notion that the 1995 Rugby World Cup gave us a “heritage”. Rugby won’t be a true part of our heritage until we all have DStv.
It probably won’t be Nelson Mandela for a while. We’ll need history to do its airbrushing job on Madiba before he passes into legend—and the heart of every South African. Mandela will have to wait until the next generation grows up to really become a part of South Africa’s heritage.
Apartheid is our heritage
It seems difficult to say for many certainly from my perspective as a person born in the late 1980s—but apartheid is our heritage. That, right there, is what we all share in our past. There’s no hiding or wishing it away.
We all need to own the country’s history of colonialism and apartheid. Whether that means being ashamed, angry or emotionally detached from it doesn’t matter. The important thing is to acknowledge that being South African means that on some level you have to face up to history. It’s the one thing that irks me about the gated community culture that Johannesburg breeds with such gay abandon. It seems to be motivated by a desire to withdraw from the muchness of South Africa.
The fight to end apartheid could be the very foundation for crafting a new heritage. That’s not going to happen though, as long as we dis-agree on what actually happened. Without painting anybody as a grotesque caricature, there are too many South Africans who still believe there was something excusable or justifiable about apartheid. And this thinking wouldn’t be a problem if the only goal was to get consensus so we could build a common heritage. However, the other South Africans are outraged by such contentions.
A great part of owning our history, then means agreeing on what actually happened in the past and this may be the most difficult hurdle to overcome. Professor Anton van Niekerk was assaulted in his University of Stellenbosch office earlier this year by a right-wing Afrikaner. The Volksraad selection committee member who carried out the attack reportedly took exception to an article Van Niekerk wrote, which he found to be historical revisionism and not quite to his taste. The man considered any perception of the past that contradicted his own vision to be so grievously offensive that he attacked the professor.
To a much lesser degree, the ANC’s glorification of the armed struggle and the extent to which it smashed the apartheid state (to some, the new South Africa is thanks only to the armed struggle) flows along a similar vein to that of Van Niekerk’s attacker—it’s a failure to recognise just how much we owe to consensus and compromise.
And so we fight. I humbly submit we accept that apartheid was bad for us all—worse for some, sure—and that the fight against it was a good thing as a basis for building a common heritage.
A social Codesa
We still think that conferences and talks can solve major societal problems. It must be a hangover from the Codesa (Convention for a Democratic South Africa) days, when men held secret talks and came out with a Constitution. We’re still struggling with the notion of building a new society—lurching from demands for more talks on violence and discrimination to litigating against perceived “other” groups at the drop of a helmet.
We had a political Codesa. Some say we should have an economic Codesa. After that, wait until the talk addicts among us demand a social Codesa, where we all agree on rules of social conduct. You can’t have meetings about that sort of thing. We’d be cheating our children out of a society—in the true sense of the word—if we tried to “Codesa” our way to social cohesion.
For some South Africans, much of what defined their social mores collapsed when the apartheid state ended. Gone was the bristling Calvinist society with its warnings of imminent danger. The enemy was now neighbour, if not friend. And for the South Africa that once only existed on the wrong side of the Group Areas Act, the freedom was won, but not the fruits of it. For these South Africans, the fences went away, but they weren’t free. These groups (and so many others that I neglected to mention) must now come together and share a common future.
It often seems impossible. It seems that, left to our own devices, we just can’t get down to the task of crafting a common social understanding. AfriForum’s hate speech case against ANC Youth League president Julius Malema was a stark example of this. May Judge Colin Lamont’s ruling on the matter remind us all that you just cannot litigate your way to social cohesion. Malema and the leadership of the ANC may now no longer be able to say “Dubula iBhunu”(shoot the boer), but we have millions of South Africans who may now feel as if a vital part of their history and a means to remember it has been taken from them.
The court case didn’t solve anything. Thus the temptation for a quick agreement on where the social middle path is. Even if we were to agree on the past, it still wouldn’t make the present any easier to live in. There are too many forces in our new society, all pulling in different directions. We need to recognise this is a natural process that takes time. That’s not to say we shouldn’t work to guide the process, but hurrying along isn’t going to work.
South African first
I hope that soon we will have learned what it means to be South African first and then black, or white, or Zulu, or whatever other arbitrary grouping we choose to identify with. Our minister for the national planning commission, Trevor Manuel, has made much of his “Vision 2025”, the social democracy vision for South Africa that he wants us all to buy in.
Although I agree that a country can’t be expected to sail without a skipper and a map, it will be pointless if we neglect to get all South Africans on board with this plan.
My Vision 2025 for South Africa is when we agree that being South African means being my brother’s keeper. The South African dream ought to be living in a society where we treat one another fairly and allow one another the space to live and work. It is essentially a process of not just owning, but overcoming the burden of our past, so we can pass something more beautiful on to our children.
It requires an unselfish attention to my fellow South Africans. As Barack Obama once remarked: “It’s that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper—that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.”
The scars and wounds of the past still run deep. Forging a common heritage that we can all celebrate requires nothing short of working to heal these wounds.
Sipho Hlongwane is a journalist and columnist for iMaverick
Visit our special report.