Madiba’s magic is slowly dissipating

If a country lives by its myths, then the myth of post-apartheid South Africa must be that it had become “the rainbow nation”. That is, an image of different people living together in one country, despite the legacy of apartheid that legally shunned such community.

Coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (in the face of renewed attempts by the apartheid state to renew and entrench race divisions in the late 1980s and the negotiation phase in the early 1990s) and fostered by former president Nelson Mandela (in his tenure as the country’s leader from 1994 to 1999), it was this rich imagery and myth that held a divided country together both through negotiations at Codesa and the uncertainty of power sharing in the initial years of the new democratic political system.

At a popular level, Mandela often appeared as the architect of nation-building post-1994. This “rainbow myth” or “Madiba magic” had not only become a talisman, but had also become part of the dominant political discourse.

Meanwhile critics on the (black) left felt that the African National Congress-led government had unfairly prioritised the “fears” and interests of the privileged, white community. In effect, the rainbow had unintentionally become a means to gloss over the vast economic inequalities in favour of an opportunistic unity.

It can, however, be argued that the “rainbow myth” was a necessary ingredient for change to be effected. Without it, the transition to democracy would have been a bloody one, resulting in civil war and conflict as we have seen in, for instance, the Democratic Republic of Congo. The government was also keen to avoid the post-independence white exodus experienced in neighbouring Zimbabwe (1980) and Mozambique (1975).

For five years South Africans lived generally glossing over the deep racial divides that still persisted during Mandela’s presidency. The battle of a smooth transition had seemingly been won and Mandela himself had captured the hearts and minds of black and white South Africans alike.

But 1999 saw a change in ANC leadership and the presidency. The new president, Thabo Mbeki, spoke more directly and forcefully to the burgeoning socioeconomic inequalities facing South Africa.

Mbeki openly challenges the reality that the captains of industry were still largely white, the media (which interprets the nature of the transition) was still largely white-owned and for all intents and purposes, whites largely hold economic power.

Mbeki, recognising this, spoke of South Africa as “two nations” a means of describing an economic inequality between black and white in South Africa. The one nation was black and (largely) poor despite the entry of a significant black entrepreneurial and middle class into the formal economy and laws to favour black entry into the mainstream economy and the other nation was white and (largely) economically privileged.

At the same time the government had adopted an economic strategy (the growth, employment and redistribution strategy, Gear) that in fact had the effect of further reshaping inequalities. Intra-black inequality is now greater than the inequality between whites and blacks. This resulted in most black working class people (the bulk of the black population) being economically worse off then they were a decade ago. A small percentage of black people benefited from the government’s black empowerment policy.

The result of this was impatience by the black majority, while the white business class attempted to abdicate the responsibility of economic empowerment to the new black business class.
Suddenly the political discourse had changed and the divisions, which had been glossed over in 1994, were again coming to the fore. White people suddenly were confronted by their past in a more direct way, which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with its explicit focus on an individualised rather than collective approach to human rights abuses under apartheid, demanded.

The “rainbow myth” and the accumulated goodwill of the Mandela era are slowly dissipating. The “two nations” symbolism (at an economic level) is fast becoming a reality, despite the parliamentary opposition’s criticism of it as divisive.

It is against this backdrop that the “Home for All” campaign was initiated towards the end of last year. A campaign started by, among others, Mary Burton of the Black Sash and Carl Niehaus of the ANC, it sought to indicate the willingness of white South Africans to accept that they had benefited from apartheid. It predictably met opposition from the Democratic Alliance and various commentators. The debate on nation-building was therefore firmly in the spotlight.

Many blamed Mbeki for his often painfully honest and direct approach to the subject. They argued that this approach was leading to greater racial polarisation and division.

While Mbeki’s mode of delivery can perhaps be criticised, it cannot be said that his analysis is inaccurate. One need only look at the unemployment figures and housing statistics to recognise this. It seemed rather that a nuanced approach on the part of the president was needed in such a highly polarised context.
To Mbeki’s credit, he and his advisers have realised this and have perhaps begun to recognise the power of the myth. The opening of Parliament last month indicated a turnaround with Mbeki praising the “Home for All” initiative, praising (white) farmers for their contribution to the economy and calling on all South Africans “to unite in action for change”.

Recently Mandela has entered the public debate on nation building as elder statesman with his most recent comments on the need to build a caring society and respect for cultural diversity.
The influence of the recent Saamtrek: Values in Education Conference at Kirstenbosch in Cape Town, initiated by the Mbeki government, cannot be underestimated. A search for common values in South Africa has begun. It may be a long and uncomfortable process, but it has begun as a “saamtrek” or a “drawing together” where open debate about South Africa’s differences and commonalities can be fostered.

The common values will be fostered at school level: debates have begun about oaths of allegiance in schools, for instance. This “new patriotism” requires citizens, as Mbeki says, “to proceed from common positions about the nature of the problem our country faces”.

Judith February and Sean Jacobs work as researchers for the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa). These are their own views and not those of Idasa

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Judith February
Judith February

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is a visiting fellow at the Wits School of Governance.

Sean Jacobs
Sean Jacobs, founder and editor of Africa is a Country, is on the faculty of The New School and a Shuttleworth Fellow

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