The legacy of anti-apartheid activists no longer has currency for many of today’s youth. They believe that they have been failed by the older generation of political leaders, including Nelson Mandela.
A recent Facebook post by the controversial Oxford University student and Mandela Rhodes scholar, Ntokozo Sbo Qwabe reflects this. “Older black people who want to silence us on the basis that they fought against apartheid need to shut the fuck up!!! We are here because you failed us! So please!”
One could say that they have “lost faith” in the legacy of anti-apartheid heroes of yesteryear and the supposed freedoms they have won.
Some may be unsettled, or even angered, by this loss of confidence in the liberation struggle heroes. But I am of the opinion that this loss of faith may not be such a terrible thing in the end. Losing a naïve and untrue “religious conviction” might actually be a sign of the emergence of a more honest and mature commitment to an ethics of responsibility.
South Africa is not unique in this. North American activist and philosopher, Cornel West, recently made a radical statement at a “Keep Ferguson Alive!” event. He said: “I come from a school of thought that believes that a certain kind of atheism is always healthy… Because what atheism does is that it at least cleans the deck because it claims that all gods are idols… We live in a society in which idolatry is so ubiquitous … So, for a lot of people who have lost faith in god it is probably a healthy thing! Because the god they have lost faith in was probably an idol anyway…”
Losing faith in a false god is not such a bad thing. Many South Africans are losing faith in a very subtle and deceptive form of civil religion that held many in thrall during the last 22 years of democracy. As shocking as it may be, perhaps Qwabe and West are not far from the truth.
After the euphoria of the peaceful transition to democratic political rule in South Africa in 1994, this subtle civil religion emerged in popular culture.
Sociologist Robert Bellah suggests that religion in the civil sphere is possible when citizens begin to shape a belief into a transcendent narrative about their social and political reality. They begin to use religious or theological symbolism to describe social, political or economic systems and processes. The purpose of the “civil religion” is to work towards the project of an alternative social reality.
The birth of the South African post-apartheid civil religion took place on the day of first South African democratic elections. This event was lauded across the world, as a “miracle” of peaceful transition in the midst of a hostile and precarious social and political situation.
Many doomsday prophets had predicted the eruption of a civil war in the lead to up the elections. Instead, post-election media reports reflected a widespread sense of euphoria and joy. It was framed in the dense and symbolic theological and religious language of peace and reconciliation. This is not surprising in a country where over 85% of the population profess to be Christian. Such language is familiar. It has meaning and currency.
Mandela the ‘messiah’
Of course, every religion requires a saviour, and the Messiah of this civil religion was Nelson Mandela. He embodied a capacity to envision a new future for the divided people of South Africa. He was widely regarded as a leader who displayed great courage, grace and a reconciling nature.
His virtuous character was presented as an example to be followed by all persons striving to be good citizens. Today many wonder about the negotiated compromises he entered into during his presidency and the transition to democratic rule. Perhaps he was only human after all. Even if he was a remarkable human, he is not divine.
The high priest of the newly democratic South Africa’s civil religion was Desmond Tutu, who coined the primary discourse of the (civil) religion in the language of the “rainbow nation”. The character of the religion, and its doctrinal centre was an eschatological harmony based on national reconciliation.
This miracle was to be ushered in through a social event – a ritual. The ritual that served as a moral and psychological symbol of the civil religion was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Sadly, its legacy is contested. Perpetrators walked free while victims remained uncompensated.
The civil religion’s sacred text was the 1996 South African Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The hymn for the civil religion was the national anthem, Nkosi sikele’iAfrika(God bless Africa). But some worry that the constitution protects the rights of the privileged and does not go far enough in allowing for restorative justice for the poor.
So, what has become clear in recent years is that there is significant loss of confidence in the discourses of the new South Africa – the rainbow nation, and all of the saints, heroes, and rituals. People are losing faith in this civil religion. This disenchantment is most clearly expressed in the words and actions of the “born free” activists, such as Qwabe.
They believe that South Africans find themselves in a more deeply divided, more economically unjust and politically corrupt nation because of their beliefs in these people, in their legacies, and in the institutions they established.
While many may struggle to agree with the methods of the “fallist” youth, perhaps they are pointing South Africa in the right direction? Yes, Mandela did something remarkable. But he is not the peoples’ saviour. Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are inspiring and important. But now the country needs something for this time. Yes, democracy is an opportunity for transformation. But the 1994 elections were not the end of our process. That was only the beginning.
And so, I am of the mind that South Africans should lose their false civil religion and exchange it for an ethics of responsibility. The poet June Jordan said it most aptly, reflecting on the women’s march to the Union Buildings in 1956: “And who will join this standing up … We are the ones we have been waiting for.”