Fish in the sea, you know how I feel
River running free, you know how I feel
Blossom on the tree, you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life for me
And I’m feeling good
These are lyrics from Nina Simone’s song, Feeling Good. For many South Africans of my generation, her mesmerising songs were played as anthems of hope, or statements of rebellion.
Last week on Wednesday night, after Jacob Zuma’s resignation speech, I played and sang along with Feeling Good over and over again, and I was inspired to write a short joyful letter that was headlined in a Cape Town newspaper the following day as “Waiting for a New Dawn”.
And, on Friday, with our new President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address, a new dawn was indeed upon us; a wonderful dawn had arrived. There was no mistaking the refreshing tone, the sincerity and the social and economic justice dimension of his speech.
Some have criticised the excitement about Ramaphosa’s presidency and have cautioned that our collective romance with him elevates him on to a messianic pedestal.
But I think the messianic metaphor is appropriate at times like this, when we need the inspiration of a new vision and a new form of public leadership in the wake of the shadow cast by state capture and endemic corruption over our country. It focuses our imaginative consciousness and makes it easy to imagine the possibility of hope, rendering hope more tangible.
Ramaphosa’s responsibility is to steer the decisions and actions of his government toward fulfilling the vision of public leadership that will bring about transformation; to pursue a programme of action that will turn things around, as he said in his address, and to make a difference where it matters most in our society.
There are strong reasons to believe that his leadership is geared towards turning the tide of social and economic inequalities. Far from the vague pronouncements of “we will fight corruption”, “we will create jobs” and “address the triple challenges”, he has spelt out with moral clarity and in bold terms his government’s commitment to rooting out crime among public officials, creating conditions for economic growth and employment, as well as for equality of opportunity and transformation, almost as if daring us to challenge him, to hold him and his government to account.
Mr President, you have set the bar of accountability high. This is a great moment of hope for our country.
But, beyond hope, what we need is action. Key among the problems that should be addressed is the inequality in our society. Most mornings, the drive to Stellenbosch takes me along Baden Powell Road, the R310 that connects the coastal suburbs of Cape Town’s False Bay with Mitchell’s Plain, Khayelitsha, Stellenbosch and beyond to Franschhoek.
Towards the end of last year, major work on this road diverted motorists along a route that went into Khayelitsha. Cape Town motorists who drove on this road were forced to confront the reality of the spatial injustices of the Mother City, not from the distance that geographic location of rich and poor allows but up close.
Forced to witness not only the physical legacy of apartheid’s spatial engineering but also the perpetuation of this model of spatial injustice in the sprawling RDP homes, there was no escaping the fact that we live in different worlds.
Many of the students who will be awarded free first-year tertiary education will come from this “other” world, and some of them will commute between their chosen universities and their homes. I have met some of them during my tenure at various universities: Cape Town, Free State and Stellenbosch.
An observation that has struck me the most in my encounters with black students in previously white institutions is how racial integration at these universities has created the potential for another problem. For, although many black students know that they are less privileged than their white counterparts, the everyday proximity with white students heightens this awareness and makes them realise just how unequal their worlds are.
This problem has many layers and has led to major consequences in our higher education institutions. For instance, some of these students have to leave home at the break of dawn to catch more than one form of transport before reaching university, and may not be able to take full advantage of resources such as access to the library and to online resources, because they have to leave before the last train or taxi to their homes.
They may have the capacity for excellence, and access to tertiary education through the free education scheme, but may still be without the means to achieve their full potential.
This raises the question: What is equal opportunity to higher education? The answer, it seems to me, is an equal opportunity to succeed — addressing the need to access higher education on the one hand and the structures that sustain inequality on the other.
It won’t be easy to address the many layers of difficulties that institutions of higher learning will face in their attempts to equalise opportunity. But the issue of healing the divisions of the past is one that should be central in every university’s transformation strategy.
Stellenbosch University has set a good example with a scholarship that was established by the vice-chancellor, Professor Wim de Villiers, for descendants of families who were forcibly removed under apartheid’s laws from a part of Stellenbosch that was known as Die Vlakte.
It is the kind of forward-looking response that should reverberate throughout the country to the “Send me” message of Ramaphosa’s new dawn presidency.
In a week in which we celebrate the United Nation’s International Day of Social Justice, his message should inspire empathy for the suffering other, and remind us that our democracy is undermined by inequality.
To invoke Simone once more:
And this old world is a new world
And a bold world for me
And I’m feeling good
But, we should guard against the syndrome of too much optimism and too little real change.
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is the research chair for historical trauma and transformation at Stellenbosch University