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Reconciliation on the rocks in South Africa

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Picture: Phill Magakoe / AFP / Taken on November 2, 2023 – South Africa’s flanker and captain Siya Kolisi, second right on bus, lifts the Web Ellis Cup as he rides with teammates during the Springboks Champions trophy tour in Soweto after South Africa won the France 2023 Rugby World Cup final match against New Zealand. At the reconciliation day event on Saturday December 16, 2023, in Limpopo, Cyril Ramaphosa spoke of the recent Springboks’ World Cup win as demonstrative of the “power of reconciliation”. But racism, inequality and poverty are still rife for black people, the writer says.

By Kim Heller

The “so called” miracle nation of Nelson Mandela has turned into the great ruins of Ramaphosa. It is not entirely Ramaphosa’s fault. He simply exacerbated the inevitable collapse of the ANC and the downward spiral of the country as a whole.

The ANC is a shipwreck. So is South Africa. If the ANC had placed justice above reconciliation in 1994, in the new frontier of political transition and nation building, things may have been less rocky. But it did not. The recklessly easy breeze of the 1994 rainbow reconciliation tried to sweep aside the bloody pools of apartheid-and-colonial washed racism, inequality, and poverty. But all that happened was to extend the deep waters abysses of despair for the majority of black South Africans, in democratic South Africa.

Under apartheid and colonialism, whites swam in the crystalline waters of unearned privilege and power, while black South Africans drowned in dehumanising racial discrimination. If the ANC had immediately orientated and fixedly compassed its journey on ending the historical swell of black structural inequality and poverty rather than calming the waters of white fears, ‘stronger together’ would have been the rise of everyday, rather than a hollow cheer.

The President seems to have a facetious outlook on reconciliation. At the reconciliation day event on Saturday December 16 in Limpopo, Cyril Ramaphosa spoke of the recent Springboks’ World Cup win as demonstrative of the “power of reconciliation”. The President said, “To have seen so many South Africans of all races and all ages rallying behind the team, showing their support so passionately and joining in the victory celebrations reminded us that, despite our many challenges, we are a united nation, proud of who we are and proud of how far we have come.” Ramaphosa also said that South Africa is united in a “world and at a time when divisions between and amongst people are becoming more pronounced”.

This is hardly a light tower of wisdom, or inspiration. Rather it is a bizarre and insensitive message from the head of a country awash with racism, inequality, and injustice. The theme of this year’s Reconciliation month is “Strengthening unity and social cohesion in a healing nation”.

The nation is neither healed, nor in the process of being healed. It is unhealed because we have never faced and corrected the historical atrocities committed against black South Africans. Thirty years into democracy, hope no longer floats in South Africa. Today we are no longer the world’s miracle nation but a country with one of the highest levels of inequality in the world. Flooded with joblessness, structural inequality, and endless waves of poverty, and with an unemployment rate over 40 percent, the country is destined for titanic turbulence.

Picture: Shelley Kjonstad – On December 16, the Meal of Reconciliation is now an annual ritual at the Denis Hurley Centre in Durban. On December 16, 2023, South Africa’s National Day of Reconciliation, hundreds of homeless people joined members of the public for a shared sit-down meal. Partaking in the meal are left to right: Michaela Naicker, from the Hindu faith, is Programme Developer at the Napier Centre for Healing, Retired Major General Kabelo Victoria Mekute, from the Christian faith, is an advocate and represents the Catholic Women’s Association / Emmanuel Cathedral, Nadia Meer, from the Muslim faith, represents People Against Oppression and Prof Monique Mark, from the Jewish faith, is a member of the Progressive Jewish Movement. But reconciliation has benefitted a few – white South Africans as well as a new black professional and political elite – disproportionately, the writer says.

On the whole, reconciliation has not delivered economic benefits for the most needy and marginalised black South Africans. Reconciliation has disproportionately benefitted white South Africans and a new black professional and political elite. There is little to celebrate.

In his Reconciliation Day address, Ramaphosa stated, “Many believed it was not possible for the former oppressor and the oppressed to make peace and reconcile, and yet we did so.” But this is hardly the case. There has been little effort from white South Africans to repent for crimes against humanity committed against black South Africans under apartheid and colonialism. White South Africans, on the whole, have continued to reconcile with their unearned power and privilege, black South Africans with poverty and economic exclusion.

Themba Godi, the President of the APC, says it best “Today is so-called reconciliation day. This ANC nonsense has seen Africans reconciling with their hunger, poverty, unemployment, and inequality. The APC calls for justice for the majority, destruction of white domination and a free African nation.”

As South Africa marked Reconciliation Day on Saturday 16 December, it did so at a time when the tide of discontent is rising faster than ever. The governing party once a comradely cruise liner of unity is now a slow sinking warship. Rudderless and steered on the compass of disunity, mismanagement, and misdirection, it is a sorry sight.

Ordinary South Africans are finally beginning to reconcile themselves with the fact that the once beatific ANC is now a hopelessly unsteady and spent vessel. Support for the ruling party is plummeting as voters are reconciling themselves to a future without the ANC. Even long-time loyalists are jumping ship, although ANC veteran Mavuso Msimang was recently reeled in after his short-lived mutiny.

Former President Jacob Zuma was hardly in a reconciliatory mood on December 16 as the nation marked Reconciliation Day. He was to announce that while his blood would remain gold, black and green until his dying day, he would be voting for the new uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party in next year’s crucial general election. He said he could no longer watch the disintegration of the ANC. Zuma’s speech, read out enthusiastically by his daughter, Duduzile, was a clear vote of no confidence in the political party that he had devoted his entire life to. “I cannot and will not campaign for the ANC of Ramaphosa” Zuma’s words rang out loud and clear. For the former President, the ANC has veered horribly off course and no longer represents the will and wishes of the people.

South Africa’s Minister of Public Service and Administration, Ms Noxolo Kiviet spoke at the recent UNESCO Global Forum Against Racism and Discrimination, which took place in Brazil on November 29, 2023. She spoke of how “the 1994 democratic breakthrough” called for more than dismantling of institutional racism and discrimination, but for a “whole-of-society transformation”. She is quite correct, but this was not to be.

South Africa is not a reconstructed, transformed, or reconciled nation. With every day racist grits against black South Africans and a sea of untransformed economic, cultural, and social relations, reconciliation is on the rocks in democratic South Africa. Reconciliation is no refreshing sea breeze. Rather it is the stale breath of an old South Africa. In her address, Minister Kiviet acknowledged that discrimination and racism are deeply ingrained in the fabric of society, affecting every aspect of the economy and development.

The well-known social and race activist, Zulaikha Patel, was interviewed by Global Citizen, in 2022, on issues of racism in South Africa. She said “The South Africa that I grew up in was the South Africa where it seemed that racism was buried in 1994. However, I still lived in a world where every last bit of your life was determined by your race: what kind of opportunities you’re going to be exposed to, the kind of school you’ll go to, the environment you’ll live in. My entire world still was determined on the basis of race.”

Patel led a march in 2016, at the tender age of 13, against discriminatory policies, against racism and the issue of “black girls’ hair”. She said, “Asking me to change my hair is like asking me to erase my blackness.”

Patel said, “I chose to be an activist because I don’t want a generation of young South Africans to still be having the same kind of conversations about systemic and institutional racism 30 years from now”.

In 1994, South Africa bypassed true and meaningful reconciliation. It is possible to get back on course and reset the reconciliation co-ordinates. This would require fundamentally changing apartheid intact infrastructure and power relations, reversing the structural economic dislodgement of black South Africans and land return.

It also requires a total reframing of our national consciousness to capture and celebrate the richness of a horribly submerged and long lost authentic African voice and identity. Without reparation and restitution there will be no reconciliation. The ANC has had 30 years to change the historic socio-economic injustices. It has failed dismally. There is no sea of sovereignty, in the backwash of a stolen history. Many young political activists are saying ‘2024 is our 1994’. With the ANC sinking, 2024 may well be a lifeboat for a new generation of South Africans.

Kim Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa’.

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.