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South Africa: A nation’s ‘uneasy’ relationship with the unity dream

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By Ntombenhle Ngwane

National Heritage Day, celebrated in South Africa every year on September 24, is one of the holidays that encourage citizens to unite while celebrating their diversities. In 2005, a media campaign sought the rebranding of the National Heritage Day to be known as “The National Braai Day”, and later “Braai4Heritage”.

This idea seems to have gained popularity as it is a popular practice for South Africans of different cultures and races to enjoy a good braai on this day. Although this is the case, one cannot mistake this as an indication that there is some semblance of appetite for unity and solidarity among South Africans, especially South Africans of different races, classes, cultures, ethnicities, religions and so forth.

At the dawn of democracy, many dreamt that South Africa would organically become a unified nation with citizens who would identify as South Africans first, alongside sub-identities of race, religion or culture. As years went by, it dawned on many that this is not the case.

South Africa is a long way away from being united in diversity, we are and it seems always will be tied to our diversity – the things that make us different – and have an uneasy relationship with tapping into the “united” aspect of the South African dream.

This realisation sparked a number of government-led interventions geared towards addressing the national question and getting the country to work towards social cohesion. Most of these interventions were curated from the top and expected to cascade down into society.

The government has articulated the notion of social cohesion into its priorities which is laudable, and the Department of Sports, Arts, and Culture has over the years developed enormous expertise, including a number of Social Cohesion Champions, drawing from among dedicated men and women who, though under-resourced, are tireless, and dedicated in their cohesion interventions across the country.

Fast-forward to 2022, and we find ourselves dealing with sporadic but consistent challenges of racism and racial tensions, challenges of xenophobia or what some call Afrophobia.

There are also class struggles which are exacerbated by the highest levels of inequality in the world. The rocketing levels of violence and a growing violent culture all point to the notion that we do not yet regard ourselves as each other’s keepers.

There has been a lot of talk on issues of transformation in our schools and universities, sports formations, religious institutions and so forth. However, emanating from these so-called transformed spaces are allegations of racism, bullying and hate speech, to name a few. Could it be that it is possible to address transformation in its visible aspect but not the intangibles? Or have we simply attended to the hardware in transforming society and fallen short and omitted to transform the software?

Many of our sages, from Madiba to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, have reflected that people are not born hating. That hate is learnt and not the natural state of being. So, what does that say about the born-frees who at our schools and universities spew racist epithets as if they were well-schooled in apartheid ideology?

Many questions come to mind, including those around what social cohesion would look like for a diverse society like South Africa. What will we have to give up or sacrifice in order to reach common ground? What strategies can be adopted to forge solidarity within and between different groups? Who is responsible for making the effort to change? Or should we simply give up the dream and respond to Madiba as he continues to point to the many hills ahead: “Sorry Tata, we are too tired of trying…”?

So where would that leave us? An inevitable downward slide towards even greater racial and ethnic polarisation, possibly a racial war? Having a common understanding and response to these questions is pertinent in the here and now.

South Africans are going hungry, many young people are living without hope… a sure-fire recipe for disaster. Those of us who still believe in the dream will understand that nothing worthwhile comes easy. It is in the trying that history will record us as a seminal generation who together got creative and turned the ship two degrees east and avoided the iceberg.

It is for this reason that the South African Human Rights Commission, post the July 2021 unrest, has been engaged in extensive consultations and emerged with a proposed National Effort which it plans to launch on September 27.

The project is called the Social Harmony National Effort, abbreviated as “SHiNE”. The National Effort aims to target each of us as agents of positive change in society. It will entail a year of self-reflection and dialogues in our homes, and in family meetings, to address in a positive way, the challenges that lead to disharmony among us in our most intimate spaces.

The National Effort will challenge employers to enable positive dialogues and sharing of diverse experiences in the workplace at least once a month. It will challenge our schools to take 15 minutes every day and advance the learning and sharing of cultures and wisdom that emanate from the rich diversity among us.

Everyone, across the length and breadth of South Africa, will be encouraged to take part in the National Effort because we aim to be better, we aim to expect more from this wondrous place on the southern tip of the mother continent that forged our species, and we aim to be the shining example for the rest of the world in the singular belief that everyone matters.

Ngwane is Project manager for the Social Harmony National Effort at the SA Human Rights Commission.