“It’s not a revolution if nobody loses” — Clay Shirky
South African politics have reached a critical point. We are counting months until our democracy turns twenty. Can we say that we have survived the tender age of adolescence? Have we moulded our democracy to the shape we want it to take post-adolescence? Or, are sitting on a ticking time-bomb?
I hear people speak about South Africa being a miracle. At first I agreed.
South Africa emerged from a horrid past of unthinkable political, physical and psychological violence. Black South Africans were oppressed, tortured and buried (dead and alive) in the bellows of night. Black South Africans were rendered non-citizens in the country of their birth.
Surprisingly, in the transition towards democracy, an overwhelming majority of South Africans were speaking unanimously about reconciliation and national building. A majority of South Africans, even those who had been through unimaginable emotional and physical pain, seemed to accept without reservation the idea of ubuntu.
At first blush, ‘a miracle’ seems the only apt way to explain this phenomenon.
Looking back, the transition was harsher on victims of apartheid than any other group. The closer you were to the heat of apartheid, the crueller the transition was on you.
Victims of apartheid sat teary-eyed in Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings, listening attentively to how their family members were flogged, mutilated and buried alive. The rest of us went on about our business. Yet, they left each hearing convinced that all was not in vein. Azania had, after-all, reached the promise land.
The precepts of the Freedom Charter and the National Democratic Revolution — which had guided the “revolution” and painted a vivid picture of the land of promise — were abandoned for more elite-friendly policies. Yet, our people seemed unwavering in their commitment to reconciliation.
Even after the advent of democracy, under the dazzling colours of the rainbow, our people seemed to stomach painful remnants of the past without complaint.
People who fought hard for the promise of freedom from poverty and economic want seem to accept without question that they have to endure poverty for just a little longer.
To them, their Azania – the South Africa of promise – was not pipedream.
Our cyberspace is filled with flashes that victims of apartheid know so well. Most recent is an apartheid denialist blogpost calling black South Africans “ungrateful primitive brats refusing to acknowledge that their white masters saved them from savagery”. This is scorn from those who long for ‘the good old days’. Victims of apartheid rarely retaliate. It is considered sacrilege for victims of apartheid to strike a rod with a rod.
I have realised that there is nothing miraculous about South Africa. I came to this realisation after being asked a question on Twitter.
A few weeks ago someone asked me whether I thought there was a chance of violence during the 2014 elections. My answer was a quick and thoughtless “NO”. It was not until later that I started thinking about the question and to doubt my answer. How was it that South Africa had escaped the post-independence instability that has crippled other African nations? What it is that immunised South Africans from the politics of a barrel?
It is not completely true that South Africa escaped post-independence violence. Thousands lost their lives to senseless political violence between 1990 and 1994. However, the violence was about power, not retribution. Unlike Uganda or Zimbabwe, South Africans appear to be consistently committed to reconciliation. Why?
I realised that it is callous to call South Africa a miracle. Our disposition is not due to “an event not ascribable to human power or the laws of nature and consequently attributed to a supernatural, especially divine, agency.” If anything, our disposition is ascribable to a supernatural determination to reconcile and build a “new South Africa”.
The more difficult question is: how sustainable is this current disposition?
Victims of apartheid have endured constant frustrations since 1990. These frustrations include, among other things: an apparently perpetrator-friendly negotiation process; a botched reconciliation process and economic policies that serve apartheid beneficiaries (pre- and post-1994).
Those who dedicated their lives to the promise of democracy, equality, inclusion and “a better life for all” speak with dismay about the fruits of their blood, sweat and tears. They continue to linger in debilitating poverty, outside the virtual economic borders of the new South Africa. How long can we sustain this?
In the late 1990s to early 2000, a group of Zimbabwean youths and war veterans, tired of the slow process of land reform in Zimbabwe, organised themselves into a movement to “recapture” Zimbabwean land with force (jambanja). The Zanu-PF government was opposed to their militant calls. Yet, when the government was faced with an ultimatum, either to take land with force or lose power, it chose the former and the situation in Zimbabwe soured immediately. After two decades of prosperity, Zimbabwe morphed into a pariah state overnight.
South Africa is not immune. The current disposition cannot be sustained much longer. It is only a matter of time before the apartheid victims’ supposedly unwavering commitment to nation building is overcome by human fallibility. Greed, jealousy and the human inclination towards retribution are just a few risk conditions.
The more we pretend that apartheid didn’t happen, that South African life transformed overnight on 27 April 1994, the more we risk destroying ourselves and the land of our foremothers.