South Africa’s post-apartheid settlement was constructed on a fine balance between reconciliation and transformation, forgiveness and accountability, and meeting the economic requirements of a developmental state while addressing inequality.
Achieving these goals, simultaneously, required extraordinarily skilful and dexterous leadership – which we haven’t always had.
When we fail to achieve the necessary balance, when we fall short in our quest to build a strong centre of common purpose, we create opportunities on the margins for intolerance to flourish.
The expression of divisive racial rhetoric and posturing, such as that seen in Senekal and Brackenfell this year, severely undermines the importance of the national reconciliation project.
The State must take the lead in effecting societal reconciliation through transformation. It must create the framework and provide the materials for civil society to be able to contribute meaningfully to weaving a compassionate and inclusive fabric of common cause for a united nation.
That is the trajectory the overwhelming majority of citizens bought into under the presidency of the late President Nelson Mandela.
The majority of South Africans don’t hold extreme views. They responded with the magnanimity the country’s political settlement asked of them, and have since relatively patiently awaited the construction of a fairer, sustainable society. But their patience is running thin.
The state must urgently rediscover its integrity in the eyes of the people by demonstrating the will and capacity to address corruption, maladministration, inadequate service delivery and obscene levels of societal inequality.
If it doesn’t, South Africa’s long-term reconciliation project is at risk of failing altogether. And, with it, the country’s global reputation as a beacon of hope in a world of division.
The challenges are immense. A country defined by its history of colour-coded haves and have-nots, and patriarchy, has – negligently – made scant progress in levelling the playing field.
Political interests have been placed on a pedestal above the interests of the people. Millions of South Africans live in squalor and abject poverty; just about all of them are Black. There has been no freedom dividend for them in terms of the quality of their lives – rapid urbanisation has arguably made things harder.
The State’s plans to effect land restitution and reform have proven impossibly slow to implement. The result is that the skewed pattern of land ownership inherited from the past remains virtually intact, with the majority of South Africans excluded and the State under increasing pressure to act.
To an economy already on its knees at the beginning of the year, the coronavirus effectively delivered a coup de grâce. Then, to rub salt into these wounds, adding to the daily reminders of integrity failures provided by the Zondo Commission came revelations that funds set aside to defend South Africans from the pandemic had quickly been looted.
You can’t buy integrity or reconciliation off the shelf. They require investment and maintenance – and time, that is rapidly running out.
The preamble to South Africa’s Constitution commits the country to healing the divisions of its past, laying the foundations for an open society based on the will of the people, improving all citizens’ quality of life, and building a united nation.
The passing of time, and inaction, have hollowed out the reconciliation process. It must be rapidly reinforced.