The world has watched the rollout of South Africa’s remarkable experiment for 20 years. Reconciliation has been the essential bedrock after centuries of violent conflict, divisions and racism. Thanks to the unfaltering guidance of Nelson Mandela in the early years, the experiment had huge promise. The country was held up as a global symbol of hope.
The commitment to reconciliation was so strong that South Africa introduced a national public holiday to honour it – a global rarity. The significance of this was noted by Mandela on the inaugural Day of Reconciliation on December 16 1995. He said that the transition was a decisive and irreversible break with the past. “The rainbow has come to be the symbol of our nation. We are turning the variety of our languages and cultures, once used to divide us, into a source of strength and richness.”
December 16 brought together two seemingly irreconcilable commemorations. To Afrikaners, it was the Day of the Vow, when in a land conquest the Voortrekkers conquered the Zulus in the Battle of Blood River in 1838. To the African majority, it was the day in 1961 that the military wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, was formed to overthrow apartheid.
Celebrating the special day this week, the world is watching as our remarkable reconciliation experiment wobbles. Hotheads spew vitriol online and on social
Instead of opening up and showing empathy, we withdraw into our enclaves, looking after our own narrow interests. Instead of reaching out to learn about different cultures and communities, we form insulated echo chambers to shut out challenging points of view, with only our own limited world view boomeranging back at us.
And incredibly, we seem to be forgetting where we have come from.
Releasing its SA Reconciliation Barometer this month, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation reminded the nation that for unity to work, black South Africans needed to be willing to forgive and to create new relationships with those who previously supported their oppression. But for this to happen, whites needed to acknowledge the unjust and oppressive nature of apartheid and be willing to change and accept the need for redress.
Yet, according to the barometer, only 53% of whites agree that apartheid was a crime against humanity. In this climate of denial, and with right-wing hotheads like Steve Hofmeyr frothing hysterically, there is a tendency to become cynical about whether there is a genuine commitment to build an equitable country together.
While some look back now and say Mandela must have been naïve, he had in fact warned in his speech on December 16 1995 that “healing the wounds of the past and freeing ourselves of its burden” would be a long and demanding challenge.
Madiba never wavered from his belief that reconciliation meant working together to correct the legacy of past injustice. It takes sturdy leadership to help steer the way, and this is sorely lacking today. The paralysis of leadership has led to increasing apathy, creeping despair and a hardening of attitudes. But now is not the time to retreat and allow distracted, self-serving leaders to destroy everything that this country has stood for.
South Africa is a remarkable experiment because of its diversity. Twenty years into democracy, it is still possible to renew our pledge to Madiba – to keep his vision of a rainbow nation alive. It will be our loss if we allow his words to become just another battered cliché.
* This article first appeared in media24 titles.