Maverick Citizen

OP-ED

July unrest shattered our ‘rainbow nation’ illusion — now we must rebuild unity and diversity through acts of ubuntu

Unrest and looting in Johannesburg and Durban, South Africa. (Photos: Felix Dlangamandla / Shiraaz Mohamed / Leila Dougan)

The rainbow nation envisaged by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu can only thrive in a country that appreciates and protects its multiculturalism and multiracialism.

Saurabh Sinha is a Professor of Microelectronics and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Internationalisation, University of Johannesburg (UJ). Letlhokwa Mpedi is a Professor of Social Security and Labour Law and Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic (designate), UJ. Both write in their personal capacities.

The unrest that swept across KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng might have ended, but the aftermath lingers on and will continue to reverberate around the country for some time to come. For example, the nation is still reeling from the racial tension, loss of lives and destruction of properties that happened in eThekwini, particularly in the suburb of Phoenix. The scale of the unrest was reminiscent of the 1949 Durban “riots” which resulted in 142 deaths, 1,087 injuries, 306 buildings destroyed and 1,939 buildings damaged.  

This was at the height of apartheid and, as such, one may be forgiven for (naïvely) thinking that such tension and associated loss of life, as well as destruction of property, has no place in a post-apartheid South Africa. As the preamble of the country’s Constitution states, “[we], the people of South Africa… believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.” However, the corollary to “united in our diversity” could be “divide, and we are conquered as a nation.”

Naturally, unity in diversity amidst the triple challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment is untenable. South Africa is infamously ranked as a country with the highest inequality globally, and inequality is often recognised as a “ticking time bomb”. Indeed, the recent unrest demonstrated this. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the unrest was also driven by political opportunists within and outside the ruling party, who recognised that societal divisions would somehow benefit their agenda. Clearly, no form of criminality can be condoned and those behind the criminal acts must be brought to book.

The unrest is indicative of the fragility of national unity and social cohesion, and that we need to work hard if we are to achieve that. Firstly, societal integration is an ongoing endeavour and must constantly be progressed. While the situation in Phoenix may have emerged due to delayed or inadequate safety measures, the investigation into the “vigilantism” leading to the numerous murders, mainly of African people, must be completed promptly. These crimes must not go unpunished. Indeed there are excellent examples of societal integration, including in Phoenix, but the recent situation shows the need for continued introspection into the soul of our society.

Second, introspection and integration must be made practical through programmes that promote mutual understanding of different cultures. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s rainbow nation can only thrive in an environment where multiculturalism and multiracialism are appreciated and protected.

Third, new ideas and excellence can be cultivated through diversity, and diversity of thought. However, this excellence does not necessarily accrue to the individual benefit of those politicians who would rather exploit societal fault lines. Some societal divides include racial or ethnic divides between and among South Africans, xenophobic divides, LGBTQI+ divides, and others.

Many in South Africa are aware of these because stressing and exploiting them was one style of the apartheid regime. Furthermore, with the upcoming series of elections — local government, policy conference of the ruling party and the general elections — some political opportunists will undoubtedly seek to divide South Africans and in a “phased” approach.

Fourth, the positives and negatives of social media are becoming more apparent during the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Social media feeds, particularly on Twitter, illustrate that some Tweeps take advantage of negative sentiment and seek to amplify this. Advancing marketing tools are deployed to further this agenda — for example, using bot-as-a-Service to trend negative sentiment. This new form of social unrest, of “colonisation”, has the potential to actively amplify those interests that oppose the key tenet of our constitutional democracy — “united in our diversity”. Freedom of speech, including on the internet, comes with responsibility. Both education and regulatory intervention may be required here.

On the other hand, 4IR can also be used as an additional avenue to cultivate the desired positive ecosystem of inclusivity. In the end, nation-building, similar to excellence, is an ongoing endeavour. In addition, this multi-actor responsibility requires novel ways of furthering societal integration and socioeconomic inclusion, so that South Africa’s unity within societal diversity can reap longer-term benefits. These approaches must take forward established efforts such as the late Dr Aggrey Klaaste’s Community Builder of the Year Award.

In addition, acts of ubuntu by ordinary citizens need to be shared as a reminder of the truth that the South African nation will emerge stronger if it bands together. One heartwarming act of ubuntu is that of the late KwaZulu-Natal businessman Suleman “Solly” Bux who helped the young Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo’s family with groceries while the latter was pursuing his legal studies. Understandably, those who live by this important value are not hungry for recognition. However, such acts of ubuntu, no matter how small, are a simple reminder of our common humanity and must be acknowledged and further encouraged.

As Nelson Mandela reminds us, “part of building a new nation means building a spirit of tolerance, love and respect amongst the people of this country.” In the final analysis, those who instigated the unrest would be wise to heed the advice of Mama Africa, the late Zenzile Miriam Makeba: “Unify us — don’t divide us.” DM

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  • “… exploiting [the divides] was one style of the apartheid regime.”
    So we are just going to pretend Bell Pottinger wasn’t a thing? A deliberate agenda to propagate race-hatred, bought and paid for by the ruling party itself.

    If you are going to call out the things that divide us, do us a favour and make it a complete list. Otherwise you risk sounding like you’re banging the same old drum for the same old reasons.