Opinionista Mmusi Maimane 20 January 2014

Letter from the Voortrekker Monument

By the time you read this it will have been a week since my journey to a place that preserves an important history, but also a history intertwined with so much pain and injustice.

I have long wanted to visit the Voortrekker Monument to educate myself about a history that is not my own. I was reminded of my long-standing commitment to do this as I journeyed to another historic place recently, a place called Qunu.

As I took a guided tour through the monument I was struck by several profound realisations.

The Voortrekker Monument is not just a symbol of Afrikanerdom, but also tells a story of a journey travelled.

It is a story of brutality waged upon a people who had decided against all odds to remain on African soil even as the British torched their homes and threw them into concentration camps.

It is a story of a people who from the very ether of the African air crafted a language of their own from the diverse cultural histories of the people who came to speak it.

It is a story of how iconic leaders emerged at key moments in history when adversity was at its peak.

But it is also a history of how some of these same leaders led a people with humane concerns for their personal livelihoods and the happiness of their families, to become complicit in the greatest act of institutionalised discrimination of the 20th century: the construction of the Apartheid edifice.

And then I was reminded that even at times when great evil is at work, there is always nuance. As Brits burned Boer settlements, there were British nurses daring to care for Boer soldiers.

As Apartheid leaders waged a war of oppression against black South Africans, there were Afrikaner journalists and activists working actively to undermine this powerful system of injustice.

As Chris Hani lay bleeding to death in the streets, there was an Afrikaner woman on the phone somewhere providing information that would lead to the capture of his killer.

Now that we live in the times of constitutional democracy and the protection of individual rights, we have the opportunity to understand one another without the threat of violence or prosecution.

But the opportunity to understand those on the other side of the historical divide is too often ruined by the attitudes of those who are both nostalgic for the past, and are not interested in change.

The most common of these attitudes I encounter amongst white South Africans is a victimhood hinged on so-called “reverse discrimination” and a resistance to change in society, mostly out of fear for a loss of privilege and cultural identity.

If we are honest with ourselves about our history, not a single person should walk into the Voortrekker Monument and experience it as simply a glorious reminder of the making of a Volk, and nothing else.

Aspects of Afrikaner heritage that are truly remarkable for their beauty and ingenuity, must be accompanied by the truth that this history is also intertwined with the suffering of millions of black South Africans.

From this realisation must follow the acknowledgement that we need a frank conversation about restitution and what constitutes justice in democratic South Africa, given our history.

Black South Africans, of course, have acknowledgements of their own to make, which is a story that deserves its own day.

But the fact is we will spend forever fumbling over reconciliation if we understand the concept to be the simple promotion of understanding between ethnic or language groups in South Africa.

If this generation of South Africans formulate our objective in that way it won’t work for one simple reason. We are all products of our communities, but communities are made up of individuals.

We don’t need the cooperation of particular groups to take this country forward. Instead we need a critical mass of individuals committed to a better South Africa, and the lives of citizens.

And regardless, reconciliation is a useless concept without the other two points that must make up the South African triangle: truth and justice.

Blacks should not always have to be the first in line to forgive, as has been my experience on many occasions.

Reconciliation is not an event: it is not a once-off opportunity for those who share the heritage and historical privilege of the oppressor to say “it’s over now, leave us alone”.

Instead, reconciliation is the natural consequence of a transformed society, where opportunities and freedom reign for all.

And the task of transforming South Africa into a place of opportunities for all is a complex one that will require the skills and best efforts of a diverse range of people.

Indeed the complicity of past generations in terrible injustices should compel us all to work toward a transformed South Africa, for the sake of our own humanity and the success of future generations.

We must not only hear each other, but we must also take action.

And yes, politics has a role to play in providing an umbrella for those willing to agitate for change.

Our politics must be about creating opportunity, whether it be through starting a business, finding work or furthering one’s education. In the process we must make it our mission to place integrity at the centre of our public life and institutions.

Equally, our politics must be about making our democracy more competitive, where politicians are more accountable because they fear losing power. That’s why I am running for Premier in 2014 in a great place called Gauteng.

A transformed, reconciled society is within the reach of this generation.

But we must first recognise this as our generational mission before too much time passes and our place in history is lost forever. DM

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