In spite of the enormous and quantified progress made in reducing inequalities since 1994, lapses in public governance and delays in delivering on promises have heightened conflicts amongst communities. South Africa’s growing pains mean we need to reconcile the pessimism associated with our very real problems with the optimism of real political will.
A country can’t love you. At most it may need you. – Andre Brink
I am a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will. – Antonio Gramsci
On 11 February 1990, the hopes and aspirations of some 40 million South Africans of all races crystallised, personified in Nelson’s Mandela towering figure as he emerged from lifelong incarceration by the diminishing forces of Apartheid.
The task at hand was immense. Building a nation away from the scars left by centuries of harsh and codified racist rule; fulfilling the socio-economic aspirations of the disenfranchised masses and securing a place of choice for the new South Africa, in the unequal family of African and world nations.
Mandela played his part. Somewhat, he managed to erect a founding myth on top of the feeble consensus that had found home at the middle point of the country’s diverse liberation movement.
Soon enough, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up. In the end, it delivered little more than a mirage of comfort to those that had been dehumanised by their neighbours. The cost of the exercise implied playing down some of the country’s objective realities, and burying the ugly and lingering face of resentment in a collective catharsis of which today, very little legacy remains.
South Africa immediately qualified itself as ‘the rainbow nation’. There was little time for consideration of the deeper consequences of such a fleeting metaphor. Soon enough, the country hosted the world, draped in the optical illusion it had identified itself with, but failing to recognise that its newly re-organised nation was still a feeble halo of light made up of hastily juxtaposed colours.
Sadly and soon enough, the immutable clarity of the historical timeframes required for any national transformation project flashed unforgiving lights on the unyielding irregularities of South Africa’s strenuously fabricated landscape.
The ‘Mandela consensus’ was further unpicked in late 2007, when then-President Thabo Mbeki was ousted as president of the ruling African National Congress and country, eventually to be replaced by current South African president, Jacob Zuma.
At that very moment, the politics of what had been accepted as the centre post-’94, disintegrated to reveal abruptly to the world the fratricidal wars, contradictions and antagonisms that had always existed within the purposeful construct of the historical liberation movement. In essence, the ruling majority’s inability to reconcile its ambitions with the self-evidence that the new order it had established would ostensibly contain ‘masses of the old’ had been thrown into stark relief.
Eight years later, South Africa faces an even more compelling conjunction of challenges – a widespread identity crisis; an enduring economic downturn; a growing social fracture and polarising political competition.
Here, the post ’94 ‘born-free’ generation resent the country’s parochial political order. Ideas of race, identity and national belonging constitute an uneasy conversation within and amongst generations.
In spite of the enormous and quantified progress made in reducing inequalities, enduring socio-economic disparities that now find their place on the front pages of newspapers appear starker than they were in ’94. Lapses in public governance and delays in the much-anticipated delivery of the national promise – democracy dividend – to the rural masses and disenfranchised urban populations have heightened conflicts amongst communities.
Also, the current economic downturn has shed a more critical light on the continued and objectionable ownership of means of production and capital by a racial minority, and further exacerbated a feeling of permanence and resentment in those delivered by the system at the bottom of the ladder.
These growing pains of a nation in transition highlight the acute failure of South Africa to negotiate between the notions of self of the black majority, and the irreversible culture and values that had allowed the country to thrive. A failure to recognise that those contrasting notions might not translate into one another, and the continued lack of appreciation for how the country as a whole might confront the problem that such a dilemma poses, will undoubtedly lead to further strife and disappointment.
In the end, what may be required from South Africa at this critical juncture, is very much in accordance with 19th century Italian Marxist political scientist Antonio Gramsci’s maxim, a need to urgently counteract the “pessimism of intellect” with “optimism of will”. DM
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Malik Dechambenoit is a political analyst and mediator, with extensive experience working with government agencies at the international, central and local levels in Africa. He is the co-founder of Gumbi, Dechambenoit & Associates a Johannesburg based specialist consultancy that advises global companies on doing business in Africa. A Senior United Nations official, from 2001 to 2009, Malik participated in international peace-making efforts in Central and East Africa and served as Senior Advisor to former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Benjamin Mkapa of Tanzania and Ketumile Masire of Botswana. Malik holds a Bachelors degree in Politics from SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and a Masters in International Economy from the University of Warwick, UK. He serves on the Guinea Advisory Panel of Rio Tinto, a global mining company, as well as on the board of the African Leadership Network, a community of influential leaders in Africa.
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