Opinionista Stephen Grootes 23 June 2015

Ties that bind: South Africa’s relationship with the past

Amid the conversations at The Gathering 2015, one of the comments that really stuck out was by renowned economist Dr Martyn Davies. He said, bluntly, that too much of our national conversation was about the past, and too little about the future. His comments chime with several others of late about whether we should be growing wealth or redistributing it or looking at simply dealing with our history. Considering this year has seen the departure of that Rhodes statue, the rise of more militant language from the Economic Freedom Fighters about land redistribution and that we're just a few months away from local government elections, it raises an intriguing question: Do we spend too much time in the past? Or too little?

The comments by Dr Martyn Davies came during the session on the economy (you can watch the entire The Gathering, here). What he said was this: “Most conversations in this country are about looking through the rear view mirror. It’s all about redress… In large parts of Asia, places with unspeakably violent and difficult histories, people don’t look through the rear view mirror. They look through the windshield. It’s about a political vision. I want political leaders to provide a vision for this country”.

His comments resonate with those by the renowned journalist and columnist (and unfortunate guest at the DA’s recent conference) Allister Sparks who recently said that we shouldn’t relive the quarrels of the past, or let them dominate our present or distort our future.

Sparks went on to quote from the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, who has written a very thoughtful piece about how some countries, South Africa, Northern Ireland and Russia, allow their pasts to dominate their current discussions.

The previous weekend, Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane set out his vision for 2029, and about how South Africa would look after 10 years of rule by the DA. In a way, he seems to be suggesting that we should move away from the past, and look to the future.

This is a very interesting, and complicated debate. It is unarguable that large parts of our public discourse are about the past. Every single discussion in every single forum, whether it be Willie Madisha’s horrifically insulting braying about Naledi Pandor’s accent, or your average Sunday afternoon Twitter discussion about an Appletiser advertisement is about exactly this. Every time a white person is lectured by a black person, the message is simply, “You benefitted from Apartheid, you are guilty”. Often, when white people lecture black people, it’s even worse.

For many, the proposition by Davies is an attractive one. We should be looking to the future, rather than that past. Certainly, looking at Russia or Northern Ireland, no one really wants to spend all of their time locked in exactly the same debates as their grandparents have been.

Proponents of this view will also provide plenty of examples to back up Davies’ view. Japan, China, South Korea. All occupied at one point. All moved on. Germany, of course (well, West Germany really) almost universally reviled, broken after the Second World War, and yet went on to become an industrial powerhouse and today’s strongest nation in Europe. Certainly, anyone who studies economics would suggest that they have all done the right thing. They have lifted people out of poverty and found a way to ensure proper, sustainable development.

Whereas we, on the other hand, seem to almost have lost the last decade or so. Certainly, the public mood at present is very despondent, with a sense that things are getting worse, rather than better (incidentally, South Africans are not alone in this. Many Europeans feel the same. Ask any Spaniard).

However, in a real world of today’s South Africa there are a few issues that simply cannot be overlooked.

Firstly, it cannot be that we should never talk about issues of Apartheid and race. While many people like to claim that we are not a race-based society, it’s still important for education officials to know the race of the children they’re educating. We need to know how many black girls are getting distinctions in maths and science. If we don’t, how can we know that we will get black female professors in those disciplines? As Professor Jonathan Jansen said two weeks ago, “There is nothing that is more important that determines the future of the South African university than how we resolve the question of the black professor”.

When trying to improve our educational outcomes, it’s important also to know where people actually are in the system. Everyone knows that a kid growing up in Fourways, and going to school there, is going to be able to read by the end of Grade One. We also know that the situation will be very different for a kid at school in Tembisa. This is about the past; we can’t just claim the issue is not there.

Then we have the situation on the ground. Japan, China and South Korea are societies that are far more homogenous than ours. We have many different groups who speak different languages, have different cultures, and even think differently. And these all sometimes appear to have different understanding of the world and even different ideals.

There is a resonance here with a position that was held by the ANC towards the end of the Struggle, that Apartheid was a Colonialism of a Special Type as explained in a 1997 discussion document.

The party’s point was that instead of having an occupying army, you actually had colonisers (yes, they must have meant white people) living in the “colony”. The people who were once referred to as “colonisers” (but who, to the ANC’s eternal credit, have always been part of South Africa, which, in case you’ve forgotten “belongs to all who live in it”) are still here. That means people are starting life on a very different footing.

While South Africa is not unique in this (evidence is there consistently that if you want to get ahead in the UK, go to Oxford or Cambridge and the easiest way to go to Oxford or Cambridge is to have parents who went to Oxford or Cambridge), telling people to “simply forget about the past”, is going to be a tough sell.

There is another problem. The lack of coherent economic policy often isn’t the result of people not looking into the future. It’s that the ANC’s own internal politics makes it almost impossible to really change anything. Cyril Ramaphosa, one of the richest men on the continent concomitant with his support for capitalism, is the deputy president. Lindiwe Zulu is the minister of small business development, who appears to be relatively “business friendly” at heart. But for internal political reasons, President Jacob Zuma has appointed communists to the department of trade and industry and economic development.

In a much bigger way, one of our major problems is surely that our society is almost too diverse to agree on an economic policy. Every time the ANC tries to go one way, business wants to go the other. While our diversity is often a strength, here it seems to be the opposite.

That we are still living in our past seems to be virtually self-evident. We have to work hard at striking the right balance. But even if we do do that, it’s really about fixing the economy, and education. And those are to do with very real political problems, the politics of the ANC, and not so much the past. DM



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