Opinionista Sarah Ball & Ronakâ Gopaldas 29 July 2015

To build a future, South Africa must construct a shared past

The massive polarisation around core issues in South Africa, and South Africans’ alarming inability to consider and empathise with different perspectives, illustrate a glaring lack of understanding amongst different groups in the country. Their vastly different interpretations of events can largely be ascribed to a lack of the shared history that is so important in nation building.

In deeply divided societies emerging from conflict, the issue of reconciliation and how a country approaches its past is critical to its sustained socio-economic progress and cohesion. Recent events suggest South Africa’s challenges in this regard are intensifying. The enmity surrounding the #Rhodesmustfall campaign, the level of racial vitriol across social media and online platforms, as well as an outbreak of violent xenophobic attacks have been emblematic of deep divisions that have not been adequately addressed in post-apartheid South Africa.

The massive polarisation around core issues, and the alarming inability of South Africans to consider and empathise with different perspectives is illustrative of a glaring lack of understanding amongst different groups within the country. These vastly different interpretations of events can largely be ascribed to a lack of a shared experience or historical narrative. Many would argue that apart from Nelson Mandela and sport (debatable), South Africans do not have anything that truly bonds them together towards a common purpose or national identity.

In simple terms, different events mean different things to different people, most obviously because we live in a country where colonisation and apartheid fashioned a society to subjugate indigenous people in favour of Europeans. Because our view of history is informed by fundamentally different starting points, and has affected our lives in different ways, we often fail to grasp the magnitude of each other’s suffering or privilege, and how it has influenced our current circumstances.

Essentially, South Africa lacks a definitive “social contract” in this regard. For this reason, pervasive issues of inequality, racial and cultural division, and other unaddressed remnants of our divided past serve as significant barriers to creating a shared view of the present. It is unquestionable that, as South Africans, our world views are blinkered to varying extents by our own limited experiences, and that our interests and priorities, aligning to this world view, naturally exclude or diminish the priorities of others.

What this boils down to is the issue of a shared history, its importance in nation building and the question of how it can be practically achieved. Advocates for the creation of a shared history argue that to know where we are going, we first need to understand where we are coming from. We will never be able to experience things in the same way if we do not have a shared past, or at least a good understanding of the past of others.

The fact that history is not compulsory at Matric level in South African schools further exacerbates the problem. Failure to address this disconnect via historical education reinforces a cycle where ignorant or one-sided views are left unaddressed and perpetuated, thus increasing this gulf in understanding and trust between different race groups and communities. However recent events, including xenophobic attacks and the defacing of statues (primarily by the youth of the country), have put the subject under the spotlight and the Department of Basic Education is now moving ahead with plans to make history a compulsory subject for pupils in grades 10-12. “A country that chooses to hide its heritage and historical footprints from its children takes the risk of having them repeat the mistakes of their predecessors,” said Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga. Based on empirical research, history has a number of positive effects such as contributing to nation building, national pride, patriotism, social cohesion and cultural heritage, she argued.

However this raises questions about how one defines the truth and whether it is feasible to construct a single, “true” historical narrative. Achieving consensus on a “true” history — encompassing identity, contested events in the past, and the nuances of the present — is extremely difficult and complex. But even if an “objective” version of our past could be agreed upon, a further challenge presents itself in making sure that it is communicated accurately, evenly, and fairly. History taught in schools is highly susceptible to simplified and biased presentations, and South Africa’s teachers and schools are unlikely to be equipped to deal with such complex subject matter, both in terms of resources and personnel.

Parallels in this regard have been drawn with Rwanda, which was also confronted with the challenge of creating a social identity and sense of nationhood from a social foundation of deep-seated ethnic rivalries and economic inequalities. Rwanda’s approach has differed significantly to that of South Africa; however question marks remain about the long term sustainability of this strategy.

Since 1994, the Rwandan government has attempted to remove the division of the population into the “ethnic” identities Hutu, Tutsi and Twa and opted for a meta-narrative focusing on the shared Rwandan identity. The Rwandan government has undertaken an ambitious programme of social engineering intending to reshape society to prevent future ethnic violence in the country.

The government has used trials, public addresses, commemorations and memorialisations, school programmes, re-education camps, and changes in the national symbols to shape the collective and “official” memory of the Rwandan past. By reinterpreting the country’s history, the regime hopes to transform how Rwandans understand their social identities, to deconstruct ethnic identities and replace them with a unified national identity.

In short, the belief is that the Rwandan people reject the “myth” of ethnicity and, in the words of President Paul Kagame, instead put “Rwandan citizenship first”. This approach has centred on the concept of a social identity in framing the individual’s role in society and identity within a nation. But with discussion of ethnicity both taboo and illegal in the new Rwanda, honest debate about the past is difficult. Many in Rwanda feel that limits on identity-driven history and politics are necessary to protect against tragedy and have thus sought to manufacture a social identity and collective history. This is in contrast to South Africa, which has relied on a more organic approach to creating a congruent social identity.

What both South Africa and Rwanda have shown us is that, ultimately, we can only build together if we have experienced together, we can only understand and empathise if we can truly relate.

In the knowledge that a shared past cannot be created, and that entrusting school teachers to be the custodians of this past is possibly not sufficient, what we really need is to force ourselves into a type of shared experience in the present that will leave us no option but to find things in common with people we had always perceived to be fundamentally different to us, and to better understand the roots of some of the differences between us that we have seen to be pervasive but may well just be circumstantial.

Although the National Development Plan is an admirable contribution towards providing a shared direction for South Africans, achieving a shared experience will take more than planning. It will take an integrated strategy, focused specifically on this issue, rolled out consciously and thoughtfully to achieve real “redress” rather than merely filling gaps and plugging holes. It will require things such as improved and more integrated spatial planning, more accessible and affordable public transport, a thoughtful and cleverly led process around national symbols, and the possible consideration of a compulsory year of community service for all school leavers, to name a few.

As things stand, we are in no position to create a shared present that will help ensure generations of South Africans to come are better positioned than we are to work collectively and constructively towards goals which are mutually beneficial for all parties within the country. The time has come to solve this problem, which will require the focused and unselfish contributions of the government, business and civil society. The future of our democracy depends on it. DM

Sarah Ball is a development practitioner in the South African corporate sector and Ronak Gopaldas is a political economist in the financial services industry.


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