South Africans are angry. Twenty-two years into our democracy, we are no longer willing to manage that frustration by being polite or respectful, but rather we are beginning to channel that anger. The events of last year confirmed that our political elite have not only lost touch with the electorate, but also that they are unable to sense the shifting mood of the nation or even that they can meaningfully address it.
The anger is not simply directed at acts of racism or people like Penny Sparrow, but rather it is directed at a system that is devoid of justice, fairness and equality. It is anger that is rooted in a dissatisfaction with where we are and frustration with our political elite.
Our political leaders are missing the mark trying to confine the conversation to a few individuals while we are concerned with the dismantling the system. President Jacob Zuma would want us to believe that the “problem that remained was that of individuals who still harboured racism and prejudice” forgetting that there is a system that allows that very conduct. None of this takes place in isolation.
Mr Zuma has somehow forgotten that racism, prejudice and inequality can only exist if there is an enabling system that allows superiority, bigotry, racism and prejudice to manifest itself. Apartheid was not simply a policy of a violent and oppressive regime but rather it was enabled by policies, laws, and conduct, which was reaffirmed by white superiority and a monopolistic stranglehold over the economy.
The process of creating a constitutional democracy did not simply involve the collapse of the apartheid regime or the unbanning of political parties or the abolishment of Apartheid laws. Instead what was required was a collective effort by civil society, business and political parties to engage in a conversation that ultimately resulted in a social and political approach to dismantling that system. However, the process remains unfinished as we have not properly addressed racism, prejudice and inequality in our society. We are burdened with those who deny the existence of this system. The truth is we have not tackled the fact that far too many South Africans are forced to still experience the sting of apartheid’s legacy – this is a lived experience and an unacceptable one.
It would be far too easy and perhaps even disingenuous to believe that Zuma alone is to blame for racial tensions in South Africa. However, Mmusi Maimane of the Democratic Alliance does, and has said that “ANC of Jacob Zuma” has given up on the reconciliation project (and the legacy of Nelson Mandela). He also said that Zuma does not know how to lead on the issue. Fortunately, I am not in the electioneering business and so distinctions such as the “ANC of Jacob Zuma” or the “DA of Penny Sparrow” or the “DA of Mmusi Maimane” are unnecessary and pointless. Such distinctions buy into the idea that somehow racial tensions are simply caused by a handful of people and denies the fact that actually that there is an entire system that enables racism and inequality and that refuses to change.
We will have to compel its change and South Africans this year are engaged sufficiently to begin the task of building a society that is truly equal, non-racial, non-sexist, fair and just. There does seem to be agreement by the Economic Freedom Fighters, the Democratic Alliance and the African National Congress that we should criminalise racism. However, policing thoughts and determining what conduct amounts to racism that is actionable will not bring down this unequal and unfair system.
The frustration that South Africans have reflected these past two weeks illustrates how important it will be to not just pay lip service by seeking legislative solutions to what is actually a structural and societal issue. Racism is not simply the conduct of a few individuals. We will require a collective effort by citizens, government, political parties across the spectrum, business, religious leaders and civil society to confront this system and commit to building a society that is fair, just and equitable.
We have grown impatient and frustrated. We have grown tired of those who seek to ignore the lived experiences or reduce racism to simply the conduct of a few. What is crystal clear is that the anger modelled by South Africans will not allow for half-measures. It will not allow for lip-service, business as usual, partisan theatrics, electioneering or party politics. South Africa is not simply a collection of words reflected in our Constitution. The work of nation-building is difficult and it is a process, and a process that will require discomfort, honesty, dialogue (that may be confrontational and emotive), but ultimately it will require our collective resilience. DM