between you and me
how it aches
how desperately it aches between you and me
so much hurt for truth
so much destruction
so little left for survival
where do we go from here
your voice slung
over the solid cold length of our past
how long does it take
for a voice
to reach another
in this country held bleeding between us
“The solid cold length of our past’, as Antjie Krog puts it so extraordinarily in Country of grief and grace continues to be negotiated in 2016 in confusing and often brutal ways. Armed men walk into a suburban home and hold up a family, a girl is murdered in a forest with no explanation. The apology comes later. A young woman is left for dead in Khayelitsha, dumped in an outside toilet; a reminder that socio-economic inequality breeds violence. In a Johannesburg township, residents risk their lives each day while negotiating the crossing of a river. The bridge remains incomplete, the sorry result of a corrupt tender and an uncaring state. Young activists often display ‘belligerent ignorance’ as they argue against the Constitutional settlement and the Constitution itself is labelled a pointless document of excessive compromise. Our President himself disregards the Constitution as the state is captured by rent-seekers.
And so, as we celebrate 22 years of freedom, we seem slightly less optimistic and enthusiastic; we trust our leaders far less than we did in those halcyon days post-1994 and at times we seem rudderless. After the Constitutional Court’s Nkandla judgment, many had hoped that President Zuma, whose leadership of South Africa has been nothing short of disastrous, would behave as an honourable man and resign.
But that would have been a rather simplistic interpretation of the balance of forces within the ANC right now. Zuma will not go without a fight and the end, while it will inevitably come, will be drawn-out, messy and painful. All around the country, the middle classes are attempting to mobilise under the #Zumamustfall banner. Yet, so much more needs to ‘fall’ than Zuma. As we revisited the arms deal recently via the Seriti Commission’s costly but pointless report, we see that corruption has long tentacles.
All of these post-apartheid complexities happen against the backdrop of deepening levels of inequality that have exacerbated race and class cleavages. Last week, Statistics South Africa released a damning report on the status of youth in our country. It examined issues of crime, employment and health, amongst other things, for the period 2009-2014. Already the ILO has found that SA has a youth unemployment rate of 52%, far higher than our SADC neighbours. According to StatsSA, in the 25-34 year old age group only 1 in 3 South Africans had a job. Much of this has to do with the failure of the post-apartheid education system.
The status quo is a rather bleak one. Is it any wonder that our dialogue is brittle and blame is apportioned readily and angrily?
Transformation, that great post-1994 buzzword has been demonised as the cause of all the rot. Just this week, Sports minister, Fikile Mbalula revoked the right of 4 of South Africa’s sporting codes to host international events given their failure to meet transformation targets. Radio talk shows were immediately inundated with calls and views, mostly deeply divisive; the speech of ‘us and them’. International cricketer Jacques Kallis entered the debate unhelpfully via twitter, declaring himself ‘embarrassed to be South African’. The ‘intervention’ was shortsighted but then Kallis was always better left batting and bowling than making grand statements. (To Kallis one might simply say that a country is far more than its government of the day.) In any event, Mbalula’s bluster and the prejudice that arises during these ‘conversations’ are all equally problematic and unhelpful. They serve only as hot air and don’t take us very far in thoughtfully constructing an inclusive society. For Mbalula also cannot avoid the hard questions of what exactly his department is doing to ensure young talent is nurtured. And what is the department of education doing to ensure that sport is taught in schools? Too many children languish in township schools deprived of access to sporting facilities or teachers willing to do an extra hard yard after school.
But the transformation in sport conversation is just another example of what happens when we disagree. We seem not to listen; we simply turn up the volume and out-shout the other side. Is it apartheid, which is to blame for our current ills, someone asserts, or the corruption prevalent across so much of government? Perhaps it is all the fault of the liberal media? And so it goes on. Without a new development trajectory, as, for instance, the National Development Plan envisages, South Africans will remain unequal, poor and lacking the cohesion necessary to live together peacefully. Our increasing inequality has left us grappling for answers while political leadership is all but absent, caught up in a maelstrom of political in-fighting and grasping for resources. Into such a leadership and ethical vacuum, all manner of things come. Where a vacuum exists, Julius Malema can suggest a change of leadership through the barrel of a gun. And violence, whether by state repression at Marikana, the death of Andries Tatane or Mido Macia or from one citizen to the other becomes a means of problem solving.
we carry death
in a thousand cleaving spectres
we carry death
we carry death into the houses
and a language without mercy
Yet, as we see time and time again, there is something at the heart of this society, a resilience that has seen us wrought the impossible despite our differences. It is that spirit which the NDP calls on us to evoke. It will not be easy. In this country of great complexity and contradiction, our freedom is intrinsically linked not only to economic emancipation and opportunity but also a sense of understanding and relating to ‘the other’ across the ingrained fault-lines of race and class. Antjie Krog thought we had reached that point after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission when she wrote:
because of you
this country no longer lies
between us but within
it breathes becalmed
after being wounded
in its wondrous throat
in the cradle of my skull
it sings it ignites
We know now that the TRC left much unfinished business and reconciliation and justice remain elusive. But, South Africa in 2016 is a markedly different place to what it was before 1994 despite what the daily reality may look like and despite what the Constitutional naysayers might think. We have the right to speak, write what we like and more importantly, the context within which we do so has changed. The choice we made to be a Constitutional democracy was not an accident, nor was it one that went without any debate and argument within the ANC and other parts of society.
The commitment to fundamental rights and against the arbitrary exercise of power was deliberate and we should guard that jealously. That our transition to democracy was flawed cannot be disputed. That much still needs to be done to fundamentally change the lives of those who suffer all kinds of exclusion is clear. What is also clear though is that the Constitution that undergirds our democratic narrative remains a transformative and progressive instrument for bringing about such change. Because without it we would be in Malema’s world, staring down the barrel of a gun. That in and of itself is worth remembering. DM