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Die Stem and the case for reparations

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Lwando Xaso is an attorney and a writer exploring the interaction between race, gender, history and popular culture. She is the author of the book, ‘Made in South Africa, A Black Woman’s Stories of Rage, Resistance and Progress’.

What is driving the current mood of protest against inequality, injustice, the lack of land reform, Die Stem and the culture of exclusion in many private spaces in this country, is the lack of reparations — the sense that a huge debt remains unpaid — and it accrues interest with each passing day.

As the apartheid regime intensified its stranglehold around black necks and after years of a futile non-violent strategy against a brutish apartheid regime, the time had come to change tack. An exasperated and frustrated Nelson Mandela signalled the call for an armed struggle, and justifiably so.

There are many people who feel that it is useless and futile to continue talking about peace and non-violence against a government whose only reply is savage attacks on an unarmed and defenceless people,” he said.

The liberation movement had tried the polite path to inclusion and emancipation, it was now time to use the oppressor’s language – violence. What South African history has taught me is that there are moments of protests and moments of participation.

Such was the time of participation when we included the Die Stem in the national anthem, a time which championed the path of inclusion towards a more just and equal future. Then this country had an abundant and abiding faith in the possibilities of the greatness we could achieve.

Twenty-four years after an unsatisfying democracy for most South Africans who live in poverty and hopelessness, that faith is diminished, that magnanimous spirit of inclusion and reconciliation is waning, that patience for change is intolerable, leaving the people ravenous for radical change.

There are many people who feel that it is useless and futile to continue talking about reconciliation and unity against a democracy that has not delivered on its promises where the majority of its people are ravaged by poverty and rampant injustice.

The EFF argues Die Stem represents a heritage of oppression and indignity and must not be a part of our national anthem.

It is a song of oppressors, racists and mass murderers… National anthems are songs of collective pride and we cannot be proud of the songs of mass-murderous regimes.”

I agree that it can hardly be said that we are proud of Die Stem’s origins, but I am proud of what we have done with it. It reminds me of what we have done with Constitution Hill. What I find interesting is that the home of the Constitutional Court, the guardian of the Constitution was built on a site with a very dark history of oppression and brutality — once a military fort and a prison that was notorious for its harsh treatment of prisoners. Prior to its present-day transformation it was a bleak reminder of our painful past.

Today it is remarkable that the chamber of the Constitutional Court was built with bricks from the demolished awaiting-trial section of the prison. These bricks have intentionally been left bare to remind us of our past as we embark on our constitutional transformation. The transformation of Constitution Hill is a master class on meaningful transformation. How a society can move forward without erasing history.

In the same manner the inclusion of Die Stem is the resistance to whitewashing our history. Every time we hear Die Stem we are reminded of a shameful past which still very much frames our present day. But we are also repurposing this part of our history into something more useful than a reminder of shame but as a reminder of our capacity to do the impossible.

When I sing the national anthem, I sing the Die Stem part too, because in that moment I am reminded of the magnanimity of my people – a reminder that we are better than our oppressors. We have redeemed and liberated our oppressors when we had every reason in the world to exact vengeance, and to me there is no greater display of power than responding with grace rather than resentment when you have every right to be resentful. It is not stupidity, it is power.

It was Martin Luther King jr who said:

My personal trials have also taught me the value of unmerited suffering. As my sufferings mounted, I soon realised that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter. I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved in the tragic situation which now obtains.”

It was Steve Biko who said “in time, we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift — a more human face”.

It was Thabo Mbeki, at the adoption of our Constitution who said:

I am formed of the migrants who left Europe to find a new home on our native land. Whatever their own actions, they remain still, part of me.”

The inclusion Die Stem can be seen as such a creative force and as such a gift of humanity to the oppressors whose intolerable actions unfortunately remain a part of us.

Instead of bitterness and hatred which apartheid and colonisation showed us is a coward’s instinct, we chose inclusion and redemption which is a far harder path to walk. And understandably many of us are struggling to traverse this path — tempted to reach back to the language this country understands best, exclusion and division, which is understandable against the backdrop of relentless inequality and injustice.

Such has been the past 24 years of democracy, a genuine attempt to build a unified and just country. However this time of participation has yielded paltry dividends for many who insist that we now move from participation to protest. The protest against inequality, injustice, the lack of land reform, the protest against Die Stem and of particular interest to me, the protest against the culture of exclusion in many of private spaces and the lack of reparations. What is driving the current mood in this country is the lack of reparations — the sense that a huge debt remains unpaid and it accrues interest with each passing day. Reparations is a much larger question than land and it is time for it to occupy our imaginations in the same manner as land has.

My favourite historian and writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, surmises that the untenable position America finds itself in presently is because of “250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow, 60 years of separate but equal and 35 years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole”.

Neither will South Africa with more than 300 years of colonisation and apartheid that have not been fully reckoned with. Reparations are the action of making amends for a wrong one has done, by providing payment or other assistance to those who have been wronged. Reparations is an easy concept to understand — what is broken must be fixed, what is stolen must be returned and what is owed must be paid back. These are unassailable principles.

The TRC’s final report stressed that reconciliation was not possible without reparations. More importantly, the TRC recognised that in the South African context reparations were even more important to counterbalance the amnesty provisions for apartheid perpetrators. This issue needs to take centre stage in our political discourse.

Acknowledgement of this outstanding debt is the first step. This is not the responsibility of the government alone, there are a number of private individuals and firms that are morally obliged to participate and contribute.

A lot of tensions exist today because many people feel short-changed, apartheid perpetrators walk free while money owed remains outstanding. Next time we rush to pass judgment on people who want to move from participation to protest, who want to see Die Stem erased from the national anthem, let’s not lose sight of the context and the history which defines our society today.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates put it:

It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.” DM

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