Opinionista Marius Oosthuizen 27 August 2020

Inequity is baked into our society: Let’s deconstruct the cake through radical reconciliation

After the fall of apartheid, most South Africans disassociated themselves psychologically from our horrid past and went on to live their lives exactly as before. Worse, we outsourced our national reconstruction project to the politicians. We need radical reconciliation to effect proper change.

Marius Oosthuizen

Marius Oosthuizen is a scenario planner and writes in his own capacity.

South Africa is stuck in a socio-economic rut and solutions to our challenges are unlikely to come from the politicians or from technocratic debates. What are we going to do about it?

Here is an idea: radical reconciliation.

There has been much talk in the last few years about radical economic transformation. Usually, this talk goes hand-in-hand with calls for expropriation of land without compensation and other forms of revolutionary redistributive policies. But is radical redistribution ground-breaking?

In fact, upon reflection, one might recognise that part of the reason we are in trouble nationally is because of the many forms of radical redistribution that have already taken place on our soil.

The colonists radically redistributed African wealth to European elites. The apartheid architects continued the legacy of extractive distribution by making one race wealthy on the back of other races. More recently, the political fat cats have redistributed the public purse into their own pockets.

Our problem is not that we lack redistribution, it is that our redistributive zeal has been selfish, myopic and usually centred on the narrow interests of one group at the expense of another.

A broken state needs fixing

Today South Africa’s central problem is that our economy, stagnant as it is, cannot support the burden of national well-being unless there is significant growth. But the state of the economy is itself a reflection of the dire state of our state.

Our institutions are hollow, weak and outdated. Think of the municipality that receives a grant from National Treasury to build schools, clinics, roads and upgrade energy and water infrastructure, only to have the monies siphoned into the bank accounts of dubious political leaders. The state is so weak that a poorly skilled but influential local community leader can manipulate the procurement process, usurp the agenda of the government and enrich themselves. A weak state can’t fix itself.

So how does South Africa fix the broken system?

Radical reconciliation is the idea that Mandela’s philosophy of national healing was well understood but only superficially embraced. In theory, South Africans embraced one another in a self-transformative act of burying the national hatchet. In practice, most South Africans merely disassociated themselves psychologically from our horrid past and went on the next day to live their lives exactly as before. Worst is, we outsourced our national reconstruction project to the politicians and paid our taxes, like a churchgoer who funds the parish in the hope of securing salvation.

This meant living in camps of our own making: the camps of the whites, the blacks, the Indians, mixed-race peoples and of our various ethnic groupings without much care for the common good. We pretended that the ANC was a broad church, that the DA was for political agnostics and the likes of the FF+ for non-believers stuck in the past.

But in practice we were all stuck in the past, living the legacies, not of Mandela’s transformative ideal but of apartheid’s persistent socioeconomic structures. The EFF emerged as an angry acknowledgement of this lack of change which resulted from our shared lack of conversion but it carries in itself the same DNA of entrenched self-interest.

Reconciliation of what?

Many believe that South Africa’s enduring and perennial problem is racism and of course racial prejudice and the entrenchment of racialised advantages and disadvantages persist. But the disease is not cured by its diagnosis.

Another way to look at our societal problems is to see them as an accident of unfair societal functionality, existing side by side with utter societal dysfunction.

South Africa is functional in the sense that a lower-income worker packing vegetables in the food aisles in the grocery store got to work that day in spite of the dysfunction of public transport, and that the upper-income spender will pay a premium for the nicely packaged veggies and thereby enable the shop owner to pay the worker’s wages. But we are dysfunctional in that the family of the worker who packed the veggies is unlikely to ever enjoy the same quality of nutrition as that of the customers who they serve. Our inequity is baked into our society.

Radical reconciliation, which innovates on Mandela’s legacy by borrowing his spirit to embody a new national agreement in which we make each other more equal to ourselves, is our path out of the malaise.

What needs to be reconciled is not only the superficial mental sentiments of one race group with another. We need reconciliation of our way of life, with the set of societal ideals that enable us to transition to democracy in the first place.

Our political transition represented a departure from ideas of exclusivity to the ideal of participative democracy. It meant that all persons would have a shared place under the South African sun. But what needed to happen next was that our systems of social conduct and economic behaviour needed to evolve too. Only they have not.

It was easier for newly minted elites in BB-BEE-funded suits to join the table for their desserts, than to set a new and more inclusive table. Trevor Manuel recognises this fact when he mentions the wasted years of our democracy, but the ANC fails in its self-assessment when it reprimands him for calling the party a failure.

The solution will not come from the ANC. Nor will it come from another political party. At best we can hope that competitive politics and a new viable opposition will discipline the ANC and improve their performance. But even so, the societal change we need is radical reconciliation at the level of the shop floor, the farm, the corner bakery and butcher and in the offices of our companies.

Radical reconciliation, which innovates on Mandela’s legacy by borrowing his spirit to embody a new national agreement in which we make each other more equal to ourselves, is our path out of the malaise.

My firm belief is that the hope we so desperately crave for South Africa’s future, the energy to create the future we desire, and the wisdom to chart the course, lies in a more radical commitment to reconciling with one another. So what would it look like if every citizen embarked on a journey of small acts of radical reconciliation in their own sphere of influence? What would happen within and between our communities?

I suspect that we will rediscover the vision that we were gifted by Tata Mandela and learn that what makes South Africa special, is that in spite of our dysfunction, the goodwill of the people endures. DM

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