For five decades I have been part of a heroic freedom struggle that has defined the 20th century annals. A commitment to eradicate a brutal system of institutionalised and legalised racism – a “crime against humanity”.
At the core of that vision was the commitment that South Africa belonged to all who lived in it, black and white and all in between. That was the preamble of the Freedom Charter, the lodestar that guided our liberation struggle from 1955 and is now enshrined at the heart of our constitutional democracy.
I have never had my Indian ancestry called into question, until now. For decades, even as the founding general secretary of Cosatu, elected for three successive terms by millions of African workers, never has anyone raised the question of my Indian ancestry. And now, I have been accused of “being an Indian” and having to account for what happened in Phoenix and surrounding areas.
Of course, I want to know as much as any other South African what happened. Not because I am Indian, but because I am South African. It was by all accounts a series of horrifying crimes. I know race is not a scientific fact. It is a social invention rooted in slavery, colonialism and cheap labour and is very real. There are racists everywhere and in every community. But they are an absolute minority. It is a disservice to our common humanity to generalise and label any community in its entirety as racist.
Nonracialism still remains our greatest gift of the Mandela generation to South Africa and the divided world of racism and violence grappling with the diversity of the human race and the transition to a new world.
Like most South Africans, I don’t want to operate on a premise of hearsay of those who stoked the violence in the first place.
We need the facts.
We need answers.
We need our president to lead us.
A judicial commission of inquiry must be established urgently to investigate the massive failures of our security establishment to take pre-emptive action that could have prevented the wide-scale violence and destruction.
It should be given a fixed two-month timeframe to report and should be chaired by retired respected senior judges who are armed with inquisitorial powers, away from adversarial conflicts between flamboyant high-profile lawyers whose top interest is in generating inflammatory headlines.
Most agree that our security forces, our intelligence agencies, the SAPS and SANDF had ample warning. Had they reacted decisively and on time, much of the grief, wounding and trauma we suffered as a nation could have been avoided. We need to know how many of the instigators have been arrested despite mobile records, tweets and videos all being in the public arena. Why were the security forces so under-resourced and underprepared?
The country needs, demands, truth.
Simultaneously, we need to see the Human Rights Commission step into this troubled space immediately. It was created to be the institution to support our constitutional democracy and the respect, observance of and protection of human rights for everyone without fear or favour.
It’s time for it to act, too.
We need a level-headed, sober analysis of the deep-rooted and structural causes of the breakdown and subsequent violence, with clear recommendations on how to address these at a socioeconomic level and to foster a deep healing process between communities and across our nation.
We are fully aware that the empirical determinants of fragile and failed states are widespread poverty, hunger and joblessness, all of which converge with weak governance, unethical leadership and contested political spaces inside ruling parties and between them.
This convergence has now created a toxic brew that is regularly stoked by the hateful fires of those who want to plunge our country into permanent strife and warlordism, both through hate speech and incitement on social media and on the streets of our communities.
So today I have this horrible sense of déjà vu. I see many people living under siege, working in a volatile, fractured society. And instead of focusing on the real issues that face our people, as in one in three will go to bed hungry tonight or are unemployed, we talk past each other. Because it is convenient. Because we are not listening.
We stopped listening, a long time ago.
But while we don’t listen to each other, our country burns. And we will be guilty of betraying the many generations who follow us.
The tragic bloodletting and violence of the past few weeks has placed our nation-building project in deep jeopardy. This is a wound that we swept under the carpet in 1994 and now it has come back to haunt us.
We need to create a momentum of peace that involves everyone. A peace committee has been established to restore calm and “be the bridge between the law enforcement and residents of Zwelisha, Phoenix, Bhambayi and Amaoti and made up of 12 representatives from all communities affected”, according to convenor Chris Biyela.
“The peace committee is working with the Department of Social Development, community safety, the SAPS and small community committees. [The SAPS must] recover guns that were used to kill people, do away with illegal security companies that were involved and provided guns, and arrest those implicated. The videos that are confirmed to be from these killings should be used as evidence to find and charge the culprits.”
This process needs to be supported, deepened and resourced by the state.
We need to draw on our lessons of the 1991 National Peace Accord. We needed a solution then. We need it even more now. No peace is won, anywhere in the world, in all of history, where violence is both the goal and the endgame.
At the core of our multiple crises is the breakdown of ethical leadership and good governance. We are a rich country. We walk on gold, diamonds and mineral wealth. We have a vibrant and dynamic melting pot of diversity.
Recognising poverty as an underlying condition that, combined with intense political rivalry within and between political parties, is a driving force behind the violence, we have to build a programme of social and economic reconstruction and development intended particularly to benefit and involve those communities affected by violence.
And across South Africa I see people reaching out and wanting to contribute from the bottom up. Now is the time to consolidate these gains and let a multitude of flowers of peace and freedom bloom as we reimagine and rebuild our beautiful country, with its magnificent diversity and people. Not through grandiose promises. But millions of acts of small kindness. A new country.
Violence and hate cannot be our endgame. Do we really need to destroy South Africa only to then understand how exceptionally beautiful it was?
Do we want to continue to inflict injury on ourselves? To let our wounds of the past become a festering sore that cannot be healed?
Violence cannot become the language of engagement. I have worked in failed states across the world. I have a thousand horror stories we never want to talk about in our country. This cannot be the legacy we bequeath to our future generations.
No, it cannot, Mr President and my 60 million fellow citizens.
We have no choice but to work together. And as the founding father of our democracy, Nelson Mandela, said in his inaugural speech, “We understand that there is no easy walk to freedom. We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation-building and the birth of a new world.”
Sekunjalo ke nako. Now is the time. DM