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Is it a betrayal to celebrate Christmas before redressing the imbalances of South Africa’s past?

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Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

Can we conjure up the Christmas spirit without guilt when comfort, joy, equality and hope seem so far away for so many people?

At the end of a year filled with fear and despair, it might be difficult to look forward to 2022 with enthusiasm. Fear, because the state has demonstrated — in July during the violent riots and looting — that it is incapable of protecting us as citizens and despair, on the part of those that participated in the looting and criminal activities, because a future without need or want seems impossible to them.

For many marginalised groups in South Africa, the prospect of employment and, with it, dignity is fallacious. Waking up every day and setting out to look for meaningful work but failing to gain employment each time is demoralising, to say the least.

Experiencing the horrors of the Covid pandemic, and having to stand in long queues for food parcels and handouts to make ends meet, is an everyday fact of life for millions of South Africans.

Poor people observe from afar how some of us buy Christmas trees, decorations and plenty of gifts for each other — and yearn for the day when they, too, can spend money without care or bother.

But their hardship will continue for a long time. The history of this, our beloved country, is such that inequalities, poverty and unemployment levels will not, and cannot, be reasonably expected to be corrected in 27 years. Yes, the levels of corruption retarded progress towards a better life, but any reasonable person cannot argue that dramatic transformation would have happened if there were none. It will take time.

So, does this mean we must feel guilty as the “haves”, in a country that is the most unequal in the world? Absolutely and emphatically, yes.

Have the rich made more money in the past 27 years due to the South African economy opening up after years of isolation and sanctions? Yes.  Should we, as taxpayers, pay towards a wealth tax? Absolutely, yes.  Should we be more charitable during this period? Yes.

For some, this period is a welcome reprieve. We have worked very hard during the year and have paid our dues in many ways. We’ve paid for our Covid jabs through private healthcare; we pay for private security; we pay for private schools; and we pay for our children’s university fees in toto. So, it is fair to say that we do pay our fair share, subsidising the rest of the citizens in our country.

But is this enough? Can we do better as a society, as the haves? I think we must. Does it mean we have to forget our fears for the future? Surely not, but must we pretend we have comfort and joy when, in fact, we have none?

Santa will not come this year because he is mourning the suffering of so many children, who will get no gifts this year or the next year or the next. The comfort and joy of Christmas should not come from setting aside our mourning, our pain and our outrage, but by recognising that it is to the mournful, pained and outraged world that we send tidings of goodwill and peace. We will endeavour to do better, to be better, come the new year.

Martin Luther King Jr said: “Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close today by saying I still have a dream, because… if you lose hope, somehow you lose that vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of all.”

But the hope King described was not just an idea he needed in order to remain committed to his exhausting, and often disappointing, work in pursuit of justice. And it shouldn’t be for us, either.

It is Cornel West that reminds us that hope without action, without courage, is futile. It’s a fool’s errand. The joy of Christmas, even in its least religiously explicit expressions — lights, colours, spices, warmth — has its most fundamental meaning in this unshakeable realisation. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5). This means, now more than ever, giving concrete expression to our belief in “cosmic companionship” by supporting movements that work against injustice or racism in any form — as well as working to eradicate poverty and inequality.

Hope is not an illusion; it is what reveals the truth about who we really are. We were not made for murder and brutality. We were not made to lie. If you believe, we were made for the reckless, consuming, astonishing and excessive love we see both in the manger and on the cross. Or, perhaps, we were just made to find solace in our humanity.

Let us embrace the truth about our past, about the history of this country and let there be a recognition that even though the constitutional amendment for land expropriation without compensation did not pass muster, it is incumbent on us to redress the imbalances of our past. To right the historical injustices of colonialism and apartheid, and maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t have to feel so guilty or see our celebration as a betrayal to the majority of our people.

Merry Christmas all, and here’s to a wonderfully considerate new year. DM  

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All Comments 16

  • “Yes, the levels of corruption retarded progress towards a better life, but any reasonable person cannot argue that dramatic transformation would have happened if there were none. It will take time.”

    I disagree. Trillions (yes with a T) have been stolen and wasted, accountability completely destroyed, economy is hobbling as a direct result of tenders and BEE, waste and theft. The country has massive issues with power, sewage and clean water, especially where the poorest live lack of maintenance (due to corruption and theft yet again). ​SA would be in a significantly better place without the ANCs 25 years of malfeasance.

    Any reasonable person can see that…

    • Oscar, instead of trying to make people feel guilty about living please read the comment above properly and write an article on the missing trillions and what the recipients have done to benefit and uplift the poor in this country.

  • Oh sure, yes absolutely I’m only too happy to pay more tax whilst the elite still fees off the gravy train. Perhaps our politicians and tender-fillers-in would also like to openly disclose what they’ve actually contributed from their own pockets to help the hungry, the poor etc. I’d also be delighted to work longer hours so my tax dollars can pay for shopping trips in London, Paris etc.

  • Good piece, thank you for that.

    During the darkest times is when celebration is most needed, to remind us that a better life is possible through unity + cooperation = community. Not the BS “unity” the ANC preached while raping this country, but true unity to build a place that is safe for our children.

    Merry xmas!

  • Very honarable article, and glad you included yourself as one of the rich. However, your plea would have had so much more credibilily, meaning, if we could say without any doubt that our leaders, in particular the ruling party, did eveything in their power to reduce inequalities, poverty, unemployment, criminality, corruption, greed, rightful employment and simple good governance. Without that, your plea is so less powerful, in fact, almost meaningless.

  • Oscar may I share another quotation from the Martin Luther King Jr. sermon which you quote which is my dream for South Africa, “I still have a dream today that in all of our state houses and city halls men will be elected to go there who will do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with their God.”
    Have a blessed Christmas.

  • Hypocrisy of convenience. Don’t talk to me about feeling guilty about what I have rightfully earned for myself when those guilty of looting the treasury can still so easily evade justice.

  • So, does this mean we must feel guilty as the “haves”, in a country that is the most unequal in the world? Absolutely and emphatically, yes.

    Really?

    I “have” to sit sidelined and watch greedy, corrupt, shortsighted, arrogant, incompetent people in power beavering away to destroy the future for everyone. It is like watching a car crash in slow motion, when you knew it was going to happen before the person even got into the car.

    I – like many – will happily provide my education, skills and experience to help this government help itself should I be offered the chance to do so.

    Until then I am done with guilt.

  • The comments have merit. At a 5% growth rate the economy would be 4 times it’s current size with a way better life for all. But the economy has been grossly mismanaged.

    The poor continue to produce babies without any care of how these unfortunates are meant to survive in this world.

    And then somehow this is the fault of those who are managing to keep their heads above water.

    Do the math. The imbalance is now so great that it’s just impossible to correct it via any form of redistribution.

  • Articles like this really make my blood boil. The same old drum being banged about colonialism and apartheid. Face facts Oscar, the corrupt, inept and greedy ANC government has done everything in its power to ensure the poor stay poor. Every government institution has been hollowed out since 1994. Cadre deployment and BEEE is a joke. This is how we ended up with state capture. If you want to do business with the ANC government, you have to pay. South Africa is on a one way trajectory if the ANC stays in power, but you Oscar, want to keep beating the people who are left who are actually keeping the economy going. Please explain to me how this “wealth tax” would work? Who would manage the fund? What would it be spent on? I will not give the ANC government one more single cent of the money I earn so that some government a$$hole with a bloated sense of entitlement can buy a new car or a Louis Vuitton handbag. Yes I feel for the poor, so I donate money and time to several charitable causes – what do you do Oscar?

    • Karen, I’m even beginning to wonder about charitable donations. I make charitable donations and I give a lot of food away and certainly every Monday I leave stuff out for the guy that goes through the bins looking for recycling. This last Monday I left a PnP bucket, a packet of tins of baked beans, bully beef and meatballs in gravy plus a big packet of fresh veggies and the guy came running up to me and asked if I could give him R20 in cash. WTF did I spend R400 for if all he wanted was R20.

      • Charles, you spent R400 because you felt guilty about having something when another (apparently) has nothing. While this is a perfectly natural instinct, you should realise by now that many of the poor don’t want your food. They want an escape from their poverty, the easier the better. The quickest and easiest being alcohol.

        Lessons learned: charity can be both a virtue and a vice. It is a virtue when it helps someone to help themselves. It is a vice when a) it makes you feel better about yourself, and b) it creates perpetual dependence on someone else’s labours to exist.

        • You are so right. Much of these “donations” do not go to “a bread” at all. It goes straight to a bottle of cheap weet wine (like Cowboy in the WC), or worse, drugs, like Tik.

          • That is what I’m trying to avoid. At least the kids have a chance in sharing in the food.

      • Don’t give anything at the door or at traffic lights.

        To anyone.

        Ever.

        You are not solving anything for anyone and you are actively creating additional problems for residents in the area.

        Donate to recognised charities.

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