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The end of the South African dream?

5 January 2016

In recent years there has been a marked increase in in the number of racist utterances by South Africans on social media on the Internet generally. And if people are not making racist utterances themselves, they often seem to be accusing others of doing so.

What happened to the Rainbow Nation?

A few days ago I commented on conflict in Ukraine,

In such a delicately balanced situation, it would be sensible for politicians to try to reduce fear and insecurity in all parts of the country by encouraging religious and cultural tolerance (most politicians in South Africa tried to do that in the same period, in the 1990s — they spoke of “many cultures, one nation”).

But in eastern Europe and the Balkans, the opposite was taking place. When we were moving away from apartheid, they were eagerly embracing it. Hence the break-up of Yugoslavia. And Ukrainian politicians generally played a zero-sum game. They did not seek a win-win solution so that all Ukrainians could live in harmony. They stood for a win-lose scenario, where one side would gain ascendancy over the other. And in this they were aided and abetted by the outside forces representing the clashing civilizations, just as Huntington predicted. Russia (representing the Orthodox civilization) supported the eastern Ukrainians, and the Western civilization supported the politicians representing the interests of Western Ukrainians. The outside players, for their own purposes, were also interested in a win-lose situation.

When I say such things, Ukrainian nationalists accuse me of “Putinism”, and Russian nationalists accuse me of parroting Western propaganda.

But if South Africa was steering a different course to that of Eastern Europe and the Balkans in the 1990s, it seems that we are now swinging round to go the same way.

And in a way, it was only to be expected.

rainbownation1History is full of examples of social reforms and revolutions that betrayed the ideals of their founders. If you are lucky, the first generation of leaders are faithful to their ideals, but the moment the turning point is reached, the moment the thing hoped for seems to be within grasp, the thing gets weighed down by bandwagon jumpers whose main aim is to feather their own nests. I certainly didn’t expect any better, and I don’t know of many people who did. The only one I know who did was a Dominican priest, Fr Albert Nolan, who wrote in the mid-1990s that this, at last, was the revolution to end all revolutions, that evil had been utterly destroyed, and we would all live happily ever after.

rainbowIn many ways there was a noticeable decrease in racism in South Africa between 1994 and 2004. No, it did not vanish entirely, but it was lessened. You could see little black children and little white children playing together in the street. Twenty years before, if they had been doing that even in a private garden the neighbours would have called the police, especially if it was a “white” neighbourhood. I recall that in 1985 we went to a church service in a black township (Ekangala, near Bronkhorstspruit). The service was held in a house and the congregation overflowed into the yard, and afterwards our children were playing in the street with some others, and a police van came by and questioned them (they were aged about 7-8 at the time). I don’t know whether a neighbour called the police, but at the time that sort of thing “wasn’t done”. After 1994 it was done, and no one called the cops.

I thought of what happened in South Africa in 1994 rather as Fr Alexander Schmemann described Christian marriage. It was almost like a sacrament, in the way that marriage is. He wrote:

Each family is indeed a kingdom, a little church, and therefore a sacrament of and a way to the Kingdom. Somewhere, even if it is only in a single room, every man at some point in his life has his own small kingdom. It may be hell, and a place of betrayal , or it may not. Behind each window there is a little world going on. How evident this becomes when one is riding on a train at night and passing innumerable lighted windows : behind each one of them the fullness of life is a “given possibility,” a promise, a vision. This is what the marriage crowns express : that here is the beginning of a small kingdom which can be something like the true Kingdom. The chance will be lost, perhaps even in one night ; but at this moment it is still an open possibility. Yet even when it has been lost, and lost again a thousand times, still if two people stay together, they are in a real sense king and queen to each other (Alexander Schmemann, For the life of the world). 

And in 1994 we in South Africa were given such a chance, to make a society that was something like the true Kingdom, a society in which there would be freedom, justice and peace on earth, as it is in heaven. And I still believe that Mandela, Tambo and Sisulu, among others, really did have a vision for such a society. And even though the possibility has been largely lost, it has not been completely lost.

But a fellow-member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship responded to my comment about multicultural societies thus:

So, when we talk of “homogenization” vs. advocating constructed identities, using religion or any other markers, as both being bad choices, we are then forced to make a third way; but the third way of multicultural tolerance (which might be somewhere mid way between sameness and nationalism’s fracturedness) is also fraught, as we are learning in the US and especially in Europe. “Many cultures, one nation” always proves a bad way to build a nation or reform already fractured society, almost by definition. It may endure for a space as better than what it replaced, but multicultural societies have a way of either homogenizing or developing divisional fault lines.

And yes, that gets to the heart of the matter, and perhaps that is the conversation we ought to be hasppening.

Yet there is still a problem. In Europe, perhaps, with its history of past nationalisms, which led to the development of nation-states, usually by splitting multinational empires, homogenizing may be a possibility, but in South Africa I don’t think it is an option. The alternatives are either multiculturalism or apartheid. And we know apartheid didn’t work.

And so, in 1994 we sang with the Palmist:

1. When the Lord turned again the captivity of Sion : then were we like unto them that dream.
2. Then was our mouth filled with laughter : and our tongue with joy.
3. Then said they among the heathen : The Lord hath done great things for them.
4. Yea, the Lord hath done great things for us already : whereof we rejoice.
5. Turn our captivity, O Lord : as the rivers in the south.
6. They that sow in tears : shall reap in joy.
7. He that now goeth on his way weeping, and beareth forth good seed : shall doubtless come again with joy, and bring his sheaves with him (Psalm 125/126, Coverdale translation).

Yes, we were like them that dream. Yes, for a brief time we saw the dream come true, and then was our mouth filled with laughter and our tongue with joy.

For a brief time the vision of freedom came true, and those who experienced the freedom and the vision, in however limited a way, the first democratically elected parliament of South Africa, sought to capture some of that vision and enshrine it in the Constitution. And while we have the constitution, and the constitutional court to uphold it, then no matter how bad things may get, they cannot get as bad as they were under apartheid.

Of course some day a new tyrant may come along and suspend the constitution and sack the members of the constitutional court, and then we will be back to square one, or back to 1961, when Verwoerd was dreaming of apartheid, and B.J. Vorster was turning South Africa into a police state to make sure that if anyone had different dreams, they told no one about them.

So the Rainbow Nation was and is a dream, and it’s up to us to make it come true. It was not a magic trick. No one waved a magic wand and put right everything that was wrong. It was up to us to make the vision a reality. And we need to recognise that the apartheid period has left a residual deposit of evil which we have not done enough to remove.

Madiba-RacismBack in 1965, seventeen years after the National Party had come to power, and it seemed to have been in power forever, an English friend said to me, “When South Africa has sorted out the problem of the black and the white, it will come face to face with the real problem — the haves and the have nots.”

I’ve quoted that before, and I’ll probably quote it again before I die.

After 1994 I thought that we were on the way to solving the problem of the black and the white, and could begin to face the bigger problem of the haves and the have-nots. But that seemed to recede and was put on the back burner, and now the problem of the black and the white is coming back, and I fear that the problem of the haves and the have-nots will be taken off the stove altogether.


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