We enter 2017 as a nation in trouble: from submerged rage, from politesse that hid raw racism, from complacency, from unfulfilled dreams. Last year was not pretty. But is this atmosphere of pessimism, hand-wringing, finger-pointing and lamenting justified? I don’t think so. And I hope this year heralds the beginning of a correction.
The South African project is a work in progress. Indeed, no nation has perfected this kind of creature: a diverse, open and democratic society. The US may come to mind as a prosperous melting pot built by immigrants, but even today it still matters whether you landed on those shores on the Mayflower or in chains. As outgoing President Barack Obama likes to point out, the American ideal has yet to be perfected. There is a gap between ideal and reality that each generation must grapple with.
The South African project was, is and always will be vulnerable to attack. In the early 1990s there was no shortage of critics who predicted how “black rule” would surely fail. The ideal of a diverse, open and democratic society is an abomination to supremacists and nationalists of every hue.
The first generation to lead after apartheid, men and women who became free after a lifetime of battle, rallied around the “rainbow nation” as the vision for the new SA.
Things were placid for a while, when a trickle of black people made it into opportunities that were long denied. It was easy for the privileged to accommodate the aspirations of a small cohort of the upwardly mobile. The strain started to show when the masses came knocking at the gates of opportunity to find recalcitrant elites and an increasingly dysfunctional government.
My holiday reading revolved around novelist and essayist Zadie Smith. It is part of my reckoning with the dawn of the Trump era. In engaging with her work, I have been reflecting on the apparent demise of the open, multicultural, global world she captures so well. Smith nails SA’s current situation when she writes, “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and re-imagined if it is to survive”.
We made some progress in this little corner of Africa. We should not waste energy on being enraged that the tentative concepts of early democracy did not deliver a “new” country. It is time to give the vision for SA another go. It is not about creating a “new” SA as if we can erase the past or deny how it shapes people’s current circumstances. Instead of grand pronouncements, we need to take this country where we find it and move forward.
In the mid-1990s, the late ANC stalwart Walter Sisulu came to speak at my high school. He made the now familiar argument that his generation fought for political freedom, ours was to fight for economic justice. Even as teenagers, this seemed obvious to us. Now more than ever we know that economic justice will make or break this country.
Politicians have failed us on this score. The best hope lies in ordinary men and women coming together in our communities and our spheres of influence to grope for a path out of this current gloom.
The challenge remains, as it was for the generation of Nelson Mandela and Sisulu, to unravel what appears to be an impossible situation. That is to salvage from a toxic history a reasonably united, healthy and functioning nation. To prove the naysayers wrong (yes, that is a legitimate aspiration). To work around the messiness of it all. To redouble, restate, re-imagine.
Happy new year!
Makhaya is CEO of Makhaya Advisory.
This piece was first published in Business Day (03 January 2017)