The era of nation-building based on the abstract notion of race reconciliation has lost its currency in our imagination. Non-racialism, especially understood narrowly as about the civility of social coexistence, as opposed to a substantive meaning that would conceive race relations in terms of socio-economic equality between races, is no longer effective as a mobilising force that appeals to emotions and reason.
While the initial phase of South Africa’s political transition placed a strong emphasis on the idea of unity and psychic commitment to co-existence of different races as part of a rainbow nation, the present moment demands far more concrete measures that would yield genuine economic gains for the black majority in South Africa. The stubborn persistence of the social legacy of apartheid and the inability of the state to drive meaningful socio-economic change are some of the major contributing factors to the racialised tone of our public debates.
Conversations on social media about policy, for example land reform, black economic empowerment, and the role of the private sector in society, have increasingly assumed a racialised if not intemperate tone. For example, a considerable part of the public outcry inveighing against unethical conduct by a major private sector group has as its target the white males in the private sector who are unconscious of their privilege. Incidentally, they dominate the roll call of corporate malfeasance as has been evident with KPMG, SAP, Steinhoff, and executives of major construction firms that colluded to fix bid prices related to 2010 World Cup infrastructure.
Social media has been the theatre through which much of the resentment on race has played itself out. In some cases, racial animosities have been expressed in tragicomical fashion such as the organisation of virtual memorial services for Shamba the lion that was shot after attacking its white owner on a Limpopo game farm. This lion was turned into a totem communicating symbolic violence against whites who are seen as resisting calls for land redistribution. In other instances, the colour of privilege or the privilege of colour has come under the spotlight when the DA politician Natasha Mazzone claimed that she cannot be said to have been privileged since her father was “dark” and arrived from Italy, and that he pulled himself up by his bootstraps – something many read as implying that black South Africans have not held tightly to their bootstraps as an escape route from under-privileged status.
While the fraction that participates in social media, or broadly the media space, is not representative of society, and sometime social media debates get easily blown out of proportion, the power of this segment in ratcheting up the temperature of public opinion cannot be underestimated. They are able to use powerful instruments of communication to amplify their messages and ideologies. These voices are, to a greater extent, those of the middle class or the educated in society, but that does not mean they are not shared by the underclasses or find resonance with them. Theirs is also a counterweight to the arrogance of privilege.
It is quite remarkable that there is a rising cauldron of discontent, driven by race politics, however fractional, in the social media. The voices that tend to ignite a powder keg and drive revolution in societies are hardly those of the masses who have limited access to instruments of communicative power. But it is those who are able to wield the pen, or today’s tools of social media apps, who communicate their ideas fluently and influence the perception of politicians and other influencers in society.
In any case, historically, it has been the middle classes that have been the most visible face of social revolutions: this was true of the French Revolution in 1789, the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Paris student uprising in 1968, the protests in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, and in the more recent acts of uprisings in North Africa, dubbed the Arab Spring. The ideas that drive social revolutions, for good or for ill, are those fomented by the educated elite or the middle class. This is true for groups who are standardbearers of progressive thought and groups such as AfriForum which propound right-wing ideas.
There are many reasons why race relations in South Africa are severing today, and why our public discourse is friction-prone. We have failed to develop a shared understanding of the past and the means by which a different future should be constructed. There is still a segment of the white community in South Africa that harbours deep suspicion of the black-dominated government and its economic policies, especially when they lean in the redistributive direction. There is also much denial about the harsh effects of the past on the black majority.
Governance failures, especially during the years of Jacob Zuma, have emboldened this segment of society as they believed that Zuma’s presidency confirmed everything they believed about the hopelessness of black rule in Africa. Yet the major weakness of the ruling party is less about their corrupt proclivities, even though there are reprehensible elements of this, but more the failure to use its political agency to drive seriously the agenda for social transformation in ways that are imaginative, rescript a new society, and restore dignity to black South Africans who have been on the margins of the economy. This requires boldness to undertake programmes that are aimed at creating advantage for the black majority.
The governing party has not effectively utilised the legislative and policy instruments at its disposal to advance social and economic change that tilts the scale in favour of the black majority.
Three years ago, I attended the largest annual agricultural exhibition in the southern hemisphere, organised by Grain SA at NAMPO in Bothaville. Roelf Meyer, the former chief negotiator for the National Party during the transition negotiation, was a keynote speaker. He gave an impassioned speech on the theme of transformation, where he made an observation that the weakness of the democratic transition was failure by people like himself and other negotiators to craft a road map for economic transformation.
During his talk he implored the predominantly white dinner guests, most of whom came from the cream of agribusiness groups – who would also deny their privileged position – to take seriously the imperative of transformation before this is forced upon them.
Meyer had understood, almost too late, that the major preoccupation of black South Africans is no longer about striving for some non-racial ideal that is abstracted from concrete economic relations in society, but that they want to feel a real sense of significance in a country that also belongs to them.
Democratic South Africa is nearly a generation old since the 1994 transition, and there are serious concerns that the future generations may judge us harshly for bequeathing to them a country that is just a shade different from what existed under apartheid with respect to patterns of economic ownership. What we have done since 1994 is to tinker on the margins of legislative change, without extending the impetus to the economic domains.
How do we move from here? There was a time when dialogue was a necessary tool to explore prospects for socio-economic change. However, those who possess the privilege of cultural and economic power have done everything in their power to defend this privilege.
On matters of transformation, we have chosen to hold a dialogue of the deaf where we are content to only listen to our voices and see reality through our own narrow lenses. What is required, concretely, to drive change is to put pressure on government to use every policy and legislative tool to achieve outcomes that create a positive difference for black South Africans that are still on the margins of the economy.
The good thing about the fall of Jacob Zuma is that we can now engage in the real battle of ideas and focus on the hard policy choices that government needs to make to achieve transformation. It is possible that we may ultimately attain the ideal of non-racialism through the efforts of our grandchildren, but we owe them stepping stones towards that dream by giving them a legacy of economic empowerment and dignity.