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Fri Oct 31 06:54:21 SAST 2014

Return to the vision that got the world excited about the new SA

Mondli Makhanya | 10 January, 2012 00:03
Mondli Makhanya
Image by: Sunday Times

The ANC's retreat into ethnic thinking betrays that dream, and the hopes and plans of its own founders for a South Africa free from the dead hand of racism

US presidential hopeful Rick Santorum gave a stirring speech after his unexpectedly strong finish in Iowa this week. He spoke of how his grandfather arrived in the US last century, fleeing Mussolini's fascist Italy. He worked in the coal mines and saved to bring his family from Italy, then proceeded to work even harder to give his children a better shot in life than he had.

Today his grandson is a senator and a presidential hopeful. The story is what the people of that nation call the American Dream.

In 2008 another presidential hopeful by the name of Barack Obama told a similarly inspirational story. Obama, the son of a Kenyan father and an American mother, went on to become president.

Although their stories illustrate the so-called American Dream, the two men could not be more different. Obama's credentials need no edification; Santorum is a scary bigot who taps into the worst instincts of the Budweiser-swilling and burger-eating American.

The common factor in the stories is that the men live in a society which, with all its imperfections, accepts that it is great because it is the sum of all its parts. They live in a society that knows that to be American is not necessarily to be the son of pilgrims and slaves - and that if you are the spawn of illegal immigrants from China, Ukraine and Guyana, you are also assimilated. The extremes in the society will hate you and want to marginalise you, but they swim against the tide.

The US is very, very far from perfect but its spirit embraces the fact that Americanism is an evolving concept.

The nation's founding fathers (note to feminists: it appears there were no mothers back then) dreamed of different white ethnicities melding into one great society. Today's US is the product of their limited but nonetheless big dreaming.

This is a challenge that the ANC, which turns 100 today, has to face up to as it leads the construction of a new society. Like the US's founding fathers, the ANC's founding fathers (note to feminists: there appear to have been no mothers here either) dreamed of a society of different races and ethnicities. The organisation they created was unique in that, in its composition and thinking, it refused to let race take centre stage.

They sought to forge a common identity among South Africans in the face of a political system that - in those colonial times - wanted to emphasise difference.

When one witnesses ethnic conflict and ethnically based patronage on our continent and other parts of the world, you have to be grateful that the struggle that gave us our democracy spurned such narrow thinking. For that, we have the ANC to thank.

But the very same ANC today does not realise that the dream of a nonracial, non-ethnic society is the reason humanity celebrated so deliriously when our republic was born.

Today one sees a retreat into the kind of ethnic thinking that the leaders who met in Bloemfontein in January 1912 sought to kill. There are some who will accuse this lowly newspaperman of seeing nothing good in the man who is paid and pampered to lead our nation, but there is much in the leadership of the present that is the antithesis of the 1912 dream. There is a retreat to ethnic mobilisation, which seem to have a tacit nod from the top.

Transformation is seen and used as a divisive tool rather than a centrepiece of our nation-building project. It has become a loaded word that presupposes exclusion of sections of society and dominance of one group over others.

The projection of South Africanness is an afterthought left to poorly written and atrociously delivered speeches.

I know that this is the last thing on the minds of the Range Rover-driving elites who descended on Mangaung this weekend but in this, its centenary year, the ANC has to think about the nonracial and non-ethnic legacy this generation must bequeath to those who will inherit South Africa.

Later this year, the ANC and its allies will be holding crucial gatherings which will determine the direction of our country. Over and above the dominant issues of economic policy and the political survival of Jacob Zuma, the ANC would do well at these get-togethers to dwell on the dream of the liberation struggle's founding fathers.

The notion of South Africanness needs to be a theme that runs through the conversations of the ANC, its allies, other political parties and the whole of South Africa. First and foremost, we need to nip in the bud the retreat to ethnic thinking in the governing party.

It is an important conversation to resume. It will also help us to not only live harmoniously with each other, but also realise that Bangladeshi, Somali and Bulgarian immigrants are as South African as we are. That the crocodile dodgers who cross the Limpopo to escape the bespectacled dictator who has Dinner for One are us.

That is what will make us the great nation that we want to be, and deserve to be.

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