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Overcoming our past

Lindiwe Mazibuko | 2011-08-04 00:25:01.0
DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko. Picture: GALLO IMAGES

Are South African politics really only about black politics? The short answer must surely be "no", that is the one thing it is not. Or certainly it should not be if we are trying to achieve the aims of redress, reconciliation, delivery and diversity - which South Africa so desperately needs to undo the legacy of discrimination, the fruits of which are still with us today.

We cannot begin to forge a shared future of freedom, equality and prosperity for all the people of this country if our first assumption is that the politics of one racial group are considered more relevant than those of another. The very words "reconciliation, diversity, redress" speak to the needs of all of South Africa's people, not just some - even if some make up the vast majority of the population.

South African politics may be highly racialised, but this is informed by each and every racial grouping in the country, and within these, a plethora of different needs, views and responses to the past and the future.

The politics in South Africa today are increasingly about the struggle to overcome our past - in particular how to undo the emotional and the socioeconomic damage wrought by policies of racial and gender discrimination under apartheid. In short, it is the struggle to attain freedom for all. Unfortunately, this means different things to different people and politicians.

To some, it necessarily requires the rise of a black ruling class which will ultimately be at the centre of every aspect of public life. In other words, some see black domination today as the appropriate response to the white domination of apartheid. Former president Nelson Mandela spoke eloquently and famously against both forms of domination in his iconic speech from the dock during the Rivonia Trial in April 1964.

To others, redressing the imbalances of the past is about striving towards equality and diversity; in particular, equality of access to opportunity, resources and power.

Indeed, with respect to party politics, as the electorate's voting choices have rendered the fringe ideologies of smaller opposition parties increasingly irrelevant, the debate between the two main parties - the DA and the ANC - has also become about the best way to achieve these goals.

Some people in South Africa want to make this country's politics about "black politics" only. Not all are in the ANC, and not all of those in the ANC want this.

But since the party has failed categorically to repudiate the words of those who peddle the politics of racial division in its name, we can only surmise that it hopes to capitalise on division for electoral success - while at the same time preaching non-racialism and claiming a commitment to the values of a glorious past.

The path of divisive, racial politics is an easy one, fuelled by populist rhetoric and conspiracy theories, straw men and distorted facts. It also appeals to the most wounded parts of the South African people's psyche - the anger, shame, denial, and deficit of self-esteem which apartheid has bequeathed to us. It is the path of easy villains, lack of empathy and understanding, and the peddling of fear, loathing and resentment. This is profoundly bad for South Africa and bad for democracy.

We have a tendency to forget that hatred is a moving target; one that can never be permanently vanquished. Perhaps the political leaps and bounds of 1994 led us to believe the journey to reconciliation was like a river we would cross over, and emerge on the other side, victorious, having slain the demons which followed us into the new dispensation. But if events like the recent massacre in Norway have taught us anything, it is that the battle to extinguish hatred based on ignorance is never over.

It requires constant vigilance, and regular examinations of our history - not to fashion it into a weapon, but to gain a better understanding of how it is that we are here today. It also requires that rational, thinking people who believe in our democratic dispensation and in the constitutional values upon which it is founded, stand up to those who seek to take us down the road of domination by one race group over all others.

On Freedom Day 2011, DA leader Helen Zille delivered a speech at Solomon Mahlangu Square in Mamelodi, Pretoria, in which she reflected upon the emotional and economic scars left by apartheid.

She said: "Let us be honest and give name to the feelings that oppress us still. There is anger and resentment, natural human responses to humiliation. There is a deficit of confidence and self-esteem. There is embarrassment and guilt. And there is that most pernicious of responses to our past, the anti-feeling that is denial. In all of us, there is a yearning to be seen and heard; to be understood.

"We cannot engage these feelings, nor reconstruct our relationship with ourselves and each other, by means of confrontation. And we cannot overcome the feelings that oppress us in court rooms. Nelson Mandela showed us the way forward. Reconciliation takes courage and generosity. And it takes time."

Likewise, Dr Mamphela Ramphele, in her book Laying Ghosts to Rest - whose entire premise is that the ghosts of our oppressive and repressive past must be named out loud before they can be laid to rest - takes a similar view.

Unless responsible leaders are willing to work daily to facilitate such discussions, based on the truth and on understanding, the populists and their cynical, short-term political ends will gain ground, our society will be driven deeper into re-racialism, and our chances of reaching mutual understanding so we can commit to protecting and defending each other's rights will be irrevocably extinguished.

  • This is an extract from a speech by DA National Spokesman Lindiwe Mazibuko MP, to the Cape Town Press Club, earlier this week

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