Clive Derby-Lewis’ release from prison and Thando Mgqolozana’s self-removal from future literary festivals in Franschhoek share a similarity: both precipitated criticism of former president Nelson Mandela.
In a column in The New York Times, activist Sisonke Msimang declared herself “tired of the empty politics of reconciliation”, calling it a “choreographed unity”, and hoped that she would find “succour in knowing that Derby-Lewis would likely die in jail” for the murder of Chris Hani.
In the same article, she wrote that she would “like to think that [Hani] would have defied his mentor, Mr Mandela, by offering us a less conciliatory path to dignity”. Mgqolozana is reported to have said: “We need to be angry at Nelson Mandela. I don’t think black people are angry enough at Nelson Mandela.”
Their anger is presumably rooted in part either in the perception that Mandela pursued reconciliation at the expense of social justice, or that he allowed white people to get away with not playing an active and critical role in fostering reconciliation.
According to this narrative, pursuing reconciliation as Mandela did was either a waste of time or, at best, should never have been more important than social justice. Mandela should take a large share of the blame for the state we are in, and so, the thinking goes, we should be angry, or at least critical of him.
While the anger Mgqolozana, Msimang and others manifest is unreservedly understandable, it reflects a flawed reading of history. In fact, for Mandela, reconciliation was not an objective to be chased at the expense of any other. For Mandela, justice was the measure against which reconciliation would be judged. Racial interdependence for Mandela insisted on the concrete redress of apartheid injustice as reconciliation’s key outcome.
In a speech to Parliament after his first 100 days in office, Mandela said: “From the outset, the Government of National Unity set itself two interrelated tasks: reconciliation and reconstruction, nation-building and development.”
The key is this: Mandela recognised that reconciliation and reconstruction would postdate his presidency. He set us on a path that we have not fully walked. Instead, there has been a lack of follow-through on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations, dithering on HIV/Aids, and rampant inefficiency and corruption in the private sector and government.
This is not to suggest that we should not critically review Mandela’s presidency – we should, but only on the basis of an accurate reading of history. Mandela’s presidency featured our reintroduction to the global community and all that entailed, including the massive reshaping of the national economy and a reprioritised social agenda.
There can be no denying that there is work to be done to fashion a sustainable and robust national reconciliation.
Academic and activist Steven Friedman wrote some time ago that reconciliation has failed because we have not tried it yet. For him, reconciliation would have involved debate and dialogue and, ultimately, a settlement of two key questions: how to talk about race so that over time it matters less rather than more, and a grand economic bargain to settle on how much capital we need as a country to grow, against the capital that ought to be redistributed. Because we have not reached these agreements, he wrote, we constantly bicker around the edges of the debate.
In other words, the anger we feel as South Africans is perhaps less because of the path Mandela steered us upon, and perhaps more because we have not followed it with enough urgency. If we look carefully enough, we can see where things have begun to fall apart.
The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s annual SA Reconciliation Barometer Report in 2014 analysed the first decade of published survey data that show that levels of interracial contact and socialisation have improved and, with this, levels of interracial trust: the percentage of South Africans who report often or always talking to someone from another race in a social setting increased from 10.4% in 2003 to 23.5% in 2013. But it also shows that the poor (mostly black people) remain excluded from such contact.
Depressingly, the survey shows low, and falling, levels of support among white South Africans for concrete and material redress and, similarly, a lack of acknowledgement among them that apartheid resulted in the poverty of many black South Africans today. At the same time, there is an erosion of national unity, partly because of perceived poor leadership and corruption that has resulted in fewer people subscribing to a belief in a united South Africa.
There is a sharp choice facing South Africans: either we continue “choreographed unity” and deny the poor social justice with the consequences that brings; or we make the grand pact Friedman suggests, have the right conversations about redistribution and include the poor in those discussions, and give genuine reconciliation a go.
It starts with the urgently needed understanding that reconciliation and social justice rely on us coming close enough to one another to start caring for each other. But how can we, if we remain embedded in our cultural suppositions, our racial enclaves? And are these not two things Mandela gave us: the willingness to walk with each other and the ability to care for one another along the way?
Du Toit is executive director of the Institute for Reconciliation and Justice