Let's Think

Was the rainbow nation ‘miracle’ an illusion?

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It would seem as though the dream of a ‘rainbow nation’ has died for a very large slice of the South African population – especially so for the post-1994 generation.

It is, however, not only the younger generation that feels let down and disillusioned.   At a recent conference of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, liberation struggle icon Justice Albie Sachs said “South Africa is the country that we fought for, but this is not the society we fought for.” The theme of the conference was “Seeking the Ethical Foundations of the South African Nation”.

But Judge Sachs and his generation, who ‘delivered’ the 1994 miracle after the negotiations between the leaders of the liberation struggle and the apartheid regime, are also presently undergoing a proses of revaluation by the next generation, the so-called ‘born frees’.

Some of the conclusions reached – as the rebellion on the country’s tertiary education campuses is building to a fever pitch - are that they were sell-outs in the compromises they made. Not even the icon of all icons from that time, Nelson Mandela, is spared in the process.

In an in-depth analyses of how that process of miracle-making developed, Dion Forster, head of the Department of Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology at Stellenbosch University, in an article on The Conversation website, reminds us how controversial Oxford University student and Mandela Rhodes scholar, Ntokozo Sbo Qwabe recently reflected on the “generation of miracle makers”.

Qwabe, one of the leading figures in the youth rebellion that started with the 2015 #RhodesMustFall campaign, in a Facebook post said: “Older black people who want to silence us on the basis that they fought against apartheid need to shut the f… up!!! We are here because you failed us! So please!”

But to think that this deeply felt emotion of disillusionment is only present in the black component of our society, would be a mistake.

Only last week I received an e-mail message that read: “Piet, what do you say about the mess in the country? I wonder if FW de Klerk can hand back his Nobel Peace Prize, because all the peace in the country has disappeared.”

Broader perspective

Foster is probably right when he asserts that a sort of “civil religion” developed around the illusion of a miracle in the peaceful transition to democracy.

Fact is that neither Mandela nor De Klerk as the leaders of the two main opposing camps acted on, or led their respective camps, on the basis of a revelation or revelations of the road to follow, but on a rational and pragmatic basis of what they judged was in the best interest of the country and their followers.

It called for compromises and was set in a global trend of volatile democratisation in many parts of the world, and with an economy that was heading for stagnation. To help fuel the transition, even the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for compromises.

It is often, or mostly, forgotten that the initial period of transition in the run-up to the 1994 election of a constitutional negotiating forum, which had to double up as an interim parliament, was not all that peaceful. There were violent clashes between competing factions in townships in Gauteng (often centred around hostel-dwelling migrant workers and township residents). And in KwaZulu-Natal it often seemed that civil war had broken out.

It should also be remembered that the joint Nobel Prize for De Klerk and Mandela was among other things inspired by the fact that South Africa became the first country in the world to dismantle its nuclear arsenal. A decision probably inspired by the foresight that the transition to democracy could go wrong and not necessarily deliver a moderate government.

What went wrong

For those who were denied full citizenship and opportunities before, expectations were enormous – and they were fed political promises during election campaign time. For those who were privileged before, the expectation was not only that their lifestyle would remain the same, but also that it would become more relaxed.

But for the previously disadvantaged the expected result did not become a reality quickly enough and the policies of the new government did not succeed in empowering them properly via educational structures and access to full property rights and more to compete successfully in a modern economy.

A feeling developed that the constitution protects the rights of the privileged and does not go far enough in allowing for restorative justice for the poor. And that the policies of the new democratic government just succeeded in adding some new -  black - faces to the already existing elite, rendering society even more divided along economic lines.

While apartheid left a largely negative legacy, it did, however also leave the country with the most sophisticated and diversified economy on the African continent. The fact that more than two decades after the arrival of a new dispensation it has not been restructured to include the majority of the nation, is not only the mistake of the government.

It is true that government with inadequate policies on the front of education, shortcut approaches like simplistic quota-driven black economic empowerment, the political power-driven corruption and ‘insidership’ made a huge contribution to the disillusionment that now reigns.

However, the private sector, and especially ‘big business’, has not done enough to reach out to the previously excluded majority to draw them into the modern economy.

Likewise, traditional Afrikaner and other societal organisations could probably, on a practical level, do more to share their experience with efforts post the Great Depression of solving the ‘problem’ of the poor whites of that era.

In short, the real miracle emanating from the icons and wider leadership of the previous generation is the opportunity it created for a peaceful transition. To sustain that ‘miracle’, however, is in the hands of the present generation.

Miracles do not just happen, they emerge from practical and sustained efforts.

We concur with Forster who wrote in his article referred to above: “The poet June Jordan said it most aptly, reflecting on the women’s march to the Union Buildings in 1956:


        And who will join this standing up

    … We are the ones we have been waiting for.


by Piet Coetzer

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