Open to Debate
This year has been a milestone one, not only for South Africa, but also for the IJR and the SA Reconciliation Barometer. At the Institute, we have dedicated a great deal of time to reflections on the current state of reconciliation in South Africa, as well as our own role in its promotion, support and measurement.
As part of this reflective process, IJR executive director Fanie du Toit and senior research fellow Erik Doxtader co-edited a recently released collection of essays, entitled In the Balance: South Africans debate reconciliation. While the authors celebrate the country’s progress in reconciliation so far, they also unambiguously point to substantial challenges facing both cur-rent and future generations of South Africans. However, many also stop short of providing practical solutions, and this is the work that remains.
In the Balance includes a fascinating mix of topics and opinion, which du Toit and Doxtader connect to three broad questions: Where did the TRC leave us? Does reconciliation matter? Do we need a new consensus about reconciliation?
Overall, the collection of essays suggests that reconciliation is no longer the buzzword it was 16 years ago, and many contributing authors confirm that the past, present and future of this process in South Africa remain open to debate. They propose that the reconciliation conversation is one largely cloistered among community leaders, policy-makers, academics and political analysts, while many ordinary citizens appear to have moved on to other, more pressing concerns. This is attributed to a number of factors, including the devastating effects of the global recession on South Africa’s economy, as well as a larger collective fatigue with the debate.
However, despite this trend, the need for continued political and socioeconomic transformation persists, if not for the present generation then for future ones.
Most of the essays also use inclusive pronouns like ‘we’, ‘our’ and ‘us’, but are unclear as to who exactly this represents. While reconciliation is undoubtedly a collective effort, it remains unclear as to which groups or individuals should be responsible for driving the project, and who are the intended beneficiaries – though the process should ultimately benefit the entire society.
I personally have only limited experience in this matter: I was born in 1987 in Botswana, and only moved to South Africa earlier this year. However, the young South Africans around me are growing up in the shadow of apartheid’s various legacies. In his essay ‘Arriving Home? South Africa beyond transition and reconciliation’, Professor Njabulo Ndebele refers to these as ‘resilient factors’, or ‘elements of personal or institutional behaviour which resist change by simulating it in such a way that in the end there is only the impression of change’.
Raenette Taljaard’s moving yet surprising piece ‘Forgiven’ stands out as the only fictional essay included in the collection. The plot revolves around two young women from opposite ends of the political spectrum: one the daughter of an apartheid state agent and the other of an ANC activist, unwittingly united by a single, violent act revealed to the entire nation during the TRC. Taljaard’s approach brought genuine accessibility to the themesof forgiveness, intergenerational guilt and responsibility. Yet, like other essays in the book, it does not offer concrete answers to the difficult questions the country is currently facing, and the author’s focus on the TRC ties the narrative to South Africa’s more conventional, historic reconciliation efforts.
Former president Thabo Mbeki also calls for greater unification across racial, gender and age divisions, writing: ‘Each one of us, in our own selfish interest, must be ready to invest in our future and therefore make the necessary sacrifices.’
There is, however, an emerging literature (both in fiction and non-fiction) considering a broader notion of reconciliation that goes beyond political crimes. For example, in her essay ‘Truth, Reconciliation and Women in South Africa’, Pregs Govender writes, ‘“Gross human rights violations” are, tragically, the tip of apartheid’s iceberg … For the majority of South Africa’s citizens the toll is intergenerational: their lives, the lives of their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, including those born into democracy, remain forever trapped by apartheid’s endless cycles of poverty and violence.’ Here, Govender addresses the difficult reality that there is no single mechanism that can resolve the problems emanating from apartheid’s structural societal and economic violence.
Jonathan Jansen also observes that continued segregation in the context of university campuses, in residences, classes, student government, social groups and sports teams has led to the entrenching of a culture in which crises – such as the Reitz hostel scandal that occurred two years ago – provoke the racialising of issues and conflict. He describes the University of the Free State as ‘easily South Africa’s most racially desegregated campus but at the same time its most racially segregated university community’, and calls for greater institutional responsibility in changing the inherent meaning of students’ experiences.
The IJR’s SA Reconciliation Barometer Survey hypothesises that ‘if citizens of different races hold fewer negative perceptions of each other, they are more likely to form workable relationships that will advance reconciliation’, but this relies on meaningful interracial interaction. By distinguishing between geographic space and the concept of a community of individuals, Jansen’s argument puts the onus on administrators to create a conducive learning environment for reconciliation as a crucial piece of the puzzle in addressing second-generational trauma.
The book’s final food for thought confirms what most South Africans already suspect: although there was a common vision for a reconciled nation in 1994, there is no easy fix and time will not automatically heal apartheid’s wounds. This means that even individuals and generations that had nothing to do with the nation’s apartheid past will have to pay the collective price for peace and prosperity. So far, however, it is unclear what the next steps to take will be, and whether or not every citizen is truly prepared to take them.