16 December, Day of Reconciliation
16 December, the Day of Reconciliation in South Africa, is a day when we are required to turn our attention consciously to the idea of reconciliation. Our democratic government wishes us to become one nation. But we still live in the infrastructures created by apartheid. We are still constantly reminded of our ethnicity, that we are European, African, Coloured and Indian. Consciousness of race and ethnicity was built into our psyches and the majority still believe in their superiority or inferiority. It is a government that sets the ethos of a country. Apartheid, based on a strong historical tradition of colonialism, set up structures and infrastructures that will bedevil us for years to come unless we can change those structures and infrastructures - an extremely difficult undertaking.
Since 1994, the government has been doing its best to overcome the ethos of the previous regime but the problems it inherited cannot be wiped away simply by deracialising the structures created by apartheid. Such structures are still apartheid structures. New structures need to be created. The development of multi-party government was such an attempt but it produced one party with great power and many tiny parties with no power. These lesser parties reflect the old apartheid dispensation with its divisions into racial, ethnic and religious groupings and keep alive the racism that the struggle for liberation sought to destroy.
We need to create new structures and infrastructures that are not based on race. This is very difficult as the apartheid system created tremendous inequality; it kept the majority of people at a low level of skills development. To overcome the effects of poor education, the new government introduced affirmative action (AA). But affirmative action that does not provide the support and mentorship required to ensure that AA appointees function capably, reinforces the idea of racism and people begin to see it as unfair and to experience it as incompetence and the lowering of standards. And that stimulates the racism that we are all trying to overcome. Those who had the privilege of good education look down on those who are struggling to catch up. They forget that those apartheid structures that privileged them were, in effect, affirmative action structures that ensured their progress.
BEE and AA have addressed racial discrepancies mainly at the upper class level where people are fairly well integrated and prosperous but at the majority level, people still live in a situation of discrimination because people of the middle and lower classes are unable to get out of the ghettoes to which they were confined by apartheid.
The ethos of democracy, therefore, does not yet prevail and will not prevail as long as we continue to live under apartheid structures. Superficial attempts to change, such as the renaming of streets, only cause confusion and insecurity. A sincere effort to deracialise the society requires the creation of new structures and infrastructures. The institutions of society are what inculcate the attitudes that we develop about ourselves, about others, about belonging to a nation. As long as poor African people have to travel long distances to get to work, as long as they live in squatter camps* where crime is rife, as long as education continues in a foreign language for the majority, as long as we tolerate high levels of unemployment especially among the youth, we are not creating the conditions for a non-racial democracy.
Reconciliation can only happen when we all accept a common understanding of democracy that is derived from the structures and infrastructures that secure our lives.
*Informal settlements is a euphemism for the reality.