A country coming out of the dark

In 1948 white SA made a catastrophic choice. In choosing to elect Daniel Francois Malan and his National Party with its policy of apartheid, SA was perversely turning against the entire tide of human history. With the revealing of the Nazi death camps and their millions of Jewish, Gypsy and other victims only a few years before, in 1945, at the end of World War II, the notion of racism being somehow a legitimate basis on which to formulate policy for a society was swept away in all its utter ghastliness. That white SA could proceed then to follow a party that legalised racism and discrimination across every facet of human life in this country is to our lasting shame as white people.

Since the advent of democracy, the unveiling of so many bitter truths in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and under the largely wise and moderate leadership of the ANC, history is moving on. The scars of the past are deep and remain extremely painful for black people, but in so many walks of life people of all colours are finding ways to reach out to one another and rebuild our once-divided and even, at times, shattered society.

It is now nearly 65 years later and new stresses and strains are beginning to take deep hold in our country. The ANC leadership is in increasing disarray, by many in the organisation’s own admission, and factionalism, corruption and incompetence are threatening the governance of our land. The growing gap between rich and poor, and poor people’s increasing dissatisfaction with the lack of job opportunities and service delivery, are deep-rooted problems that threaten the stability of our land.

However, since the worldwide economic crash in 2008, there is another, infinitely more hopeful, strain of thinking that has taken root here. SA has weathered this economic storm relatively well, and, while no one can deny our problems, the country has much stronger economic fundamentals than many others in the world. While the fallout from the crisis has certainly not receded entirely, and several dangers remain, in retrospect 2008 was a watershed year for this country.

After the disastrous choice that white SA made in 1948, the future of SA was always in doubt with the rapid imposition of the apartheid laws in the 1950s, the Defiance Campaign, the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, the jailing of Nelson Mandela and other leaders, the 1976 uprisings, the states of emergency in 1985 and 1986, the killing of Chris Hani and on and on. For generations South Africans grew up unable to believe confidently in the future.

For six decades, South Africans perceived their country and its future largely as a one-way negative bet. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps even a million, skilled people emigrated or went into political exile. It was a societal culling of largely enlightened, decent people who had much to offer. That it went on for so long and that the country survived is the subject of many other articles. We lived in a country where white fear and black anger became twisted deeply into our national identity. We became a pariah state in the wider world.

We found a way out of this mess, largely thanks to Nelson Mandela, but still the negativity persisted, and it is by no means entirely gone. But since 2008, for the first time since 1948, South Africans have been able to look at their country and know that it is no longer a one-way bet.

This is a fundamental identity shift that in many ways is also a major generational swing. There are far too many people over 40 who are still stuck in the past. Many white people cannot bring themselves to believe that the country is, after all, working; many black people cannot look to a future where liberation from apartheid is not the only political reality that matters.It is, certainly, also a class divide. Class, rather than race, is slowly beginning to define the chasm in our society. In the past few years I have been consistently struck by the fact that everywhere I go, from Soweto to Polokwane to Cape Town, younger people who are middle class of all races feel a strong sense of confidence and optimism about the country.

The scars of apartheid run deep, significant differences remain between the experiences of many black and white young people, but there are growing numbers who increasingly have a shared background. Importantly, there is a strong sense among them of belonging here, in SA. They may want to travel to broaden their horizons, or to further their careers, but many of them, perhaps even most of them, come home. White children simply do not see Britain, or the US, say, as their ultimate cultural or political yardstick. Black children no longer look to sclerotic Cuba or the long-disappeared Soviet Union as exemplifying their hopes for the country. When they look at a country like Greece, they know very well how much better life in SA is for them. The middle classes have the opportunity to see our country in a completely different light from the past.

We need to unshackle ourselves from decades-old prejudices and worn-out ideological loyalties and continuously re-imagine our place in a rapidly changing world. We face problems, but there has never been a better time to be a South African.


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