Why celebrate reconciliation when we’re failing at it?


For reconciliation to occur and be meaningful it must be accompanied by justice, a relinquishing of power and privilege, and of wealth, and according to Danielle Hoffmeester, it also requires the will to share our spaces – something which South Africans are failing dismally at.

I remember one afternoon at university when my fellow students and I were Skype-calling a group of Egyptian students from the American University in Cairo. We compared and contrasted our respective contexts, specifically our countries’ political climates. One Egyptian student asked us a question that continues to plague and puzzle me: what unifies South Africans? My fellow classmates and I were dumbfounded; we had not the foggiest idea how we should respond. The irony was not lost on us; we were a racially diverse group that shared relatively similar political ideologies, and yet each of us knew we would respond differently to one another – no unity there.

After a long silence, someone eventually answered “sport”, and he substantiated this through invoking old Castle Lager beer commercials that touted and marketed South Africa as a rainbow nation; how black and white would gather around a fire, clinking glasses, turning the lamb chops over, and merrily sing along to Shosholoza while we watched a racially exclusive Springbok team try and defeat the All Blacks. Since the political pressure of including more black players into rugby and other white-dominant sports, and following the dismal defeats faced by the Bokke, and their abysmal coach (not to mention Bafana), I think sport has ceased to be a unifier in contemporary South Africa. And if we are honest with ourselves, sport was never more than a Mickey Mouse bandage plastered over a deep gash that continues to seep blood 23 years after the democratic dispensation, regardless of what beer commercials capitalising on trauma try to tell us.

In a time of deep societal fragmentation along a myriad of social lines – race, class, gender, politics – is there a unifying denominator in South Africa? Has the rainbow nation dream been abandoned in favour of so-called race wars, urged and fuelled by the media, politicians and some sects in civil society? And what does this mean for the reconciliation project? What must happen if we cannot reconcile? And is reconciliation important?

South Africans are hyper cognisant of what divides us; we are able to eloquently recite our differences, while simultaneously attempting to deny them. We can identify social constructs, yet remain ignorant to the tangible effects these constructs have on the lives of (historically) marginalised groups. There has been (and I use the past tense deliberately) a desperate hold on by the middle class to the realisation of Archbishop Tutu’s rainbow nation, and, frequently to the detriment of that utopia; we have ignored and consequently failed to address the very issues that bar us from realising the fullness of our rich diversity, instead opting to invoke superficial Band-Aids to heal deep systemic wounds.

And so when particular topics are raised that carry with them the potential for division, a high percentage of South Africa’s lower and middle classes will implore others – often of the working class – to move on, and/or to forgive because they think it is the only way South Africa can progress. And forgiveness is all reconciliation means to many of them; it is all that they need, and all that they presume South Africa needs to establish positive peace. But they – we – are mistaken.

People cannot eat reconciliation; we cannot sustain ourselves off kumbaya. For reconciliation to occur and be meaningful it must be accompanied by justice; it will require a relinquishing of power and privilege, of wealth, and of space. It will require the recognition of our gross inequalities, and the deep collective trauma that was tied around our necks during colonialism, and that weighs us down, still, through perpetual civil unrest and violent conflict. And it will go beyond recognition to sustained dialogue and active attempts at amends and reparations. It will be accommodated in policy. It will reflect in the private sector.

The monumental threat to reconciliation

The South African polity is afflicted by multiple divisions: 1) structural and institutional exclusion that still correlates with apartheid boundaries, 2) wide disparities in income and wealth between different class and racial groupings,  3) pervasive patriarchy that continues to exclude and ex-communicate vulnerable gender and sexual identities from living and making a living, and 4) continuous incidences of racist and xenophobic confrontations, and the persistence of its underlying sentiments. The country remains one of the most divided and unequal societies in the world; this inequality- along racial, gender and socio-economic lines – is a monumental threat to the reconciliation project. This is not to say that inequality is unnatural, but that inequality established on the basis of arbitrary social constructs such as race and gender are a cinder block to meaningful reconciliation and social cohesion.

After all, what does it mean when we have a society in which the majority of its population faces relative poverty, or is unemployed? What will it mean for a country with a huge youth bulge who scoff at being labelled ‘born-free’, for where is the freedom in poverty? In being blocked from pursuing higher education? And what will it mean for a country that faces levels of gender-based violence that mirrors violence committed in other countries undergoing civil war? What will the above-mentioned mean for reconciliation when all who are affected by the afore are excluded from actively participating in and driving the reconciliation process? It means the country is a ticking time bomb.

This Reconciliation Day, it is imperative for us to ask ourselves what really reconciles us to one another, and answer honestly. What does it mean for us to be reconciled and what does/ would this look like across the country, in our social relations, and our economic and political systems? And, perhaps provocatively, ask ourselves if reconciliation is imperative to us, and takes precedence over systemic and structural inequalities? Or will reconciliation be achieved, ipso facto, once we effectively address the socio-economic challenges faced by South Africans? Do we, even, want to be reconciled – do I want you in my space – or do we just want to live?

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Why celebrate reconciliation when we’re failing at it?