In 1994, when millions of South Africans lined up to cast their ballots, there was something in the air – an expectation of a new horizon, a democratic dispensation that would essentially break the shackles of poverty, inequality and exclusion.
24 years later, the country is not without pain and the transformation of South African society is proceeding for the majority at a sluggish pace.
The transition into a democratic dispensation had bodies such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) tasked to delve into the violence and human rights violations of the apartheid era. It was a process that was not without flaws as it separated the systematic injustices and oppressions from human rights violations. A link that would have been significant as the TRC was regarded as a necessity in the transition process and as a form of restorative justice.
Expectations at the time
South Africa today is not what some of us expected it to be. We have often asked ourselves, what did we do to allow the legacies of apartheid to define our current society? Were our dreams of a “new” South Africa and deep democracy naïve? Were we explicit enough about the serious and difficult business of building a completely new and different society? Was there a conscious step to intentionally build a society that is different from the “old country” that dehumanised the vast majority of South Africans? Were the events of 1994 meant to be only part one in a series of groundbreaking changes?
Post-1994 presented us with rare opportunities for building a radically inclusive society, where everybody could make a contribution on an ongoing, deliberate basis. Having regard to our colonial and apartheid pasts and presents, this path is fraught with pitfalls, unexpected curves and unanticipated difficulties. As Martin Luther King implored, “freedom is indivisible”.
The excitement and expectation of those heady feelings of a quarter of a century are tempered by different challenges and new generations with multiple perspectives. It may be of critical importance for all of us to evaluate the “new” South Africa through our multi-generational, identity and class-based lenses embarking on our different approaches in responding to the challenges of the day.
Human agency, the engine for renewal and development
Much like the spirit of the anti-apartheid movement, there is a need for collective efforts to speed up socio-economic justice. The democratic space that was opened up is being contested by communities demanding (as is their basic right) service-delivery and accountability of their elected public representatives.
The Fallist movement, to name but one, is laying the foundations for democratic engagement with all sectors of society in a radically and substantively different way. One can confidently state that we live in a qualitatively different country today than before ’94. The contexts are different and nobody is exempted from building a democratic society.
Many stark choices must be made by all – most of the time it seems that our pasts “weigh like dead weights” on our collective present and future. One can choose to act in the interest of the collective and not of a narrow group (old designated) interests.
A different country is possible
It may be appropriate at this time to invoke a long forgotten sentiment: “We do not need people who can dream of things that were but dream of things that never were.” This may be a tall order indeed, but we can try – a different country is possible.
We must learn from the mistakes of rainbowism and intentionally and deliberately demand of ourselves a new society where black doesn’t equal poverty, where white doesn’t guarantee progress and where being a black woman doesn’t make you especially vulnerable. We must hold our historical narrative, the one that was shared and now increasingly being contested by the far right, to be true and evaluate and critique it in an attempt to be better and not for revisionism.
Our dignity demands that of us. We owe it to this country; we owe it to ourselves.