No Reconciliation

No Reconciliation without Material Dignity

The pursuit of national reconciliation came under significant pressure in 2011.The controversy around the wording of amendments to the Employment Equity Act, the Julius Malema hate speech trial, the reactionary response of several predominantly white organisations to Desmond Tutu’s call for a tax on apartheid beneficiaries, and Eric Miyeni’s racialised attack on City Press editor Ferial Haffajee, all reflect that much more needs to be done to create platforms where non-threatening conversations can shape social cohesion and inclusive outcomes. At best, the current status of the national reconciliation project is one of ‘unfinished business’.

Today South Africans commemorate the 17th National Day of Reconciliation, but many are unsure of the prospects for true reconciliation. According to the 2011 round of the SA Reconciliation Barometer Survey, conducted annually by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), 59% of South Africans feel that the country has become more reconciled since 1994. Just less half (47%) feel the TRC succeeded in bringing about reconciliation. However, only 36% agreed that they have personally experienced any form of reconciliation in their own lives. 22% noted that they have not, and the remainder were uncertain whether their experiences merit the term ‘reconciliation’. The latter finding – uncertainty about what the term really constitutes – may be telling in itself.

The fact that so few South Africans have personally experienced reconciliation in their own lives is indicative of two things. The first points to a finding in this year’s survey that the vast majority of South Africans are not socialising, or have never socialised, across the barriers of the country’s historically-defined racial categories. According to the 2011 SARB results, less than one-fifth of all South Africans (18.7%) regularly socialise with people they view to be of another race group. An additional one-fifth (20.6%) do so sometimes, and 59.1% rarely or never do.

We do seem to gather in neutral spaces during big sports events like the Soccer World Cup, but quickly retreat to comfortable, homogenous and racially-defined spaces once the party is over. The results show that more than half of all South Africans (55.3%) agree that they find the ‘ways and customs’ of other groups difficult to understand, and one-third (34.1%) that they do not trust them.

The expectation of social discomfort or a lack of commonality seems to be a profound deterrent to efforts to increase socialisation. One of the IJR focus groups participants, a professional woman, describes her experience after having been invited to the home of a neighbour from another group as follows:  ‘I sat there, we talked about the kids and the weather, but there is nothing else to talk about, you are so afraid to talk about things’. The survey data seem to confirm this sentiment. Most South Africans feel safest in identity-based groups, defined either by race, language and ethnicity. The choice of these intransigent categories, above association on the basis of a common South African identity, give credence to such observations.

Our unwillingness to move outside our own exclusive groups serves to reinforce the typical stereotypes we have about the ‘other’. Our constitution has provided the context for tolerance, and as a result most South Africans would today frown upon blatant racism. But tolerance far from enough for reconciliation. People like Prof. Jonathan Jansen highlight the need to acknowledge and accommodate other narratives and to move away from the stereotypes of ‘perpetrator’ or ‘victim’. This, of course, will require the creation of more inclusive safe spaces where we can listen and share our experiences. These spaces must offer individuals the safety to confront their own prejudice, but also to reach out without the cynicism that often accompanies attempts to breach historical divides.

These efforts will however be in vain if we do not address the material indignity that apartheid has inflicted amongst the majority of citizens.  Consecutive rounds of the survey have found that, when prompted to identify the most divisive feature of our society, the majority have pointed to the material inequality between rich and poor South Africans. Thirty-two per cent (32%) of South Africans feel that the gap between rich and poor represents the single biggest source of division in the country, followed by political party membership (22%) and race (20%). Forty-six per cent (46%) believe reconciliation is ‘impossible’ for as long as people who were disadvantaged under apartheid continue to be poor. Regardless of this, 66% still believe that national unity is a desirable goal for the country to pursue.

As we move further away from the moment of birth of our democratic dispensation, it should become increasingly apparent that mere gestures of tolerance are not enough. They do not provide the better life that many have fought and died for. Racial integration may be an ultimate objective, but this will never materialise in the absence of economic inclusion.  This day should – above anything else -serve to create more momentum towards addressing this unfinished business of our transition.

Nyoka is the project leader of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s Inclusive Economies Project. A version of this article appeared in the Cape Times on 16 December 2011.

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