In 1994, so the story goes, something remarkable happened: Nelson Mandela stood in front of the world and proclaimed that the new South Africa would be a nation “at peace with itself” – the full speech is worth a read.
18 years later in 2012, 34 striking mineworkers were killed by police in what has now become a symbol for how little things have really changed.
Whilst on the surface there are a lot of things which have changed for the better – electrification, housing, access to education and so on – the growing consensus seems to be that we are no longer moving in the right direction. The unfortunate reality is that there has not been much in the way of fundamental transformation of the way society works. I think most people can agree that there should have been change post-1994. The location of the debate is about what that change should look like and what pathway it should take.
I don’t really want to engage the current version of this debate yet – it’s quite a mess. Instead I want to touch on a few aspects which highlight the state of play and how this creates a lot of tension.
Two words which convey a big part of the burden we still carry today. The Group Areas Act was responsible for the face of SA today – every village, town or city divided physically along racial lines (because of the way the economy was structured, this also means that class and spatial divisions today cannot really be separated from their racial history).
There has not been a lot of progress in addressing and rectifying forced removals – District 6 in Cape Town was declared “whites only” and bulldozed in 70’s and 80’s. The area today stands mostly empty. Just around the corner, in Salt River and Woodstock, rapid gentrification has resulted in people being evicted and, often, transplanted to far flung outlying “temporary” relocation camps. The only difference is that now this occurs in the context of the unaddressed economic apartheid which has been left to fester.
Free (higher) education
For the last two years running, there have been protests at universities across the country demanding that the government do something about the unaffordability of higher education. That’s the short version but, having lived through it I can tell you that the demand goes much deeper – perhaps more on that some other time.
The main takeaway from this movement is that it is in fact those who have been supposedly “born free” that have taken up the mantle of pushing for more than just political freedom. Obviously, student protests have always been there – the difference I see today is that the demand comes in terms of picking up where the democratic revolution left off.
For some, the fact that everyone can now vote and enjoy the same rights means that debate framed from the perspective of race is off-limits (because everyone is now equal). For others, race is the elementary unit of analysis. I don’t think I’ve entirely made up my mind – probably because it will turn out to be a false dichotomy. On the one hand, it is clearly impossible to hold that racialised inequality is a thing of the past. On the other hand, race is also very clearly a social construct. Until we can somehow bring the two views together, we’ll always have people talking past one another.
The big question I find myself asking about the whole business is how those in power at the time of the transition actually imagined it would play out. Did no one anticipate having to make any sacrifices or changes to the way their lives were lived? I ask this in the context not so much of the bigger systemic issues themselves but in relation to the endless petty opposition to addressing it. An unwillingness to live in a different society is the defining generation gap as far as I can see.