On the eve of the 22nd Reconciliation Day after the founding of a democratic South Africa, the question must be raised: What happened to the reconciling rainbow nation of Mandela, De Klerk and Tutu? Because it is, sadly, very clear that reconciliation and tolerance are in short supply in South Africa today.
A few examples will prove the point: xenophobic attacks on foreigners, intolerance amongst and even inside political parties (especially in Parliament), the recent examples of attacks on and damage to statues, and the violence and racist undertones of some of the student protests.
Tony Ehrenreich’s now infamous statement in the controversy over the naming of a Cape Town street after FW de Klerk said it all: “The phase of reconciliation that brought together fair-minded white and black people is over. We are now engaged in a struggle for economic and social justice.”
In this vein, many political leaders play the race card and whip up emotions around race - in direct contrast to a spirit of unity and reconciliation. Indeed, it was significant that the concept of reconciliation as an imperative was almost totally absent in the documents served before the National General Council meeting of the ANC earlier this year.
Does it therefore still have meaning to celebrate the Day of Reconciliation? Is it necessary? Does it have a place in South Africa today? There are three reasons why the answer must be “yes”.
In the first instance, in a country with South Africa’s divided past and diverse present, ongoing reconciliation and tolerance must be a priority. Otherwise the new generations will fall back into racism, chauvinism and stereotyping - and ultimately polarisation and hatred.
Secondly, reconciliation and tolerance as principles of respect for others and peaceful co-existence are embedded in our Constitution. Without these, it is unimaginable that human rights, mutual respect and national unity could be possible.
And finally, reconciliation and tolerance are two of the most important mechanisms to counteract the ANC’s quest for racialising South African society through the ideology of transformation with its 80-9-9-2 racial formula of demographic representivity. If South Africans respect each other and live as reconciled citizens, we will not see each other merely as “black” or “white” or “coloured”, but as fellow South Africans united by true patriotism to a country and a constitution.
But to achieve this, it must be kept in mind that reconciliation is a process and not an event or even a series of events. It cannot ever be “over”. Together with tolerance, it must remain a way of life for all South Africans. That is why we are and should be reminded of this important process once a year through the celebration of the Day of Reconciliation.
Reconciliation and tolerance are only possible between people who accept each other’s bona fides and acknowledge each other’s right of existence. It becomes very difficult if the demand of some to “feel at home” rests on the premise of being in the racial majority and in control in every sphere of life and organisation, and furthermore presupposes that the minorities must waive their cultural, language and religious rights - as is apparent from the demands of the Open Stellenbosch campaign.
Reconciliation and tolerance can only survive and prosper if there is honesty, communication and respect when South Africans speak to each other and about each other. Abuse and stereotyping are in direct contrast to these important concepts and should be seen as forms of racism and intolerance. On the other hand, false friendliness and political correctness also do not assist us going forward.
In conclusion: even though it appears that reconciliation and tolerance are at a low point at political and ideological level, there is still a huge amount of goodwill amongst “ordinary” South Africans. Perhaps we were naïve to think that after 20 years reconciliation and tolerance would have been “achieved”. With a new wave of intolerance and racial polarisation, it is clear that ordinary South Africans must lead this process. True and sustainable reconciliation and tolerance are processes that must grow from below. It is something that South Africans at grass roots level can do something about. You don’t need a government decision or a law - you can begin or continue tomorrow…
Dr Theuns Eloff, Chairman of the FW de Klerk Foundation