The somewhat controversial idea that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was one of the worst things to have happened to South Africa certainly isn’t mine nor is it new, but I am starting to see the rationale behind that thinking. One of the biggest criticism, not just of the TRC but of the entire democratic transition and the subsequent creation of the post-apartheid rainbow nation ideal, is that they fostered the false perception that all the hard stuff was out of the way now and that South Africa had, from thenceforth, become a non-racial state. The perception was false because South Africa was still the same racially divided country it had been before, except that, now, nobody was doing anything about the racial rifts because it was believed to have already been done.
This week I read the headline “1 million coloured jobs on the line” for what it was. It was a message to coloured voters to say that the ANC-led government had proposed the amendments to the Employment Equity Act with the intention of taking away coloured jobs to give them to blacks. It was a call on coloured voters not to vote for the ANC. The research that fuelled the headline was the product of the mainly-white trade union Solidarity and the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance.
And last week, Blade Nzimande, the higher education minister, created brouhaha by making reference to a “darkie government” during a parliamentary session. He was saying this in perpetuation of the belief that the Democratic Alliance is a majority-white party that does not believe blacks are fit to govern.
These incidents are hardly isolated and are to be expected, I suppose, especially now given that 2011 is a municipal election year. And while politics is the sector most guilty of exploiting racial differences to get ahead, other sectors too are equally as complicit if only by their inaction.
While on Twitter, lazily crowdsourcing the reasons for the continued racial divisions in South Africa, in-denial journalist Unathi Kondile said, “Changes [to address racial divides] need to happen on a structural level. Not just [by saying,] ‘We are fine!’” Not only do I agree, I’m beginning to suspect that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the whole rainbow nation ideal did just that. They denied South Africans the opportunity to address racial divides at a structural level by creating the perception that we were fine and as a result, the fissures remain.
There are murmurs. People, influential and otherwise, recognise that South Africa has not achieved the level of social cohesion that had been hoped. President Jacob Zuma has in a few of his speeches made reference to the need for a national dialogue on social cohesion and the presidency has produced a study on social cohesion and social justice in South Africa. In her state of the Western Cape address last week, opposition leader Helen Zille asked (and left unanswered), “How do we begin repairing our threadbare social fabric?”
The ship’s sailed on this, but perhaps the TRC would have done the country a greater service by dropping the “R” from its name and establishing a separate, indefinite-lived Reconciliation Commission. I’m not entirely certain what such a commission would have done (I have ideas), but, at the very least, its existence would have served as a reminder that healing is in South Africa’s future, not its past. As it stands now, nothing is being done, at least not at the scale it should be. Time is passing and I fear that though the scars may be healing, they will forever be ugly and visible, and likely to open into gaping wounds once again at the slightest provocation.