Economic reconciliation can heal our traumatised land


19 July 2020

Pain of apartheid left an indelible mark

When you are riding in a train and the train gets derailed, writes former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, you are well-advised to look backwards at the twisted rails to find out how you got to where you are, and then look ahead to find out how to now get to where you want to go.

Annan may well have been speaking about pre- and post-1994 South Africa. Yet he said these words in the aftermath of a post-electoral murderous frenzy in Kenya in 2007. “For Kenyans today, it is a question of doing just that … you must fix and adjust the rails towards the direction of peace, justice and prosperity,” he implored.

At the heart of what he was saying is that, by and large, nations, following such painful periods, may either behave as if everything is back to normal and therefore there is nothing out of the ordinary to do. Or, as he counsels, may take stock of the calamity, seek to understand what went wrong and how it has impacted, as it were, the journey. And, importantly, look ahead and envision what choices to make in order to attain his enlisted goals of peace, justice and prosperity.

At a level of conception, this much is clear to most nations. It isn’t any more than knowing what to do that is important as it is having the courage to implement epoch-defining decisions. Therein lies a universal malaise responsible for the pain of many a freedom fighter, for lost hope and, more worryingly, the source of intergenerational trauma.

In South Africa, we elected, with guidance from Nelson Mandela, the route of peace and reconciliation. This week, Mandela’s daughter Zindzi, a beautiful soul with the feistiness of both her father and mother, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, was buried in Johannesburg.

Zindzi was buried a day before Madiba’s annual lecture held yesterday, which happened in the context of mass deaths  and increasing despair unleashed by the Coronavirus.

It’s hard to look at Zindzi’s life and, more specifically, the suffering endured by her and her siblings for being Mandela’s children and not wonder about that quaint, or perhaps nebulous pursuit of her parents – freedom.

Our conception of freedom and what it has come to represent today forces us to look more closely at some of those, like Zindzi, who suffered in its pursuit, and whether they were somewhat disillusioned in the end.

Put differently, did we get derailed as a nation? When she looked back, as Annan enjoins us to, at the dark days of apartheid days, when she was parentless, the trauma she was put through by the security branch as a kid, did she depart this world thinking the South Africa of today is exactly what she envisioned?

No doubt, the advent of democracy has ushered a plethora of rights and open doors, which contribute to making life much better. This is not one of those “life was better under apartheid” questions because, frankly, that is a non-debate.

Can we look back at our twisted rails and answer Annan’s question about what we need to do to ensure that the fruits of liberation are not enjoyed by a select few. When Zindzi, for example, labelled some as “apartheid apologists” and “land thieves”, she was slammed as a radical rather than a freedom fighter yearning for a speedy resolution to the issue of land dispossession. Who can blame her? Wasn’t land stolen from us during the colonial era and under apartheid? Having personally been subjected to such horror and trauma as a child, who feels entitled to tell her to calm down?

Her rage, if we must call it that, is clearly shared by many in our country, is it not? Julius Malema is one. Many others in the ANC, Azapo, PAC and elsewhere have endured the trauma that was apartheid. In the same way that Mandela’s children were traumatised, so were millions of other South Africans. Their rage will not die down simply because their views are inconvenient.

As a people, we need an educated endeavour to understand what we need to heal. The pain of apartheid is deep and intergenerational. Mandela may have mellowed in later life, but the rage that made him the hero that apartheid leaders needed to lock up surfaced in his children like Zindzi.

Zindzi’s own children will soon find their voices on account of the unchanging conditions that gave rise to their grandparents and later on parents becoming activists.

Mandela knew that without economic freedom and land redistribution, our political victory of 1994 is pyrrhic. Zindzi, in her comments about “land thieves” and “apartheid apologists” was motivated by the same conditions that replicate the trauma defining aspects of our post-apartheid era that kept her activist spirit alive.

Apartheid brutalised South Africa’s children. It took a thorough 48 years of methodically disadvantaging and excluding a whole people. The 300 years prior were characterised by pure savagery of English colonialists. The scars and trauma straddle generations. Yet we
twiddle our fingers about the need to move with speed to address mainly land and
general economic redress. Zindzi may be gone. Her father and mother too. Walter Sisulu may be gone. Steve Biko may have been killed. Robert Sobukwe may be no more. But the conditions that made them radical, the source of pain for many in the townships and villages remain. To heal, we need an economic reconciliation. That, to use Annan’s language, will help us “fix and adjust the rails”.



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