If there was ever an opportunity to fully grasp the extent of South Africa’s progress over the past 20 years, it is the elections that have just concluded. That this country can now hold a near glitch-free election is a triumph.
That this country’s election amounts to a back story on global television networks shows that the world sees democracy as something that South Africans cherish. In other words, it is not news anymore.
But if you dig deeper, the past five days have also been revealing about the state of a post-Mandela South Africa. Generally, South Africans you talk to feel a palpable sense of accomplishment in having had another opportunity to exercise a right that a majority of the people was denied for many years.
Yet in the midst of all this positive swell, the 2014 elections have brought to the fore what lies beneath the soft underbelly of this young country. That it remains a racially polarised country is easy to see from the results of the elections. In broad terms, this is hardly a surprise, but it is alarming, nonetheless.
And this is so because whatever progress South Africa might be making on a number of key fronts, that progress is likely to be undermined by the failure to deracialise our politics.
An overwhelming majority of black people have voted for the ANC as was anticipated before the elections, or as it has been the case since 1994.
On the other hand, an overwhelming majority of white people have voted for the DA and, more specifically in the Western Cape, a province which the ANC has never won since the advent of democracy.
To an uninitiated eye, this might seem as if it is the way things are supposed to be. But if anything, this polarisation reflects the failure by these respective political parties to bridge the racial divide.
That the ANC has won 62 percent of the vote is something the party will certainly celebrate in the coming days. Likewise the DA, which won 22 percent of the national vote, has every reason to celebrate.
But beyond that there is very little else to celebrate if these parties cannot offer South Africa the sort of politics that bridge the racial divide that is so apparent in the voting patterns.
As a young democracy, South Africa needs all the vitality that comes from its diversity. No party should be seen as having a monopoly on ideas to move this country forward. To get this country where it should be economically, socially and politically requires collective engagement at the fundamental level not just superficially.
Thus the challenge, not just for the ANC and the DA, but of the new Parliament as a whole is to give South Africa the kind of direction and voice that does not harp on the idea that in this election there were victors and losers.
In other words, when the new Parliament convenes, the priority for everyone there should be that of contributing in a positive and meaningful way towards the building of a more united, prosperous and enduring democracy.
The results of the latest election remind us all of the work that still lies ahead in bringing to life the ideals enshrined in our constitution.
In that pursuit we must be guided by words to its preamble, that this country’s quest is to “heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights… (And) improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations”.
So in many respects, what South Africa has achieved through this recent election must add impetus to the efforts to ensure that this country never becomes a place in which our past determines who wins or who loses.
And the racial fissures that this election has laid bare represent an opportunity for everyone, especially the politicians, to reach out and help build a society in which fear is never a determinant of which party people think best represents their interests.