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Dear Fellow Citizens
The issues raised by respondents to my response to Rorisang Tshabalala’s letter to me a few weeks ago reflect a hunger for constructive discussions about our future in the light of the lessons from the past and the experience of the present. South Africans are desperate for safe spaces to have serious discussions about the state of the nation and prospects for the future.
In African extended family cultural settings, there is always reverence accorded to the sister of the head of the household, the Rakgadi/Dad’obawo/Makhazi/Auntie, the person who initiates uncomfortable conversations within a ritually safe space that has been created.
In this space children are able to speak about abuse by their elders, be they mothers, fathers, uncles or cousins. Nothing is taboo as a topic to bring healing to the family.
South Africa is at a critical juncture. We have the opportunity to turn our challenges into opportunities or to pretend that we can ride out the storm of challenges facing us. If we choose to turn our challenges into opportunities, we need to start by acknowledging them. Denial of our challenges makes it impossible for us to own and leverage them into opportunities for enhancing our performance as a nation.
Gugu Ndima makes a valid point that we need to acknowledge and celebrate our heroes, but misses the point of my apology on behalf of my generation.
Acknowledging the weakness and mistakes of my generation and those who preceded us does not have to be seen as undermining the heroism of those who, against all odds, sacrificed so much to contribute to the victory of the freedom we enjoy today.
Acknowledgement is the first and essential element of any healing process.
This week reminds us of our potential for greatness. We celebrated the returning Olympic athletes who came back from London with six medals. Against all odds and without adequate national and corporate support, they went on to win. But their performance is a sad reminder of how much more could have been achieved if every Caster Semenya, Chad le Clos and Sizwe Ndlovu in our villages, townships and schools had received the level of support that their counterparts in other parts of the world get from their countries.
It is also the week when we celebrate the presentation of the National Development Plan 2030 by the National Planning Commission, which unequivocally points out that poverty, unemployment, education and capability of the state are the critical areas to be tackled to make ours a great society. We can no longer be satisfied with celebrating survival against all odds.
We now face the challenge of maturity as a democracy to perform in line with our own expectations as set out in our constitution. We also need to compete with our peers in Brics countries and to perform in line with our aspirations to be a leader in our continent of Africa.
It is at times such as this that the relevance of the family Auntie comes to the fore. We have to have tough conversations about why we have permitted ourselves to under-perform our potential for greatness as a nation.
We have the largest mineral resource base, we have one of the largest endowments in natural resources such as landscapes and biodiversity, we have one of the youngest population demographic profiles in the world and we have the potential strengths derived from unity in diversity of our population. What is preventing us from leveraging these strengths to tackle our challenges as a young democracy? Louisa Douwes Dekker asks pertinent questions in this regard.
The extended family Auntie would at this point call for all those assembled in a circle at the family homestead to open up and get all the issues out for discussion without fear or favour. Issues of abuse, alcoholism, breaking of taboos including incest and any other misdemeanours would be placed at the centre for discussion.
The pain of suffering in silence would be ended when tears are allowed to flow freely. The passions of anger and the need for redress would not be restrained within the safety of the family circle container. South Africans need an institutional family Auntie to get us talking as a wounded nation in pain without fear or favour.
I am the first to acknowledge the risks of acting as the nation’s extended family Auntie. But I have often been thrust into that role by the throw of the dice by history. I am a survivor of a generation that woke up to its responsibility of mobilising oppressed people who had bought into the myth of superior and inferior human beings that condemned the majority to being subjects of an authoritarian system.
Black and white South Africans need to have tough conversations about how to heal the socially engineered wounds that resulted from that reality. These wounds continue to undermine our ability to reach for our dream as a nation. Accusations of being a pessimist, prophet of doom, traitor to the cause and worse are all cries of anguish by a wounded people who have a low tolerance for any hint of lack of sympathy or disloyalty.
To the many white South Africans who are impatient with the constant blaming of apartheid for our failures to govern and become a prosperous nation, I would like to plead for patience and self-reflection. You should not be mistaken to imagine that your higher social economic status is a product of superior effort if not ability. You should not succumb to amnesia of the corruption and incompetence of past colonial and apartheid governments. Neither should you be in denial about your responsibility for putting right what went wrong then. Your status as a citizen accords you rights but also demands responsibility from you.
One need only look at the disdain that many captains of industry have for the very people in political authority positions whom they corrupt.
The perversion of the black economic empowerment programme is another example of the cynicism of many in the private sector. The people most empowered remain the banks, lawyers and those powerful industry players who have learnt to work the system.
They have become the advisors, creditors, investors and implementers of a programme that provides false hope to those on the margins of the economy, with very noticeably few exceptions.
We need leadership from the private sector to move us away from this cynical engagement with black economic empowerment towards a system of true sharing of the prosperity of our country.
You as the younger generation, black and white, are also losing patience with our inability to transcend the legacy of our past through a meaningful transformative process. You understandably want to get on with your lives.
It is now time to acknowledge that the flaws in our democracy are a product of both the legacy of socially engineered poverty and inequality as well as our inability as post-apartheid citizens, civil society organisations, the private sector and government to transform our reality in line with the commitments to equality for all and shared prosperity.
You now need to step up to the plate and take ownership of this democracy and lead the process of reshaping it for the 21st century.
Professor Sampie Terreblanche’s recently published book, Lost in Transformation, is a timely addition to the fact base that should enrich our understanding of our successes and failures in the journey from apartheid to democracy over the last 18 years.
The book details how we failed to address socially engineered poverty, unemployment and inequality. You need to have robust debates about this and other texts to arrive at your own views about how we can engage citizens in tackling the challenges we face.
I remain convinced that ours is a country destined for greatness if only we are willing to commit to living our dreams of unity in diversity and respect for dignity every day at the personal, professional and political level.
This requires a commitment to conversations that may at times be uncomfortable, but in the web of the extended family setting there should be enough safety to allow for all to be heard. And if there isn’t, we need to start re-weaving these spaces to become safe.
n Ramphele is Founder of Citizens Movement for Social Change