Pierre Korkie’s deeply uncertain fate has touched many South Africans beyond race, ethnicity or religion, writes Hamilton Wende.
Johannesburg - It was a curious tweet posted the day after the elections that caught my attention. Ordinary South African Pilane Ofentse tweeted: “Seriusly (sic) what happened to our citizen Pierre Korkie, is he back home yet?”
Sadly, the answer to his question is “no”. No one seems to know what has happened to Korkie, where he is or what his state of health is. It is a terrifying situation for him and his family, and one can only wish his captivity would end as soon as possible.
No one answered Ofentse’s tweet; no one retweeted it. In so many ways, Korkie has been forgotten by the world. I did get a brief reaction from Imtiaz Sooliman from Gift of the Givers, who was understandably reluctant to comment for fear of making Korkie’s situation even more fragile and unpredictable.
What struck me about Ofentse’s tweet was how, in its simplicity and somewhat charming Twitter style, is that it stands as a symbol for what South Africa has achieved in the past 20 years. Despite political tensions and a deep sense of entitlement by those in charge of the ANC, we are a remarkably open and tolerant society with a growing sense of a shared identity.
Ofentse and millions of us like him are the polar opposite of the brutal fanatics who have kidnapped Korkie or, far worse, those who kidnapped the girls in Nigeria recently.
Korkie’s deeply uncertain fate has touched many South Africans beyond race, ethnicity or religion. The very fact that people like Sooliman have become so bound up in the effort to free him is no small achievement when one considers how divided our history has been and for how many centuries we lived at virtual war with one another over race and ethnicity.
Many have criticised the government for not doing enough to free Korkie, but I disagree. I think former deputy international relations minister Ebrahim Ebrahim’s visit to Yemen earlier this year was a remarkable effort to demonstrate national solidarity with one of its citizens kidnapped abroad. Not many governments will, or do, send such a high-ranking politician to attempt to free a schoolteacher kidnapped abroad.
Let us celebrate the fact that sending a Muslim minister of Indian descent to try to negotiate the release of a white Afrikaner was a clear message to South Africa and to the world that non-racialism remains a core value for the ANC, both as a party and as a government.
Sadly it did not succeed, but the government can hardly be held responsible for the intransigence of Korkie’s kidnappers. It was a moment of decisive leadership that transcended political infighting and, crucially, is one that indicates where the government believes South Africa should be heading as a society. It is a direction that the vast majority of us believes in.
I think it is also worth gently reminding those sceptics overseas who are watching South Africa for signs of growing racial conflict now that Nelson Mandela is no longer with us that we did not have, nor did we need, Madiba’s wise and illuminating presence for this attempt to be made. We, as a society, have absorbed his legacy of reconciliation and tolerance.
Studies of tolerance around the world clearly indicate that the more tolerant a society is, the more prosperous it is likely to be. The opposite is also true: the more prosperous a society is, the more tolerant its people are disposed to be.
Racism declines rapidly in situations where people meet one another in economically equal circumstances and find common ground in sharing those circumstances.
This is the greatest challenge we face. The middle class in their comfortable homes, sending their children to learn in increasingly non-racial classrooms, is clearly having an easier time learning to accept one another than those who are desperately poor and have little hope of improving their lives.
It is no accident that it is in our poorest communities that the three most obvious threats to a tolerant society have emerged in the past few years. The ugly tenacity of violent xenophobia attacks; the seemingly incurable destructiveness of service delivery protests; and the sinister murder and intimidation that take place regularly on the platinum belt are all frightening cracks in our world.
They are the fissures at which our open and tolerant culture could one day fall apart. Clearly, we cannot continue this way. The low-pay model for so many of our workers when contrasted with the absurd remuneration executives receive is not sustainable. Yet our economy is too fragile to simply expect to change this inequality too rapidly.
There is a careful balancing act that needs to take place in the years going forward. We should look critically at a country like India, which has recently also finished an election – one that overturned the decades-old certainties of the governing Congress party and replaced it with the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, a party that has a troubled history of intolerant behaviour but attracted a great number of moderate voters because of its promises of critical economic reform.
The recent elections here have shown that such a radical transformation in voting patterns is a long way off for South Africa. The decades-old certainties of the ANC are not under serious threat from either the left or the right.
It remains the unchallenged leader of a flawed but largely tolerant and open society. Yet we can’t be content with this status quo. Its foundations are not completely secure. We will have to find ways to change.