In many ways, Jan Hofmeyr’s job is not unlike that of a medical specialist. While not called on to physically examine his patients or make detailed assessments of their vital organs, anatomy or physiology, he does need to listen very attentively to his patient, take copious notes about identifiable symptoms, and make a considered diagnosis before prescribing remedies or cures.
The principal patient on Hofmeyr’s operating table is the SA nation – and his job essentially is to track progress in reconciliation among the country’s 50 million people.
Are we as a nation truly embracing reconciliation and helping to forge a new non-racial unity, or do we tend to take these priorities for granted and just place them on the backburner to deal with at a later date – when it’s too late, perhaps?
As head of policy and analysis at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, Hofmeyr is currently travelling around the country explaining the findings of the SA Reconciliation Barometer Survey, conducted last year.
And the diagnosis he makes is one to which every concerned South African should be sitting up and paying critical attention.
“There remains a substantial amount of unfinished business relating to its apartheid past that SA has not been able to deal with over the past 18 years,” he said in an interview this week.
Essentially, the nation has failed to deal with the impact of laws that separated, dispossessed and disadvantaged us for so many years.
Nor has it addressed the humiliation and anger that has been passed on from one generation to the next.
Hofmeyr says that, while the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) exercise might have served some purpose, it only dealt with issues of human rights abuses over a limited period, and only managed to “scratch the surface”.
Over the past 18 years, he says, much reliance has been placed on the country’s new constitution, democratic Chapter 9 institutions and “a progressive government, biased towards the needs of the poor”.
But the restitution of political rights means very little if it fails to address the material indignity apartheid heaped on its people.
“For people to experience a better life, they have to experience progress in their communities, through things such as the delivery of services that improve their living conditions,” said Hofmeyr.
But even more importantly, the people also needed to feel empowered to take charge of their own destiny.
“In this regard, job creation, as opposed to dependence on the government, is critical,” he says.
Hofmeyr accepts that progress is difficult under our present economic conditions, but nevertheless warns that the job losses in the country are exacerbating what he calls “the existential anxiety of poor and marginalised South Africans”.
Very often, the actions that emanate from these anxieties manifest along our historical lines of division – very often, in terms of race.
“It therefore does not surprise me that we see old, unhealed wounds re-emerging in different guises and contexts. Because our patterns of employment, residential settlement, and hence also socialisation, still have a very strong racial character, our perceptions are therefore being reinforced by ‘people like us’.”
Slow economic growth, he says, hampers these patterns and, in many cases, contributes to inequality and in some instances also results in new divisions along class lines. It is therefore imperative that economic policy supports inclusive, job-intensive growth.
“Having said all this, it does not take away the onus from government and civil society to foster social dialogue.
“Even if we had higher levels of economic growth, a sense of solidarity needs to develop with the poor and the disenfranchised, and policy needs to reflect that.
“In its absence, higher growth may actually become more of a curse than a blessing,” Hofmeyr warned.
What is, however, encouraging from the reconciliation barometer survey is that, while SA continues to remain a country hugely divided along racial lines, there is evidence that most citizens continue to support the goal of national unification.
The survey, in fact, suggests that while many South Africans still accept the “truths” about the country’s history, there is less agreement over how to deal with the past.
“The feeling among many South Africans that the country is ready to move forward is an important one, but this should not be at the expense of glossing over unresolved trauma or latent sentiments of frustration, distrust, anger, guilt and blame.
“A failure to address these unresolved issues and sources of division may ultimately mean that they are reproduced, and live on, in younger generations.
“This may, in fact, be a fitting time for new and constructive national conversations that are forward-looking, that challenge the difficulties South Africans have in talking openly with one another at present, and that involve young people,” the survey report says.
The underlying answer to the question of whether we are reconciled is that some South Africans believe we are, but most are uncertain or believe we are not.
So, although there has been progress, challenges remain as to how South Africans move forward together and continue to bridge historic dividing lives.
Time, however, is of the essence.
l Pather is the former editor of the Daily News and is a columnist for the Sunday Tribune.