XOLA Pakati, executive mayor of the Buffalo City metropolitan municipality and chairperson of the South African Cities Network Council.
XOLA Pakati, executive mayor of the Buffalo City metropolitan municipality and chairperson of the South African Cities Network Council.

South Africa’s future heritage depends on an inclusive society in a diverse and plural context

By Opinion Time of article published Sep 15, 2021

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OPINION: A society emerging from a deeply divided past as South Africa ought to invest in reasoned inquiry and dialogue about its past and present and how both can be brought to bear in re-imagining the (inclusive) future, writes Xola Pakati.

Halfway into heritage month, there is much to reflect upon in our collective national and global heritage.

Heritage is no abstract concept. It is what we do now – today, tomorrow and the day after.

Over time, such deeds add to the store of our personal and national character, providing a discernible pattern which eventually becomes our enduring descriptor.

The Anglican cleric, Father Trevor Huddleston, pointed to the bridge connecting the here and now and heritage — in 1956 — when, “in the interests of a racial ideology,” the apartheid regime forcibly removed people out of East London in the Eastern Cape and razed the manifold diverse community of Sophiatown in Gauteng to the ground.

The perceptive Huddleston said: “as we watch our people’s homes being reduced to heaps of rubble, we watch also the destruction of something which cannot be built again so easily.”

With prophetic poignancy, he said: “When Sophiatown is finally obliterated and its people scattered, I believe that South Africa will have lost not only a place but an ideal.”

Six decades since the East London and Sophiatown removals and 27 years after the country commenced its journey of nation-building, we have received enough lessons to appreciate the immense difficulties attendant to the non-racial ideal which the architects of apartheid wantonly destroyed in Sophiatown and elsewhere.

In another 27 years from now, the heritage of our descendants will be the product of what we would have done or failed to do to achieve the ideal of an inclusive, non-racial South Africa envisioned in the Constitution. Indeed, one cannot conceive of a South African heritage more worthy.

Second, we must set our sights far wider than the equally significant cultural dimension that each of our nationalities brings into the melting pot that is and must be post-apartheid South Africa.

Culture is part of the many social aspects that must be subjected to critical reflection in the process of building a post-apartheid legacy. This is because the cultural dimension is neither without its own complexities nor is it standing still like immovable property. We are grappling with how to build a non-sexist society in a deeply sexist social setting across all South African cultures in the same way that racism is a structural reality that permeates every nook and cranny of our society.

Third, no common national heritage can germinate from the barren ground of colonial and apartheid social and economic relations: South Africa needs greater economic justice in as much as it cries out for an end to multiple forms of corruption and political posturing.

At the same time, we should confront the use of every conceivable scarecrow to explain the continued under-investment in the economy.

An inclusive society is the base upon which to forge a South African identity in a diverse and plural context. Such identity would, in turn, provide a springboard on which South Africans forge a unity of purpose towards a common future and heritage.

But, as experience has taught us since 1994, this is easier said than done and it is to the distance between word and deed that the political, business, labour and broader civil society leadership should devote a fair amount of reflection. Why is it that despite proselytising Simunye ("We are one”) we are still unable to build a more inclusive society for all?

Some scholars shine the light on parallels between Bob Marley’s postulation: “A hungry man is an angry man” and the rise of populism.

University of Amsterdam’s Matthijs Rooduijn who researches on the subject has written that: “In northern Europe, successful populists are mainly radical right-wing populists. Parties such as the Danish People’s party, the Finns and the Sweden Democrats all combine a xenophobic nationalist outlook with a populist message.

“Left-wing populism is much less widespread in this part of Europe – possibly because the strong economies and generous welfare systems of the Nordic countries make a radical left-wing populist message less pressing.”

It is worth stating that the xenophobic nationalist outlook of the rightwing also has an economic base to it. Apart from a bigoted fear of the other, its logic is that the pasture in the paddock will be insufficient for “us,” if we let in “the other.”

South Africa is not immune from its own home-grown right and left-wing populists and populism. In our context, such populism takes a racial dimension, something we cannot but confront through a systemic response to the underlying political and socio-economic causes. Failure to do so will widen our social fault lines in ways that stretch and stress the capacity of rational voices to shepherd the country towards the unity and cohesion we desperately need.

A society emerging from a deeply divided past as South Africa ought to invest in reasoned inquiry and dialogue about its past and present and how both can be brought to bear in re-imagining the (inclusive) future.

We received advice in similar order from Chilean author, Ariel Dorfman, when he delivered the eight Nelson Mandela annual lecture in July 2010.

“Enemies remember the past differently and until they agree in some way on that past, and are able to forge a memory common to both sides, their rivalry will refuse to vanish no matter how much it hides itself,” he said.

For those given to superficial interpretations to otherwise complex questions, Dorfman said: “That is why truth and reconciliation commissions, with all their flaws and concessions, all the pain they do not expose all the crimes that may remain unpunished, are an indispensable step in a transition to democracy after a period of systemic violence.”

In our context, a common memory will be forged by agreeing to and walking a different path from our divided past. It is in that journey that we will produce an enduring heritage.

Leaders in politics, business, labour and broader civil society must rise to the challenge.

*Pakati is executive mayor of Buffalo City metropolitan municipality and chairperson of the South African Cities Network Council.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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