The EFFs Floyd Shivambu and Julius Malema. Louis Vuitton revolutionaries like Malema prey on racial class divides, says the writer. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko

Louis Vuitton revolutionaries like Julius Malema prey on racial class divides, says Max du Preez.

It’s significant that we don’t hear the words “nation building” or “national unity” nearly as often as we used to five or 10 years ago. Perhaps this is because there is a realisation that we have built a nation as much as is possible or we have lost the taste for the syrupiness of the concept and moved on from the era of Nelson Mandela.

Since we became a democracy 20 years ago, more than five million adults have moved into the middle class. It is probably one of the fastest examples of upward mobility of such a substantial section of a population in the world in recent times.

Class is slowly replacing race as the big divider, but to plead for unity across class divides is not such a popular or easy issue.

Not that we’re there yet, not even near. The vast majority of the very poor are still mostly black people and “whites” as a group still earn much more per person than “blacks”.

The calls for nation building are now being drowned out by calls for more black assertiveness; for a new leap into more radical black empowerment.

Just below the surface in much of this new rhetoric is the notion of racial retribution, especially coming from the platforms of the Economic Freedom Fighters and the group around the breakaway Cosatu trade union Numsa.

In my cynical moments I sometimes wonder if the thinking is along the lines of: if we can’t all be rich, why don’t we at least make the whites poorer.

I agree with Desmond Tutu that it was a mistake for the government of Thabo Mbeki not to agree to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission proposal for a substantial restitution tax on whites.

I’m not sure how big a difference this fund would have made to the levels of inequality now, but it would have satisfied a big psychological need among the black majority to see those who benefited so greatly from apartheid and racial capitalism also feeling the new order in their pockets.

Perhaps such a restitution tax could still work, but now it would have to be different. For one, it would make little sense to exclude the many very wealthy black people we have now.

But it would probably also only work if the fund from such a tax was administered by an independent agency rather than the ANC government – there is just too much corruption, enrichment and abuse in government now for people to willingly part with a substantial cut of their income.

During the last few days, as we celebrated our democracy’s twentieth birthday, I was asked about the impact of the Truth Commission, having been closely associated with it.

The answer I gave that is relevant here is that it was an extremely important process for South Africans to go through, but that it could only have limited symbolic value for as long as so many black citizens remained desperately poor and whites still dominated the economy.

It remains one of the most complex questions before us: how we could spread the wealth more equitably without severely damaging the economy and simply punishing the business and entrepreneurial classes – that would mean spreading poverty, not spreading wealth.

One of the disappointments of the last 20 years was that the mining and corporate bosses simply sat back and cashed in on the new dispensation instead of launching their own initiatives to help make the country a more equitable one.

They thought making a small number of black people very rich very quickly through BEE would be enough to give them licence to go on milking the country for every cent they could make.

And here we are today, with all the black resentments of white privilege as strong as before.

It is not a healthy situation and provides fertile ground for Louis Vuitton revolutionaries such as Julius Malema to spew forth their dangerous threats of retribution.

No wonder we again witness the surfacing of calls for the Afrikaans and English verses in our national anthem to be scrapped, the parts inherited from the apartheid anthem.

My gut reaction to such calls is that this is the wrong move at the wrong time; that it would send a terrible message at a very sensitive point in our development.

But then I have to admit that I have not once since 1994 succeeded in getting myself as far as singing the verses of Die Stem with the rest of the anthem. And musically it is jarring: Nkosi sikelel iAfrika is a hymn, Die Stem was marching music.

I think we should stick to the hymn only, but translate two verses into Afrikaans and English to register our recognition of our diversity and signal our genuine commitment to racial inclusivity.

* Max du Preez is an author and columnist.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.

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