Children play among flooded shacks in an informal settlement. There are modest things that the elite can do to move beyond the impasse we face, says the writer. File picture: Denzil Maregele

From a middle and upper-class perspective much has been achieved, but the poor’s expectations are largely unfulfilled, says Charles Villa-Vicencio.

Pretoria - The modest nature of reconciliation that led to the 1994 South Africa settlement lingers over us as a beacon of hope and a sombre warning.

From a middle and upper-class perspective much has been achieved.

The poor tell us, with increasing urgency, that their expectations are largely unfulfilled. Langston Hughes, in his poem What happens to a dream deferred? asks: “Does it dry up/ Does it fester like a sore/… Or does it explode?”

Nelson Mandela’s heroic and yet modest notion of reconciliation in the face of an understandable impulse for a radical redistribution of wealth, if not revenge, that beat in the hearts of many anti-apartheid activists should never be diminished or disparaged.

He asked so little of yesterday’s benefactors – and we have failed to deliver.

It’s time to try again.

Too many whites are still being trapped (overtly and some subtlety) in an apartheid mindset, reflected in the way they perceive blacks and in their reluctance to support meaningful material transformation.

There is, at the same time, a comparatively small but powerful black elite sharing the public square.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu suggests the economic gravy train stopped just long enough before leaving the station, for a few blacks to get on board.

The driver and his engineers are not completely indifferent to the poor who look on as the train moves ever further away.

They talk of “service delivery” rather than justice and reconciliation is debased into tweaking the status quo to restrain the masses.

The middle class (understandably) try to hold on to their gains and the elite, both “old” and the “new”, scramble to make hay while the sun shines, leaving the poor to vacillate between intensified anger and resignation.

The outcome is political stagnation.

The ruling party is hidebound by special interests, a host of incompetent middle-managers at municipal, provincial and national level and deeply entrenched corruption.

The EFF grab the political headlines and other parties offer alternatives that struggle to gain serious traction.

The National Development Plan (NDP), providing a long-term vision and strategic plan, initiated under the leadership of former planning minister Trevor Manuel, and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, unleashes a negative response from the “left” in government and the trade unions.

This means it is likely, at best, to see it die the death of a thousand qualifications.

Analysts look to the 2016 municipal elections and beyond to the 2019 national elections.

Some talk of a realignment of political parties and there are growing indications that the ANC is fragmenting.

What then?

Who realigns with whom and how does this affect the lot of the alienated, increasingly desperate poor?

Where to from here?

History suggests that the most potent political dreams need to be tempered, without losing their core values, in order to be significant.

These core values require the nation to fulfil its unpaid debt to the poor on whose backs this country was built.

The ways and means of so doing are complex.

There is national consensus that this needs to include educational reform and access to decent health care.

Priority attention needs, however, also to be given to the creation of an economy geared towards a more equitable distribution of state and private sector resources.

Here the consensus ends, with no obvious alternative economic models anywhere in the world.

This suggests an entrenched class struggle, more difficult to overcome than the naked racism of the past.

A rekindling of the dream that gave birth to our democracy needs to involve delivery on the nation’s outstanding indebtedness to the poor as well as a revitalised, collective self-understanding of who we are as a nation.

This necessarily involves the celebration of our diversity, without losing sight of the need to pursue national unity, which lies at the heart of the Madiba dream.

If we lose sight of this dream while our democracy is still young, we are likely to find ourselves in the entrenched sectarian hatred that prevails in Israel/Palestine, Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Pakistan and various parts of Africa.

In each of these situations, hopeful transitions degenerated into civil wars and rumours of genocide.

We need to rediscover the deeper meaning of reconciliation.

This is a vision often lost in our celebration of the person of Madiba, buried in the ancestral soil of the Eastern Cape. It is a vision also buried in the roots of our religious and secular legacies, ranging from Christianity, Islam and Judaism to secular idealism and Marxist ideologies.

Each of these traditions carry memories that contradict the lifestyles of some of their most outspoken and predatory priests, imams, rabbis and cadres.

These traditions have also produced some of the bravest leaders that our country has ever seen.

These are people who never wearied of reminding us of the need to revisit the deepest meaning of words like remorse, restitution, repentance, reparations and human inclusivity.

Neglected in the current parlance of political leaders and erstwhile comrades, these are words that fortified the hope embedded in the birth of democracy in 1994.

There are three modest things that those of us who are, with varying degrees, among the privileged elite (both black and white) in contemporary South Africa can do to move beyond the impasse we face in our beloved land.

* Stop deluding ourselves that things are not too bad.

The social milieu of the countless informal settlements tell us things can’t get much worse.

* Stop using the tired excuses of “cultural and linguistic diversity” to defend privilege.

This is seen nowhere more blatantly than in Dave Steward’s defence of “right winger” (his words) among Stellenbosch University alumni, who he tells us “simply want to ensure the preservation and development of Afrikaans” (The Times, July 16).

Steward’s unreconstructed mindset and those on whose behalf he claims to speak reaches to the heart of the dilemma facing the country.

The use of culture and language to justify privilege and exclusion is a violation of the very constitution to which Steward appeals.

* Stop imagining that our (privileged) view of South African reality is the final word on the matter.

Dr Spiwo Xapile, the resident Presbyterian minister at the JL Zwane Centre, tells of a wealthy businessman who left the township several years back, bringing his children to Gugulethu and surrounds on regular visits to be exposed to the realities of township existence.

This is an exposure that all South Africans need.

This especially includes whites, some of whom have never seen the inside (let alone lived) in a township, and those blacks who have tasted the good life of the post-apartheid era.

Such is the nature of the human condition that we all need constant reminders of just how many South Africans have been left behind, and how far behind, in our stalled transition.

It is time for South Africans to reopen the national dialogue that characterised the 1994 settlement.

This time the prevailing economic reality needs to be placed centre stage, naming the elephant in the room.

* Charles Villa-Vicencio is a visiting professor in the Conflict Resolution Programme at Georgetown University and a senior research fellow at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, Cape Town. He previously served as the national research director in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and as professor of Religion and Society at UCT.

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

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