Newly elected president of the Economic Freedom Fighters Julius Malema shakes hands with delegates after giving the closing speech of the National Peoples Assembly at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein. He made waves in Parliament this year. Picture: Itumeleng English

Sweet talk about unity in diversity will not appease those desperate for deliverance, writes Sandile Ngidi.

Durban - The Economic Freedom Fighters dominated the narrative of the contested meaning of freedom in South Africa 20 years after the country became a non-racial democracy. Not too bad for a radical bunch of ragtag newcomers who now represent the third-biggest party in Parliament.

Only history will judge whether, in the process, the EFF’s legitimate role in our democracy will in the long run help to markedly enhance the often contrived, yet critical, project of national reconciliation.

EFF MP Andile Mngxitama says: “The idea that land in our country is stolen became a central starting point, making it clear that selling stolen property perpetuates a historical crime.”

It was on that note that EFF leader Julius Malema closed his party’s first elective conference in Mangaung early this month.

“We are not playing; we mean business. The land issue has been with us too long. We are going to occupy unoccupied land. We are taking what is ours.”

Malema also called for mines owned by ANC heavyweights Patrice Motsepe, Cyril Ramaphosa and Baleka Mbete to be blocked and occupied.

Heady stuff, but necessary rhetoric nonetheless, said a senior Durban black business executive, adding that the EFF was right to harass mining companies, since they often prioritised profit at the expense of the poor and most vulnerable.

DA leader Mmusi Maimane takes a more moderate stance, but expresses similar sentiments about South Africa’s unfinished business of socio-economic transformation.

“To give meaning to the national reconciliation project, it is important for South Africans to seriously address issues of socio-historical economic redress,” says Maimane.

“In the competition for resources, race relations get strained,” he says.

The DA parliamentary leader believes “material capital” and relative access for black and white youth often make the “national reconciliation discourse a major challenge”.

He says South African leaders should have fully implemented the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the lingering issue of compensating victims of gross human rights abuses during apartheid.

Maimane says that, while the country grapples with the enormous task of building one nation amid diversity and a history of inequality and injustice, we should take a cue from Nelson Mandela’s exemplary leadership.

“Through Madiba and projects like the 2010 soccer World Cup, we learnt that we can choose to be people who fight for each other and not against each other.”

When South Africa marked the Day of Reconciliation on December 16, a nation’s disparate longing for a common sense of belonging dominated the speeches at the official national commemorations hosted by President Jacob Zuma.

Not so long ago, the day symbolised the quest for white Afrikaner nationalism, and was known as the Day of the Covenant.

For the ANC, SACP and other liberation organisations, the day was used to accentuate protest against white minority rule and agitation for a free and democratic society.

Zuma was right in reminding the nation to help “build a caring society”. What a pity he did not crack the whip on the arrogance and ineptitude of sections of his government.

Since public institutions are a major conduit for the delivery of critical services to the citizenry, we are worse off if these are incompetent or poorly resourced, and generally unable to serve the purposes for which they were set up.

This month, the annual SA Reconciliation Barometer by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation noted that “confidence in the presidency had remained high, but recorded the greatest decrease in trust from 77 percent in 2006 to 55.1 percent in 2013”.

Last year, South Africans said they held the highest confidence in religious institutions (67 percent) and the public protector (64 percent), while they had the lowest confidence in political parties (46.2 percent) and the police (47.9 percent).

The stark reality is that negative perceptions of the government and other mainstream public institutions can be harmful to the imperative of uniting a nation still reeling from the after-shocks of its recent, mainly race-based injustices and prejudices.

“Although we were divided in this country, we are now one nation,” said IFP president Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi at Ncome in northern KwaZulu-Natal.

It’s at this site that the historical battle between the Zulus and the Voortrekkers, known as Impi yaseNcome, or the Battle of Blood River, took place on December 16, 1838.

Buthelezi, whose great-grandfather Mnyamana Buthelezi belonged to the Umkhulutshana regiment, one of King Dingane’s regiments at Ncome, said “reconciliation is possible, even after bloodshed, tragedy and distrust”.

Perhaps the idea of national reconciliation under the Truth and Reconciliation Commission “was rather romantic and created a sense of impunity”, says Daniel Kinnear, chairman of Durban Dialogue, a non-profit think tank.

Kinnear believes that the “genuine spirit of reconciliation among ordinary South Africans is compromised by the unassailable truth that in our country the legacy of serious human rights abuses continues to haunt all of us”.

For more than 20 years, the notion that has been etched into our nation’s collective DNA is one that the beloved country is more than the sum of its parts. This is the idea of unity in diversity – a nation’s love song, in a sense.

While undoubtedly much has been achieved in the past 20 years, the deficits of socio-economic inequities have become even more acute.

South Africans are perhaps at their most vulnerable, for over and above the widening gap between rich and poor, we are now feeling the effects of the global recession. Also, it has been only a year since the founding father of our young nation, Nelson Mandela, died.

As the ultimate, if not a saintly, embodiment of reconciliation, Mandela’s goodwill was in some instances abused in pursuit of selective amnesia, and the disavowal of justice and redress in a land where gross human rights crimes occurred for decades.

Now is the time to look in the eye the challenges that divide and frighten us. This is a time when we must do the tango without Madiba.

Such realities underline the urgency for South Africa’s leaders to genuinely address the needs and legitimate expectations of the masses.

Symbolic gestures, while important, are not enough for the bold project of national reconciliation.

Nor are leaders who make speeches for the “mellifluent music to which words can sometimes lend themselves”, to use the words of novelist Lewis Nkosi.

Sunday Tribune