Few things have so far demonstrated our utter lack of social consensus than the reaction to two unrelated developments last week. The two events elicited so much racial spleen on social networks, news sites and radio that a visitor to these shores would swear 1994 never happened. They confirmed that contrary to popular belief, our journey to a common nationhood has hardly begun.

First was the publication of Brett Murray’s painting of President Jacob Zuma by a Sunday newspaper, a decision which elicited a verbally violent reaction, in particular from black people. Most of the protest labelled the painting a racist illustration of white people’s fascination with the genitalia of black people. In short, the painting is in poor taste and Murray was primarily driven by racism.

The second incident was the DA’s march to Cosatu’s offices. Generating much debate was the predominance of black marchers. Many on internet social networks confidently declared that black participants in this march had either been misled into taking part, had been bribed with food and T-shirts or were lacking consciousness of what it means to be black. The suggestion was that black marchers could not think for themselves and make a conscious political decision to support the march.

The whites with whom they were marching were necessarily more intelligent because they were white, while the blacks were less so because they were black.

It is not the first time an “artist” has openly ridiculed a sitting president’s sexuality or his intimate body parts. Some of the country’s top comedians have committed this “sin” in words that are too graphic to repeat here.

These gags elicited hysterical laughter from largely black audiences.

Cartoonist Zapiro also once depicted author Ronald Suresh Roberts and former President Thabo Mbeki’s relationship in a manner that is again too skin-crawling to describe here, to no noticeable public outcry at the time.

But why do these two developments elicit so much racial conflict?

The answer is race and all that is attached to it, like inequality, poverty and inherited privilege. It has been poorly attended to for so long that any incident which pushes the boundaries of social acceptance is likely to spark a furious race debate if provoked by a person of the “wrong” colour.

Therefore the anger to both the painting and the DA march is not unconnected to the race of the instigators and other parties involved.

It also indicates that whatever attempts have been made to fashion a social consensus across different races has failed dismally. For this I blame a lack of candour and visionary, steady leadership on the issue since 1994. President Nelson Mandela spent much of his five years entrenching symbolism through sport and other gestures. President Thabo Mbeki attempted to deal openly with race but sometimes strayed too far from the middle ground within which he needed to stay to carry influence across the divide. Yet they didn’t lack consciousness of what we needed to understand and do.

Mandela used his last State of the Nation Address to drive home what we need to do, and warned of the perils of papering over the cracks.

“The critical act of reconciliation is the dismantling of what remains of apartheid practices and attitudes. Reconciliation, without this major step, will be transient, the ode of false hope on the lips of fools.”

Many black South Africans feel that practices and attitudes that entrenched a privileged position for whites remain, albeit in concealed form. Over the past decade there has been growing anger and resentment based on a belief that there is no conversation that validates the historical pain and humiliation of black people while they are obliged to remain committed to reconciliation to allay the fears of their white compatriots. This gripe has often been carefully concealed for fear of upsetting the popular narrative that Mandela magically made SA’s races love each other.

The reaction to the controversial painting and the sight of black marchers supporting the DA is a symptom of this state of affairs.

Writing in ANC Today in 2006 after former apartheid minister Adriaan Vlok’s decision to wash the feet of people he wronged as an act of remorse, Mbeki said: “We are each products of our lived past and present. Inevitably, what we say and do is refracted by that reality, all of which impacts on others whose consciousness may be refracted by a different historical and social experience…

“The first step we must take… is to learn that our respect for one another’s humanity includes respect for the reality that each of us will take his or her unique or special and stony feeder road to join the national march towards the achievement of the objective of a ‘South Africa (that) belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity’, as our constitution says. This demands that we must cultivate the capacity to hear one another.”

To bring Mbeki’s words into the context of the two events, we have to accept that notwithstanding the belief among many black people that Murray is racist, the rational among us have to consider that racism may not be what made him produce the painting. Similarly, despite how some of us feel about black people joining a “white” party, it’s more likely that this is informed by their present reality than the supposed inherent stupidity of blackness or hunger, as some black people have opined.

It means those who support Murray also have to accept that people depicted in art and their sympathisers will react on the basis of their historical and current social experience. After all, it was not too long ago that the bones of Sarah Baartman were finally brought home long after she died in Europe as a circus freak whose genitalia and general anatomy were displayed for the amusement of Europeans. That there would be people who find Murray’s painting objectionable should therefore not be a surprise.

Recently a respected church leader asked for the artist to be stoned to death, a comment left to float like toxic gas and further inflame tensions.

The past few weeks have demonstrated how absent leadership has affected one of SA’s biggest threats to social cohesion – race relations.

We are overdue for a major social and political initiative from leaders across the racial and social divide where we can speak candidly about race and its potential to tear us apart.

n Zibi is a political commentator