Black and White living together in harmony: Was it all a dream?

Overall exclusion from the political decision-making process is fuelling a lot of anger amongst white South Africans and largely influences their approach to race relations. This despite the fact that they enjoy a considerably better standard of living than other races, writes YONELA DIKO

At the official opening of an exhibition entitled “Helen Suzman, Fighter For Human Rights” in march 2005 in Cape Town, the late Helen Suzman lamented what she called a failure of the ANC to bring a better life for all.

Whilst one might have thought Suzman was talking about the poor who were languishing in poverty, ten years after the new nation was born; no, this better life for all for Suzman was referring to her own station in the latter years of her life, and her constituency, all sitting at a porch in Houghton watching the sun set and lamenting the changing reality of their lives.

There was no ‘better life for all’ in 2005 according to Suzman because unlike during Apartheid, she now had less access to power than she had during Apartheid.

There was no better life for all in 2005 according to Suzman because the present government had “attempted to airbrush the role of white liberals out of the country’s history” as evidenced by the fact that their role was given “little or no acknowledgement” in places like the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.

There was no better life for all for Suzanman because in 2005 South Africa had no strong opposition to prevent a return to a one-party state.

There was no better life for all for Suzman because then President Thabo Mbeki had denigrated Helen’s achievements during Apartheid by dredging up comments made by Oliver Tambo in 1971″ in which Tambo had lumped Suzman with former Apartheid prime minister BJ Vorster, calling her a “lesser agent of colonialism” and someone who paid lip service to change during the Apartheid years but at the end of the day resisted real change

There was no better life for all for Suzman because the ANC government should have not continued backing of the tyrant Mugabe in Zimbabwe. This was by far the biggest disappointment for Suzman; the ANC and its President Thabo Mbeki’s supposed failure to curb the excesses of his neighbour, President Robert Mugabe.

Suzman gave all these lamentations in an interview to celebrate ten years of our democracy where she went all out in her anti-government missive, blaming Mbeki by saying, “Mugabe has done that to the whites, and I think that is exactly what Mbeki admires about him. Don’t think for a moment that Mbeki is not anti-white – he is, most definitely. His speeches all have anti-white themes and he continues to convince everyone that there are two types of South African – the poor black and the rich white.

The Economist, an international conservative magazine, featured an almost weekly critique of Mbeki. It equally lamented the ANC’s 2004 electoral margin of almost 70%, foreseeing dictatorship and misery for the minority. This is what The Economist wrote in one of its alarmist articles in the  period after the elections:  “(Despite a) superficial picture of integration and progress, real as much of it is, all is not rosy. White emigration figures, though hard to pin down because most of those departing do not say that they are going for good, was likely to be around 250,000-plus who had left since 1994, many of them young and talented. There was an increasing number of whites, especially those with children, who were edgier about pledging themselves to the country’s long-term future”.

In 2005, the Economist and other publications such as the supposedly left leaning The Guardian, were pointing to a growing suspicion that the ANC was not truly committed to a pluralistic, liberal democracy. They were saying there was an increasing impression that opposition is tantamount to undermining the government’s efforts to build a just society, and that people who did not accommodate themselves to the reality of ANC power would somehow be penalised.

Of course, the comparison of Mbeki with Nelson Mandela was a daily routine. In 2005, there was apparently a growing sense of racial polarisation in politics that was threatening to seep into other walks of life. In contrast to Mbeki, Mandela had softened the hearts of the harshest Afrikaner racist with his magnanimity and humility, whilst the former had shaken the confidence of many whites with his bitter, racially loaded attacks on those he deemed to be critical of him or his government.

There were specifics that were given. In particular, Mbeki’s attacks on the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA) which in 2005 was backed by some three-quarters of South Africa’s whites and maybe half of its coloureds, and on its white leader, Tony Leon; which was deemed virulent. In the minds of many whites, this virulence seemed to depart from the norms of civility in a liberal democracy.

Some 13 years later, where are we in terms of race relations?

The Institute of Race Relations tells us that White South Africans lead a considerably better life than all other races in the country. Gerbrandt van Heerden of the IRR said a race relations index also shows that Black South Africans have a “far poorer” quality of life than Indian and Coloured citizens, with access to basic services, unemployment rate, average household spend and access to medical aid still measured according to the greatest divide.

But this is not the lack of a ‘better life’ that Helen Suzman was lamenting. She was saying because she is no longer part of the decision-making elite, that her illiberals were not recognised, no one was giving gifts to white people, there was therefore no better life for all.

Whilst the ANC has always been clear that the only way to measure if we are achieving our goal of a better life for all was through tangible change in the material conditions of our people, blacks in general and Africans in particular, it seems white South Africans see it very differently. Not being able to determine how that will happen (excluded from political power), not being sure if more for blacks means less for whites, and generally, as long as Mandela is not around they will never be happy.

Today however, those white lamentations are palpable throughout society. You see it in their commentary on social media and online news platforms, their experts, the marches they choose to join and lead; it’s all there, the anger of not being in charge. The country is going down because it’s not through white hands, and we must take to the streets to fix that – they seem to be saying.

How do we fix the self-serving, hypocritical, racial suspicions fuelled by permanent insecurities?  Maybe the dream of ‘black and white’ living together in harmony was just a dream? The country needs to have a brutally honest conversation

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