In the 2015 Ruth First Memorial Lecture, Sisonke Msimang stated: “In Gauteng’s older established townships, a survey shows us that 77% of black people say that they will never be able to trust whites, and almost half of whites polled feel the same about blacks.”
With his unmatched way with words and his tempo that is so well-loved that it is akin to a national lullaby, Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela delivered his inaugural speech as president of South Africa:
“Out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long, must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud.”
There he painted a dream so beautiful that we didn’t notice the broad strokes of soporific language were, in fact, a well-meaning initial attempt to paper over the monstrous cracks of an entirely broken country.
In between him saying: “Each time one of us touches the soil of this land, we feel a sense of personal renewal. The national mood changes as the seasons change,” and mentions of blooming flowers and green grass, our Tata offered us a promise that he couldn’t keep.
This was a most seductive promise, offered by all great leaders: a promise of a new dream. Given the capitalist nature of the world, and indeed South Africa, an individual’s dreams are not enough to often (quite literally) move forward. The structures of capitalist society intentionally infringe on an individual’s movement, and so we – all of us – require a collective dream that floats above the stark reality of unemployment, debt, access to education and basic services, violence, our future and our children’s future. This new dream – this collective dream – was the rainbow nation.
Mandela’s execution was so complete in its success that no one dared to ask: why would we want to be a rainbow?
Whose rainbow is it anyway?
If South Africa was a vilified celebrity prior to 1994, then the dawn of the ‘rainbow nation’ represented her heroic transformation – and there’s nothing that the world loves more than a Kumbaya redemptive tale. With the top-down endorsement and dissemination of the rainbow mythology, Brand South Africa had a go-to term that fitted perfectly into its objectives. This was the new South Africa, with a fresh coat of paint and a dose of state-administered truth and reconciliation. The rainbow imagery represented the bright potential of the future if South Africans lived up to the national motto: ‘Unity in Diversity’, but there was no mention of unity in transformation.
“Allowing ourselves to sink into a smug ‘rainbowism’ will prove to be a terrible betrayal of the possibilities for real transformation, real reconciliation and real national unity that are still at play in our contemporary South African reality.” – Jeremy Cronin
The rainbow nation was, and still is, a title used interchangeably with ‘the new South Africa’ or, more significantly, ‘post-apartheid South Africa’ – and therein lies the danger. In delineating the collective dream as one of ‘post-apartheid’, the so-called rainbow nation and its most ardent supporters ignore the harsh reality that for the majority of South Africans, post-apartheid is as much of a myth as the rainbow nation, in that both are yet to be manifested. For the majority of South Africans, apartheid might have ended constitutionally in 1994. However, the base legacy lives on structurally, economically, socially, culturally and in countless other glaringly obvious and insidious ways.
However, what is obvious to some is not even perceptible to others. Du Bois spoke of a “double-consciousness” of being black and of being non-white in a white world, and again it exists for South African black people living in so-called post-apartheid South Africa, with many white people who refuse to acknowledge the lived experience of the majority of South Africans. Often, it’s the same white people who complain: “But apartheid is over, let’s stop blaming the past.”
Mandela, over the course of his life and his career as president of South Africa, and especially following his death, became beatified to the point that to criticise his actions – and, by extension, the rainbow nation – became tantamount to treason. Insert the phrase ‘Proudly South African’, rainbow nation and a Nelson Mandela quote and you have an unquestionable trifecta. This is entrenched by the fact that the rainbow nation conveniently requires no analysis of privilege or transformation – instead, it is absolution without qualification, and national pride without first achieving a tangible equality to be proud of.
But was Mandela’s story of the rainbow nation intended to be a gatekeeper to national identity? Can we not debate the value of our ‘new dream’ more than 20 years later without weepy demands for a nationwide harmony that has never existed?
In between him saying: “I have no hesitation in saying that each one of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld,” and mentions of blooming flowers and green grass, our Tata cautiously challenged white South Africans to rise to the occasion.
Stating plainly: “The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us.” Mandela offered the rainbow nation as a reality to be earned, not a gag to be used to silence the lived experience of black people while maintaining the status quo. The chasm that divides us remains today; the majority of black people are subject to what Panashe Chigumadzi calls the “add blacks and stir” model. The structures of the chasm are defended by white privilege under the thin veil of terms such as ‘meritocracy’ and ‘reverse racism’.
At this year’s Franschhoek Literary Festival, Thando Mgqolozana passionately expressed his frustration at the maintenance of the chasm when radical action was required:
One of the things could have happened, which many of the people who got into the negotiations thought was going to happen, was that the white people in South Africa would realise “this was horrible, and we benefited from this”. And once they realised and made this admission, would say: “Okay, maybe I shouldn’t have this house. Maybe my father or my husband or me should be the last person, the last generation, to own this farm. Because I don’t really own this farm, it was theft.” And you can donate it to the next random black person that you meet. So that’s one of the things white people in South Africa could have done, and they didn’t.
The rainbow nation, with its cheerful optimism, has no space for things left undone – and therein lies the danger. Without collective acceptance and radical action driven by the missed opportunity of genuine transformation in the short years following apartheid, white South Africans – echoing the words of Mgqolozana – are effectively asking black people to be “integrated into a fire”. The hard truth is that we need new myths: the diversity and freedom of the rainbow nation are not inherently transformative. This is evident in the socio-economic landscape of our now-broken rainbow nation – and yet, this crisis presents an opportunity for a new dream and, more importantly, a new reality. Let us say: no more rainbows.