There will never be true reconciliation in South Africa if we do not tackle the challenge of inequality.
This was one of the issues raised at a panel discussion titled Fighting Racism and Building Social Cohesion that was jointly hosted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), the European Union (EU) and the Anti Racism Network of South Africa (ARNSA).
Speaking at the event at the IJR’s offices in Gardens were Cecile Kyenge, an Italian member of the European Parliament; Felicity Harrison from the Goedgedacht Forum; Michael Privot, director of the European Network Against Racism; and Eleanor du Plooy, project organiser of the Ashley Kriel Youth Desk at the IJR. The discussion was facilitated by the ARNSA national convenor, Sean Moodley.
“It is important to have leaders in the world such as Mandela in South Africa who are symbols,” said Ms Kyenge.
“It helps us to explain the importance of fighting racism to future generations.”
While she also spoke about the racism that she, as a black woman, faced in the European Parliament, she tried not to let it affect her too much because she knew she was fighting for a bigger cause.
Ms Harrison said they had seen a number of trends emerging through the discussions they’ve had with different communities around solidarity and social cohesion.
“One of the big problems we face in society is that we have fragmentation. We are seeing increasingly that there is fragmentation within sectors of society.”
Fragmentation, said Ms Harrison, was largely due to the levels of inequality in the country.
“In many cases people in South Africa are just trying to survive. I don’t think it will be easy, in such an environment, to build solidarity and compassion.”
She also said another trend picked up in their discussions as a part of the Goedgedacht Forum, was that there were many people who still didn’t feel a part of the new South Africa more than 20 years into democracy.
What gave her hope, however, was the resilience which these types of conversations highlighted. “We see hope, compassion and we see people surviving in the most difficult circumstances and doing it with dignity. They are doing it in a way that gives me hope for the next generation.
“We now have lots of threats to our values and we have to stand up for them. We haven’t got as far as we wanted to but those that we have got are under threat.”
Ms Harrison said the work of transforming institutions and building reconciliation was something that the people would have to do themselves.
Ms Du Plooy highlighted the myth of the “Rainbow Nation” and pointed out that young people had rejected the term of “born-free” because of the slow pace of social and economic transformation in the country.
“Race continues to be one of the most divisive things in South Africa and it is largely connected to socio-economic sectors.
“If we don’t challenge the social and spacial legacies of apartheid, we are going to reproduce certain patterns of behaviour.”
She added that it was the country’s youth that gave her hope for the future.
“However people feel about #Fees Must Fall, what that student movement brought to the fore was a new critique of political economy that brought together class, inequality, identity and lived experience. That’s where I find hope and we need to keep on talking no matter how uncomfortable it is.”
Ms Du Plooy added that the Afrobarometer had recently released some statistics about the sentiments of young South Africans and how they felt about social cohesion, with 92 percent of them responding positively to the statement that “being South African is a very important part of how I see myself”.
The same research showed that 89 percent of young South Africans agreed that it was desirable to unite all people who live in South Africa and that 85 percent of young people believed it was possible to create a united nation.
“I think that there is a lot of hope to draw from that but that there is also a lot of hard work.
“I don’t think we are shy of hard work but I think we should be allowed our anger, hurt but also to celebrate the tiny victories.”
Mr Moodley concluded by saying that we were not living in a “new” South Africa but are in the process of building it.