Recent manifestations in South Africa of femicide, of men killing women because they are women, of attacks on people perceived to be foreigners, of the looting of shops and trashing of property, of expressions of prejudice and hate on social media platforms, has held up a mirror for all South Africans. We have become what has been called a ‘violent democracy’ – a democracy where a resilient and deeply rooted structural violence manifests in multiple forms of violation, trauma and damage. We are a society where the abnormal has become normalised. Over the coming week, government will release its annual crime statistics and we anticipate another confirmation of just how violent our society has become.
How did we get here? How did the dream of 1994 become so haunting for most people who live in South Africa?
To begin understanding the deeper levels of causality, we would argue, one must go back at least to the 1990s. As South Africa began to emerge, finally, from the long nightmare of colonialism and apartheid, the country’s new leaders were faced by a singular challenge. Over centuries, the country’s communities, especially black South Africans, had been subjected to structural violation on an unimaginable scale. In the period 1984-1994, state-sponsored terror and civil war had ravaged the social fabric. An enormous well of trauma and woundedness was carried into the democratic era. Reckoning with the past, then, was not a luxury but was absolutely essential - as was a robust and systematic transformation of the state, the economy and of society as a whole. A dual challenge. A mountain to climb which needed to be front and centre of both the public agenda and implementation strategies.
Analysis suggests that the country made a good start in the 1990s. Numerous special instruments for reparation, restitution and reconciliation were put in place, from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to the Black Economic Empowerment programme, from the land restitution process to the special pensions programme, from a broad Land Reform strategy to employment equity instruments. And an overarching Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) was designed to transform the deeply-rooted structures of power, privilege and wealth accumulation which had grown over centuries. The euphoria of the end of the Apartheid nightmare gave us hope and strength to commit ourselves, our minds, our hearts and spirits, towards building a country that could undo the trauma of the past.
But we lost our way very quickly. Instead of climbing the mountain, we started slipping into the valleys below the ‘rainbow’. Implementation of the special instruments was poor, and in some instances didn’t happen at all. The RDP was dropped and replaced by an approach which prioritised a global, neoliberal agenda. Deeply-rooted structures were allowed to remain largely in place. If anything, a culture emerged that consented to wealth concentrating around the social elite and inequality was allowed to balloon. The dream of a South Africa belonging to all who live in it evaporated. Effectively, power, privilege and wealth accumulation were reserved for the country’s elites despite the provisions of a liberatory Constitution. Then came a decade and more of plunder and looting by elements of the political and other elites.
We are beginning to see the consequences of what can only be called dereliction and foolishness. Dysfunction in communities and families stems from intergenerational depression and a deep woundedness. We experience, on a continuing basis, the structural violence of a society which has failed to transform. People are violated by systems which do not work, institutions which are broken, services which are not delivered, and structures which are corrupted and unaccountable. They are incensed by islands of conspicuous wealth in a sea of poverty. Moreover, the myth of the Rainbow Nation is no longer a story people see themselves a part of.
The violence that we have sown is the violence we now reap.
What South Africa sees in the mirror is devastating but we cannot be haunted into paralysis. As a country, we have overcome a ruthless regime, negotiated peace out of civil war, abolished the death penalty. We were the first African country to legalise same-sex marriage, we have democratised education for all and introduced free universal healthcare. We have overcome the unthinkable before, and we are able to do it again.
It is time to learn the lessons of communities like Touwsranten in the southern Cape. Over several years this small township has seen progress in addressing the challenges of crime, domestic violence, corporal punishment, substance abuse, absent fathers, school dropout, unemployment and so on through an innovative initiative involving community leaders, civil society, government and the private sector. Emphasis has been placed on parenting programmes, home visiting for pregnant women, school to university pipelining and other ‘soft’ interventions designed to build the fabric of society. This is long haul stuff. It is slow but deep. It is what South Africa needs and what all of us should feel obliged to invest in.
It is time for politicians, officials and community leaders to stop offering empty excuses, condemnations and promises. It is time for all of us to acknowledge our complicity in the creation of this violent democracy and to take responsibility for transforming it. It is time to reckon with our pasts, both the long pasts of colonialism and apartheid and the short pasts of the democratic era. It is time to stop relying on massive investment in policing and criminal justice and instead to prioritise violence prevention and the rehabilitation of perpetrators. This is long haul stuff. It is slow but it has far reaching implications for every facet of the society that haunts us today.
The dream of a liberatory future is not dead. The top of the mountain we need to climb together is still visible.
Originally published in City Press.