Reconciliation Achieved – Problem Solved.

by Jesse Delbridge, South Africa

A difficult combination to achieve simultaneously is integration and self-determination,  especially considering that precious little economic integration has taken place since the  fall of the old regime. Whilst the transitional process gets the gold medal and is praised as  the world’s most successful, many outside observers who assume that South Africa has achieved this coveted status of “reconciled” would be shocked to find a society that is still very much segregated, albeit not officially or legally. A South African’s socio-economic position today, in the majority of cases, has its routes in the racial institutions of the old regime. The separation of wealth is now systemic and this is something that can’t be  remedied by forgiving, telling the truth or reforming institutions. As we are briefed by Charles Villa-Vicencio (Former National Director of Research for the South African TRC), I find myself imagining how the South African model could be applied in an ideal situation. Everything comes down to the framework, to the model. But if we  have learnt anything thus far, it is that each conflict requires a unique, tailor-made set of  approaches to address the multitude of problems a post conflict region will inevitably face. A well chosen metaphor by our  speaker considering the immense diversity of the country is the “Kaleidoscope”, since the divide is not as clear cut as ‘black’ or ‘white’  as some might think. I can’t help but scrutinize every detail, every bit of coloured glass, trying to figure out  what it was that, at some undefined point eventually allowed everything to “click into place”. The  Constitution recognizes 11 official languages, there are more than a dozen tribal groups each with a unique linguistic and cultural heritage, a history of immigration  from all over Europe, the decedents of indentured labourers from India and Dutch colonies in South-East Asia and significant  Jewish, Muslim and Hindu minorities. South African politicians don’t hesitate to capitalise  on this incredibly rich diversity either; Unity In Diversity was chosen as the country’s new  motto for a good reason. With such a multitude of groups, ethnic and otherwise, finally  sharing one nation, it is now more important than ever to emphasize a rhetoric of  coexistence coupled with the recognition of each group’s right to maintain their unique  identity.

One of our colleagues yesterday posed the question “how do we convince those in power that  it was in their interests to relinquish that power?” The role of the white corporate elite and  the owners of big business at the time of the transition is one that must not be ignored. In  light of the increasing global economic sanctions, these business leaders realized that  their economic interests were now also under threat. How could they survive the transition whilst still ensuring their interests were safe? The answer came in the form of Black  Economic Empowerment (BEE), an incredibly contentious issue that has been debated at length. It should be noted that I am examining one facet of an incredibly complex and controversial economic policy, and my views should not be taken for granted. A look at some of the Economist articles will leave you far more informed than this post. In short,  businesses are rated according to their percentage of black ownership. A higher rating means tax benefits, government funding and subsidies, among others. By selling large  share packages to a few, well connected leaders after the struggle, a company could  easily become “50% black owned”, empowering few and resulting in the new “black elites”  discussed yesterday. Top level integration is thus far easier than fairly and evenly  distributing ownership among a broader population base, those who still find themselves in  cycles of violence and poverty thanks to the success of Apartheid’s oppressive policies.

Additionally, the figures reveal that whilst there are a significant number of non-white South Africans holding non-executive positions (36%), only 4% are CEOs and 2% are CFOs.  Neither a real economic power shift or a shift in decision making power has occurred. A great lesson in PR, if nothing else. In 1994 Archbishop Tutu articulated this perfectly in saying that the new government “had stopped the gravy train only long enough to get on” and 18 years later this sentiment is  even more relevant. Whilst our institutions no longer embody the principles of Apartheid, the separation has arguably become a privatized one. Legally everyone has the right to  integrated schooling, healthcare and housing, regardless of race. Yet, those with the  financial capability can pay for private security to keep trouble makers out of their gated communities, can ensure their children go to private schools which show little racial  integration and can pay for privileged access to excellent healthcare, beyond the reach of  most of the population. As one of our previous speakers Jan Pronk fittingly remarked, the lifestyles of those in power are not negotiable.

I am eternally grateful to those individuals, including Mr. Villa-Vicencio, who in some way  contributed to the transitional process and made it their personal goal to ensure that an all out war was avoided. But forgiveness is not going to last forever and those feelings of  resentment and desires for change are going to return if our society still looks the same way it did before 1994. Whilst we have come a long way since the days of racial oppression and segregation, it is important to remember that a kaleidoscope is as fragile as it is beautiful, and can descend into chaos at the slightest fracture.

2017-09-01T16:46:14+00:00