If told in the genre of non-fiction rather than fanciful fiction, the story of current day South Africa would be one of Great Expectations unmet, of a transformation undone, of a pandemic of poverty, of landlessness and joblessness.
Such a book could well contain the uneasy prose of Minister Lindiwe Sisulu who recently wrote about the lack of social and economic justice for black South Africans.
In her thought piece entitled ‘Hi Mzansi, have we seen justice?’ Sisulu writes about ‘a sea of African poverty,’ about how ‘Africans manage poverty while others manage wealth,’ and about the need for an overhaul of the justice system so that it serves Africans better.
Minister Sisulu was spot on when she said: “The stark reality is that if you don’t have land, you don’t have a country.” She is on point when she bemoans that calls for economic justice have downsized rather than supersized in democratic South Africa.
‘How long’ she posits, ‘will the centre hold if economic reconciliation, restoration of the land, and meaningful redistribution of wealth is not addressed as a matter of urgency?
The Minister has effectively taken the Ray out of the Rainbow, in the same way as the sober have taken Santa Claus out of Christmas. Her words are neither reckless nor rash. Rather they are sage and responsible. For if we, as South Africans, are to write a new Chapter of our story - one of true liberation, justice, and dignity for all - it must be done on the inkwell of boldness and truth.
Truth is a story we don’t want to tell. The light and bright of the fantastical is often far kinder to us than the disquiet and self-reflection that truth brings. South Africans, as a people, are so addicted to the potion of hope that we ‘control-enter-delete’ the words of any person or perspective that disrupts the popular storyline. If truth disrupts our tale, it must be disfigured until it is inconceivable and incomprehensible.
There is a religious-like devotion among many of us to hold on to the promise of a better tomorrow, however elusive this may be. In the pursuit of a happy ending to the story, truth is treated as bewitched and subject to public burn.
Over the course of its history, the story of South Africa has swayed from genre to genre; a great tragedy, during the epochs of colonialism and apartheid, a real epic as South Africa fought for and won political democracy, and now a fantastical tale of a free and equitable nation.
An imaginary land, that we excitedly called the Rainbow Nation, came into being in 1994, on the easy and fickle spin of reconciliation. The story of how the Rainbow Nation would be a land of milk and honey for all South Africans made it an instant best-seller.
A book of empty promises but a good read nonetheless for those vested in the magic of hope. Unsurprisingly, this story is one most hungrily scoffed by those whose yesterdays were stolen in the inhumanity and criminality of centuries of racial oppression. But increasingly the brutal reality of the everyday is exposing the fiction of the Rainbow Nation.
Many of those who are attacking Minister Sisulu most vehemently now are those who have been largely mute on issues of structural inequality, lack of transformation, apartheid-era corruption, or land theft by whites. Many of these voices are loud hailers of self-interest, political opportunism, and factional politics.
The Minister has come under attack for speaking truth to power, especially for her critique of the Constitution. It is a shame because the Constitution is written in a manner which not only allows for but invites critique, correction, and change. Furthermore, the Constitution prizes freedom of expression.
And in the final analysis, it is likely that millions of black South Africans, who live in desperate daily squalor, and whose prospects for a better tomorrow remain poor, would agree with the Minister that the Constitution is not working for them. Legal institutions and instruments are not things outside of the people – if they do not serve to advance justice for ordinary people, the rule of law becomes a ruse of law.
The Acting Chief Justice’s press conference was unfortunate. Deputy President of the EFF, Floyd Shivambu, wrote how the press conference by Raymond Zondo borders on censorship and intimidation of different views. This, he argues, is judicial misconduct. Intolerance of difference of opinion has become the signature of the New Dawn. It is the failure to engage intelligently that is at the root cause of many failing democracies.
For many, the Minister has taken the celebration out of the one hundred and ten green, gold, and black candles. She has been accused of opportunism, hypocrisy, and populism. Even if she were all these things, it would not diminish the truth she now speaks.
The great revolutionary leader Malcom X said, “ I am for truth, no matter who tells it. I am for justice who it is for or against.” This indeed, should be the national anthem of a true democracy.
Heller is a writer and a socio-political commentator