It was a heady moment. The broad national consensus behind the adoption of the Constitution was an indication that South Africans strongly desired to have something close to a solemn commitment that signalled the beginning of a new phase in their history. As the minister of rural development and land reform decides on appointing a special master to ensure that pending land claims will be processed, April 6 marks 344 years since Jan van Riebeeck landed at the Cape of Good Hope to begin a phase of history that our Constitution intended to formally bring to an end.
The Constitution would set a framework for new relationships among South African citizens, based on an agreed set of fundamental values from which would be derived rights, benefits, duties and responsibilities of shared citizenship.
But this begged the question: How do South Africans begin to live together on the basis of a new document when, for more than 150 years, they have known one another largely across crude, binary simplifications of master and servant; the civilised and the uncivilised; the educated and the ignorant? Within this crude world of binary simplifications, relationships between political and economic groups were fundamentally transactional in a manipulated kind of way, such that the direction of power was predetermined one way: from powerful whites in control to powerless blacks under control.
Having to know one another as a people without predetermined identities, in a new constitutional democracy, and to become socially, politically, economically and culturally welded into a new national community was, while desirable, a condition that could not simply be declared into being. It needed work. Was that work identified? How would it be undertaken? Over what period of time would it yield its results in ways replicable into the distant future?
Another question arises: On which segment of the broad South African population would the burden fall to bring about a new society? Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, in his seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, answered this. Those who embark on a self-liberation cause – no matter how long it takes across generations of struggling people – do more than free only themselves. They also offer the gift of freedom even to their oppressors.
That brings about its own question: Will the also freed oppressors recognise their gift, from sources they least expected?
The gift of the oppressed to their erstwhile oppressors will not be the schools, factories, shops, clinics, roads or dams normally listed as achievements. These kinds of public and private infrastructure are in the achieved new space of freedom; they are a given. They were produced by the organised, even if mostly enforced, efforts of all South Africans who participated in their making.
What distinguishes one society from another is not so much the enablers of human effort, but whether the human context in which they were achieved is worthy of the intellectual, moral, ethical and cultural respect of universal humankind. This is the gift of the oppressed to their erstwhile oppressors: an invitation to humanity.
All the infrastructure inherited from colonialism and apartheid is not the gift of the colonialist or the apartheid racist to enfranchise their erstwhile victim. Embodied in its creation are the efforts of all humans who gave of themselves, despite the profound injustice in the distribution of the rewards of effort.
The challenge of the new Constitution to all South Africans is the invitation to humanise the national environment. Not any more unearned privileges; not any more geometric wealth so gargantuan, even its owners are unable to imagine it; not any more unequal opportunities across national life. If the South African town and city were the site of colonial energy, the townships are the current sites of the new, democratic energy. How that reality will evolve is the greatest historic challenge of our times.
The adoption of the Constitution saw the abundance of visionary policies and legislation in the Mandela and Mbeki presidencies. They remain a testimony to the goal of the envisioned democracy.
But as the years pass, it increasingly seems that the reality of being a new nation appears not to have measured up to the idea of actually becoming one. And that speaks to the almost total absence of vision in the current presidency.
Almost? Yes: there is always a silver lining. But the silver does not shine enough to be a beacon. In the current presidency, in making room for the participation of citizens, government did so without maintaining the visionary orientation of the struggle for freedom.
The legacy of the commonwealth of the South African economy continues to be overwhelmed by the rapacious laws of wealthmaking that created it and is now evolving into a politics of a criminally syndicated government poised to abort a constitutional democracy in its third decade.
There is not much silver light in the dramatic retreat from the public community, the envisioned commonwealth. It is being overshadowed by the atomising tendencies of capitalism in the colony still driven by extractive orientations.
Township energy has yet to activate itself to achieve its best. Until that happens, newly enfranchised black elites extract by emulation, without a township spatial grounding to invest in. Raiding the Treasury is their criminal obsession. Not much will come out of the wealth stolen that will uplift the quality of life among the vast poor. That is why 19 000 land claims can get lost, while the misery of land claimants is overshadowed by the dizzying speed of blue-light convoys. This observation opens a window for me to make two assertions. Firstly, there is a disconnect between the humanistic, democratic aspirations embodied in our Constitution on the one
CLAIMING THEIR SPACE Hundreds of residents from Khayelitsha township in the Western Cape are building houses on private property. The occupation bid, led by the Economic Freedom Fighters, is part of the party’s land expropriation policy