Solly Moeng: No shortcuts to healing

One thing is crystal clear in the engagements I have with many fellow South Africans, especially black South Africans, online and offline. The painful memory of apartheid remains stubbornly engrained in the minds of many, and so does the anger.

Personal anecdotes of what people have either personally gone through during apartheid or remember being told by parents and other loved ones remain as strong in their minds as if it all happened yesterday.

When, in hindsight, many reminisce about the humiliation that came with living under apartheid and the memories of being treated as sub-humans, at best, and animals, at worst, the rage swells-up again in them; it becomes palpable in their voices. Their bodies shake as if they take personal blame for not having been there to fight alongside others, or for not having done enough to fight back and end it all much earlier than the early 1990s.

Often it is as if there is a post-traumatic stress disorder that has not been properly attended to.

This condition remains an unrecognised barrier between our yesterday and the tomorrow we should build together, as the united people of South Africa.

But that is only the one side of the divide.

The other side

The other side of the divide comes with engaging with many fellow white South Africans who express a combination of frustration, regret, shame, anger, loss of hope, and a host of other emotions, when they feel helpless. This helplessness is in regard to a past they were either too unborn, too young, or too naïve to do anything about; and a present that keeps refusing to hear their voices and acknowledge their bona fide, sincere efforts dealing with the frustration, indeed the shame, the best way they believe they can.

They feel that whatever they do is never enough and will probably never receive the kind of acknowledgement they believe it deserves, at least not from everyone.  

Many feel that they have apologised many times, privately and publicly, for what was done in their names and for their benefit. Others have gone out to get involved in all sorts of social causes aimed at "giving back" the best way they can.

To some, "giving back" has taken the form of adopting black kids from impoverished communities to give them a fresh start in life, with better material conditions and other forms of nurturing that they hope will ensure their adopted kids do not end up roaming the streets when they grow up, feeling lost. Not all "adopted" kids get physically taken away from their biological families - where such exist. Many are simply provided with an "extra home" and family to visit on weekends, and to turn to when they need stuff their impoverished homes cannot give them. There are many untold stories of successful black graduates and professionals who have come out of difficult socio-economic environments in this manner. Deputy Chief Justice Zondo, currently running the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, is one such person.     

The two divides described above provide a picture of the broad tendencies, of course, but we know that the situation is not as clear-cut as they make it seem; the reality is lot more nuanced.

On all sides of the broad historic divides, there are South Africans who are committed to holding hands to build a better, united country. One in which the mistakes of the past will not be repeated. And there are others who still do not see any reason for holding hands with the people they consider to be beneficiaries of former oppressors.

There’s also a stubborn "C’mon, move on!" brigade, consisting mainly of white people, a fringe group that still refuses to appreciate the genuine nature of the lingering pain of apartheid.

To them, "things were not as bad as all that, during apartheid". In fact, they consider them to be worse today than they were then, "when everything worked". They can even bring out a domestic helper or gardener who will attest to the claim that they felt better under apartheid than they do now, in the democratic dispensation. The assumption is that there must be truth to the claim when a black person makes it. It makes them feel better.  

It takes one person from this group to utter some foolishly racist remark to stoke the emotional fires and set our national unity project back by many years. Extremist groups like the BLF and the EFF feed on the stuff coming out of this group.

Losing tomorrow because of yesterday

The price we’re all being made to pay is that many seem prepared to disregard the crimes committed in more recent years by those they have trusted to turn the historic tide for them, in favour of blaming all our contemporary troubles on crimes committed by others, decades ago.

It seems easier to lash out at apartheid, and indiscriminately at white people, than it is to look the powerful black people lording it over our affairs in the eyes and to tell them that it’s this far and no further.

As a result, many criminals of our time are allowed to get away with playing victim and stoking the racial fires in order to divert attention from their crimes against the interests of South Africa and her people.

We’re in trouble when people who claim to still be living with the lingering pain of apartheid seem prepared to simply reverse the tide and impose on others – because they resemble the enemies of yesterday – the same humiliation and hatred they or their loved ones suffered.

We’re in trouble when our leaders cannot put aside their party-political hats a lot more often that they currently do to remind all South Africans of who they are; where they come from, and of the distance that must still be made to build a more united country.  

No one should be fooled; the ongoing judicial commission of inquiry into state capture is meant to help us understand what happened and how it happened, over the past decade, and to enable our country’s criminal and justice systems to deal with responsible persons in accordance with the letter of the law.

It should be allowed to continue without hindrance and not allowed to fall prey to diversionary stratagems of opportunists who know that their days are numbered and that they have much to account for.

There will be no short cuts to our collective healing.

* Solly Moeng is brand reputation management adviser and CEO of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley Reputation Managers. Views expressed are his own.

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