“So for me, I don’t get this thing of striving for reconciliation as a permanent state of being. I think there are moments, and it’s all about identity politics. So at certain moments people’s sense of blackness is called upon and mobilised. Like now, in these debates, they get mobilised. And in other moments, like the World Cup, other identities get called upon. So my whole uncomfortableness with this notion of reconciliation is that it is depicted in too much absolute terms and too static. To me it’s moments and experiences, which change. And what is good tomorrow can be horrible next week. So we have good moments, and we have terrible moments.”
The oppressive legacy of colonialism in South Africa manifested most egregiously in the apartheid (literally ‘separateness’) regime, which lasted from 1948 until 1994. During this period of legally – and often brutally – enforced separatism, the country’s population rose from 13 million to 36 million. (By 2015, the population was over 50 million.) Many thousands of people were killed, tens of thousands physically injured, and millions removed from their homes into segregated communities, which often lacked basic necessities.
The anti-apartheid movement led South Africa to become a global beacon for compromise, particularly in the form of the moral leadership of Nelson Mandela—and for the giving up of unearned privilege in the form of the decisions by National Party leaders, especially F.W. de Klerk, to negotiate what was effectively their own political demise. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s attempt at dealing with the past through restorative rather than retributive means had mixed success – the potential for further civil conflict may have been reduced by the work of the commission, but victims/survivors may feel more ambivalent about the amnesty process appearing to outweigh meaningful reparations, as well as the continued lack of comprehensive land redistribution. Widespread poverty, glaring inequality, high crime rates, and significant unemployment continue in the post-apartheid era, and around one in seven South Africans is HIV positive.
“If you are asking if we are angry, yes we are,” one respondent explained. “The anger manifests itself in various aspects:…now there are service delivery strikes popping up in most of the black townships. The promises that many thought the freedom would bring have not been made real. There is so much poverty in the streets of Gugulethu, Phillipi, Khayelitsha, and Nyanga.” Protests have been a frequent occurrence in these informal settlements around Cape Town and many others throughout South Africa. Two decades after the end of apartheid, South Africa has one of the highest protest rates in the world as poor residents take to the street to demand basic services and housing.
“The question is, are we sitting on the time bomb of a revolution?” one respondent asked. “Maybe yes and maybe not; it is up to academics like you to surmise.”