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The Rainbow is a Smashed Mirror - Essay | Südafrika |

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The Rainbow is a Smashed Mirror - Essay

Breyten Breytenbach

/ 10 Minuten zu lesen

Sollte es jemals eine vom Geist der Versöhnung getragene nationale Identität in Südafrika gegeben haben, so ist diese von enttäuschten Hoffnungen fortgespült worden. Es bedarf eines Neuanfangs.


Interner Link: Link zur deutschen Version

It is a futile exercise to try and give a comprehensive overview of the South African reality. One would have to recall the political, social and economic developments since the fall of Apartheid ushered in by the new dispensation (from 1992 on), describe the situation as it is now, refer to the attitudes of the party in power and to those of the population groups, and situate the country in the broader continental and global context.

I cannot do so. What I propose instead is a stark and certainly over-simplified reading of the present circumstances as shaped by the past two decades. One can look at South Africa from many different angles, all of which will be conditioned up to a point by one's ethno-cultural field of references, the extent to which one shares a collective memory, one's future hopes, perhaps one's ideological orientation and - as in my case - a disillusioned utopianism. For I believe we have lost the dream in South Africa.

My attempt will be to identify the underlying tendencies that inform policies and attitudes and then suggest what I think we should be doing if we wish to avoid a further disintegration of the country and its institutions, and the tenuous sense of our being "South Africans".

Were we ever "South African"? What are the common denominators among the various population groups and classes all living in the same geographical space that had been historically demarcated, annexed or invented? Are we linked only negatively by competing nationalisms and conflicting histories, by blood spilt and the intimate relationship between oppressor and oppressed, predator and victim?

In my assessment, South Africa did not come about because of the shared memory of a national "whole". The hierarchies and the contours of the country have always been drawn by successive constructs of economic and social engineering: competing tribal kingdoms striving for supremacy or hegemony; settler penetration and conquest; colonialism, and the ensuing resistance of Afrikaner republics fighting to break away from British imperialism; after defeat, the Union of disparate historical and regional entities all subservient to the British crown; Apartheid, first imposed by the British and then formalized in 1948 by the coming to power of the Afrikaners' National Party, with its corollary of so-called separate development; the struggle for "national" liberation, and now the imposition of a revolutionary' regime convinced it will rule "until Jesus comes back". In the process, communities were smashed and indigenous languages demoted to the vernacular of kitchens, mines and shebeens.

The end of the Cold War twenty years ago suddenly took a lot of heat out of international ideological confrontations and their resultant constructs. Governing elites in proxy states were now groping in vain for their backers, their credibility, their self-defined legitimacy, and often their money and their arms as well. Spaces for change opened up. The void was filled by inrushing surges for "liberation" from repressive regimes and, some would argue, by the deeper-seated national imperative. Even if longstanding grievances and aspirations could now apparently be resolved at the local level of the nation, it was also clear that new dispensations would only come into being if accepted and condoned by capital. That is how a proto-socialist national liberation movement like the African National Congress (ANC), no longer benefiting from Soviet protection and international socialist sustenance, emerged as a guarantor of the free-market system. In due time, it would want to parlay its one-party dominance and culture of entitlement and patronage into state capitalism - provided the state belongs to the ANC - and call that a National Democratic Revolution.

True, in South Africa we have a government legitimized by a majority now replacing one representing the interests of the minority white community only. But one cannot describe what happened as a revolution; the "changes" were posited on the continuation of the state; opposing political formations in South Africa produced, in an enclosed dance of power and submission and illusions (because civil society and citizen organizations were excluded from the feast of the politicians), a new constitution that in essence did not change the structures of political power, and certainly did not radically modify the economy on which the state rests. Power remains centralized in the restricted committee hands of the ruling party, even if now mandated by a majority captive to history.

At no point was there either the memory or a viable collective imagination of one South Africa naturally reflecting and representing the interests of all those who live in it. In this history of re-composition we had no pre-existent whole to return to. Nor, for that matter, despite propaganda to the contrary, is there a coherent, shared and inclusive vision that would take us forward to the cognizance of our diversity. If, for a while, there was a powerful and largely shared inclusive will to gather around the dream of a morally infused new nationhood that could come about in a spirit of forgiveness and maybe even trust, it rapidly slipped away in the polluted stream of betrayed expectations and predatory politics, fear and unchecked greed and immorality, and racism. How could there then be "healing"?

Put bluntly: South Africa is still as before inhabited by several peoples and remnants of peoples, some of whom can rightly be considered nations with historical legitimacy, each informed by layered and sometimes ancient identity-forming, shared memories. However, beyond the initial phase of transition to inclusiveness it soon became clear that the One Nation promised by the new regime was premised on hegemonic Black Nationalism and a deeply held need to undo the past and rewrite history. The claim of the party in power, "It is now our time, it is our turn to eat", using resurgent nationalism based on skin color as the last refuge of the scoundrel and as a way of dealing with the past, plays out in practice as the rapid and ruthless enrichment of its deployed cadres at the cost of the country at large. The ANC policy of "inclusiveness" does not allow for the tolerance or the understanding of diversity. (A prolonged and intimate exposure during its exile years to the Stalinist ideology of the defunct German Democratic Republic certainly helps explain this attitude: "Sechaba", the ANC's official mouthpiece, used to be printed in East Berlin.)

In the struggle for a dominant discourse, strategies of forgetting had to be forged and the formation of remembering became a politicized business. The noble commitments of The Freedom Charter embodying a dream of social and economic justice and equality for all living in the land were forgotten - to be replaced by what is euphemistically called Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), in practice leading to corruption, favoritism, patronage, the looting of the state, with political obsequiousness trumping competence. Memory dirges came about as compensation for the loss of belief in the bright birdsong of a new dawn. For as the future dissolved into spilled dreams, so also did any critical assessment of the past.

Can a nation be conceived without the examination of its convergent, competing and often conflicted and conflicting pasts? And would it be possible to conceive of a new nation beyond the confines of the collective (of necessity selective) memory? What if consciousness and all forms of public representation are to be apportioned according to the demography of ethnic make-up as categorized by the new regime using the arbitrary tools of the old?

History, the breath of time, would continue. But time has no memory: consciousness forgets as it breathes. Of course, effluents of "the past" would seep into contemporary collective awareness, as poison or as means to ecstatic manipulation controlled by censors, opinion formers, negationists and others doped on the nostalgia for absence. The only marker or deposit of consciousness then will be "identity" forged by the way in which memory is related or released. Or imagined.

The "memory" that dominates South African discourse now arises from successive ages of profound pain and humiliation felt by black and brown people, leading to irrational sentiments of inadequacy that can only be compensated for by the brutality of entitlement politics. Already in South Africa, we are witnessing the annexation by the party in power of key concepts of our agreed upon understanding - such as "reconciliation" and "transformation" - to assuage its appetite for more power, patronage and privilege, and the practices of impunity.

The bitterness of that memory of collective suffering, and of heroic resistance, is more potent the further away you get from the actual experiences. Younger black people, facing the desperation of failed expectations, the decay of the state and the shift of power away from democratic institutions to the centralized instances of the party, turn to hedonism or crime or a fanatic nationalism. The ANC's gutting of state assets in the absence of delivery of essential services and security to the population, has prepared the ground for populist uprisings.

The Afrikaners, the defeated people identified with Apartheid, are now stigmatized as being terminally infected by racism; their sense and expression of self and of origin and of environment and of change and of destiny, the Afrikaans language, has become synonymous with retrograde (indeed, "anti-reconciliation"!) attitudes ascribed to those who speak it, and thus it became justified that it should be throttled to silence. Their memory, itself shot through with resistance and dissidence and rebellion and métissage, is considered the dark refuge of Euro-centrists pining for lost mastership. It is apparently expected of white Afrikaners (and brown Afrikaners can't be far behind in sharing a similar fate) to understand and accept the fait accompli of historical inevitability, to abide this in grateful subservience, to repent! repent! repent! and avert their eyes as bearers of the sins of the forefathers - for drawing attention to their own concerns however justified would endanger their collective existence. They are summoned to pass on their skills and their farms and their schools and their bank account pin codes and their cell-phones and their shares and their fire-arms and their liquor and their garden forks and then to get the hell out - thus, preferably, to fade away from history and from Africa.

To validate a failed "revolution" you have to keep digging up the corpses of the vanquished ideology and people and kill them all over again. Disastrous policies fuel entrenched perceptions that we must go further along the road of purification. We haven't been wrong enough yet.

Is it possible to heal the growing rifts? Can South Africa be thought whole? Should we think unity of purpose? How are people to move "beyond anger"? What must the oppressed and oppressors holding one another by the throat of history be given as encouragement in their collective struggle to forget, and beyond, to forgive in order to find a shared future? Collective forgetting is laborious; it takes an effort. In that process, which may be one of reconstitution inimical to reconciliation - what space of obliteration or of reconfiguration does a language occupy? Will that space be only geographical and "cultural", or is it also historical and thus linked to power and to powerlessness?

It is incumbent upon us to keep alive spaces of common good by movements of the heart and the mind that serve both as references of recognition and processes of creativity.

The very motor force of development to the benefit of all depends on the acceptance and fostering of positive interaction between minorities and a majority, and it is thus of cardinal national importance that minorities should be able to have their concerns and interests taken into active consideration by the majority.

The national narrative can no longer be about reconciliation - particularly not when to the victors it is code for taking exclusive control of the command posts of politics, the economy and culture - but should from now on rather be about how to move forward to secure the advances in terms of equal opportunities signaled by liberation, how to eliminate poverty if only in the name of human dignity, how to best embody in processes of creolization the hybrid nature of South Africa's history and population by seeing this as a natural source of mutual enrichment and inclusive development, and how to counter the growing one-party hegemony expressed in a conflation of state and party.

For us, the moral imagination that can keep us moving forward will have to go beyond the narcissism of victim-hood, beyond the gratification of consumerist mob enticement and of populist manipulation. That imagination will have to be ethical and humble and generous and creative - out of respect for the ancestors and because of responsibility for the lost generations of downtrodden - and find continued expression in the willingness to dialogue with dignity, reconnecting people to language in a plurality of narrative patterns, and thus to move from the thoughtlessness of evil banality to the thoughtfulness of interdependence.

As citizens, we will have to envisage once more, as if for the first time, the apparently contradictory but of necessity complimentary spaces and movements of South African societies not so much as a nation-in-progress but as a mixing-in-becoming, occupying the same habitus.

When the inaction of "victory" can no longer be an option - because of stagnation and rot - then we should surely be able to rally around objectives of transcendence. And in South Africa these can only be economic and social justice, intercultural humanism, a new ground for inclusive memory, the consented protection of minorities, and the acceptance in practice of plurality.

We are obliged to achieve the harmony of active change. We urgently need to morally re-imagine and re-negotiate a new national dispensation, probably a federal set-up with new objectives (of justice, as old as the dreams of mankind ...) and with new rules expressed in viable and resilient and independent structures. And honor the ethical commitment to abide by these.

But this time round, so as to collectively reach for the future, all sectors of the South African population should be party to the deliberations and decisions - not just the "leaders" and the "cadres" and the political constellations. Not just the horse traders.

"This existing, that arising", movement generated between empty and full - an ancient Buddhist life discipline. The past can make no sense unless it creates a future. If we do not consciously go down the difficult road of imagining ourselves more inclusive and more ethical than we are, than we were, we will certainly fall back into barbarism.

Geb. 1939; Schriftsteller, Maler und Antiapartheid-Aktivist; Autor von "Wahre Bekenntnisse eines Albino-Terroristen" (1983).