Stitching South Africa back together, one person at a time

Flag map of South Africa

CAPE TOWN — Fulminating at political rhetoric what we fundamentally disagree with is too widespread a South African phenomenon – until perhaps we begin to consider that it makes not one iota of difference in uniting our people. In fact, it hardens positions and separates as effectively as apartheid did. As State Capture did. Both were cynical and born out of fear, supremacism, exclusion and greed. Here Derek Carstens, now a game farmer and fresh meat producer in the wide Karoo but historically at the top of his game as a marketer and punter of ideas (chief marketer for the FIFA 2010 World Cup), challenges us to take individual responsibility to stitch our society back together into one with a proud and common purpose. It’s a wild and eloquent ride through our recent history, arriving on each of our unique doorsteps with splendid examples of how we could gift one-another and heal wounds. There’s enough to hold the fabric of our society together; an independent judiciary, a free press and the Constitution. We’ve belatedly realised the extent of the damage done and the enormity of the task ahead. Here are a few ways to recreate a common purpose and rebuild unity. – Chris Bateman

By Derek Carstens*

Once upon a time there was a country on the southern tip of Africa, where it’s people called themselves Proudly South African. Where against all odds they had silenced the nay-sayers and peacefully ushered in democracy for all. Where a nuclear arsenal had been voluntarily disarmed, the rugby team had won the World Cup and the soccer team the African Cup of Nations. Where grief and forgiveness happened at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and where capitalists shed 25% of their equity to create a Black middle class. Where the Founding Father of the Nation voluntarily handed over power after but one term in office.

Derek Carstens

Audible sighs of relief emanated from the Whites as the fear of a “Black revenge” evaporated like mist in the morning sun, to be replaced by a sense of hope and even camaraderie.

Similarly amongst Black folk hate, grounded in iniquitous past injustices, was dissipated by a sense of achievement as well as a possible acknowledgement that the Whites had chosen the peaceful option.

Bishop Tutu coined the memorable “Rainbow Nation” words and for a brief, glorious time we all basked in it’s glow as a sense of common cause and pride in what had been achieved prevailed. With good reason as we had ridden out the storm and not just survived but flourished as the poster nation of the World.

Alas that was then.

Not long and fractures began to appear as emotion subsided and the hard reality of everyday life set in.

Beetroot was prescribed as a cure for AIDS, Mugabe was indulged, BEE fostered resentment as the “have’s” found themselves losing out to the previously “have nots” and something called the Arms Deal cast disturbing pall. The DA (what the hell are they currently up to) said it was time to “fight back”, farm murders increased, corruption strangled the fruits of labor and the “spoils of war” fostered a sense of I before we. Ubuntu became a myth as the ladders were pulled up and a sense of entitlement stifled any sense of entrepreneurialism. The awful “K” word appeared as hate speech emerged.

In short, on both sides of the racial divide, our sense of common purpose found itself in a quicksand.
Cynics had a field day revelling in their intellectual shallows. Nay sayers whooped and hollered.

Briefly things superficially righted themselves as we hosted the FIFA 2010 World Cup and we revelled as one as Tshabalala netted a beauty.

But again, this was but a fleeting moment and quickly undone by a wannabe Zulu chief, masquerading as the country’s President. Dispensing largesse Left and Centre at the expense of his people. Internationally the currency was junked.

torn flag south africa

And so the poor became poorer and the unemployed youth evermore restless. Fertile soil indeed for populism to take root. Like khaki bos after the rains emotive rhetoric and populist slogans flourished.

Gradually it became apparent amongst Blacks that Whites had in effect given up very little, other than extending the vote. But they still ran the show economically from Stellenbosch and elsewhere.

And so the embers of resentment began to glow and were fanned by the flames of concepts like white monopoly capital and land expropriation without compensation.

The Second Front in effect.

This all engendered a return to fear amongst Whites and resentment amongst Blacks.

Both sides starting to feel that they had been sold down the river. Increasingly Mandela and De Klerk seen as sell outs by their respective constituents.

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And so Proudly South African became Angry South African, Gatvol South African, Scared South African, Disillusioned South African, Embarrassed South African, Militant South African, Sad South African.

Suspicion grew as physical and emotional barriers were erected. In short we lost what I call a common frame of reference regarding what it means to be a South African.

Yes, still tenuously held together by such common causes as the judiciary, a free press, the Constitution, but increasingly at odds over how to share our country’s bounty and the fruits of our labour.

A sense of talking past each other as opposed to with each other. Socialism versus capitalism, free enterprise versus State ownership. Departure points at polar opposites. Little empathy for one another.

And that is the nub of the matter. A failure to recognize the extent of the damage and the magnitude of the task.

Flag map of Germany

To fully appreciate it consider for a moment what happened in post-war Germany. Here we had a united, albeit defeated, Nation. One language, one race, one history, one country.

Then it was split by the Wall as the victors shared the spoils. And what happened. Well within a couple of decades the power of propaganda effectively created two nations out of one. I actually crossed over from West to East Berlin via the infamous Checkpoint Charlie in 1967 and witnessed for myself two worlds. One in vivid technicolor and the other in drab black and white. And despite the Wall having been down for decades it is only recently that the Nation has healed. The scars are still fresh.

Consider then in turn that we had an entire history of institutionalized propaganda preaching White superiority and Black inferiority. All the more potent and destructive given our diversity in terms of race, language, ethnicity and violent history. A potent cocktail indeed. Propaganda on steroids.

And we thought this would all go away courtesy of some Madiba magic and Tutu rainbows. No way José – no way.

We must therefore acknowledge that we are now but in the foothills and that things are understandably fractured and frayed. This was never going to be a smooth ride. Politicians of course are amplifying the condition to serve their respective political agendas, few if any, of which coincide with those of the people they are purportedly there to serve. Politics after all is about power not service.

However the fact is that it is with us, the people, that the real opportunity lies to write the next chapter in our country’s history. With the mothers and fathers, nieces and nephews, cousins and siblings, gogo’s and elders, friends and acquaintances. Bound together at a macro level by a common bond regarding justice, accountability, a free press and the Constitution. At an interpersonal level our common desire for a better life, an aversion to crime and corruption and basic decency and goodwill that one experiences everyday if you just open your eyes to it. Civilians being civil to one another across all walks of life.

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From the dreadlocked Black personal trainer working over three White ladies and an Indian gentleman as he puts them through their early morning tummy tucks on the lawn at Zoo Lake, to an offer to share a Carling Black Label quart (what else) out of a bakkie boot in the park at Cradock by some farm workers celebrating a friend’s birthday. Some friendly banter, couple of laughs and off you go with a smile on your dial. Everyday folks affirming our common humanity in the regular course of life.

So for me it really boils down to consciously saying that I am not going to be a guest in my own country. No. I am going to embrace it as a participant. Without fear – because fear begets anger and it is in anger that the seeds of hatred are sown.

For fundamentally there is absolutely no way that we can ever claim to be Proudly South African again unless each of us, every day, is doing something that makes us as individuals proud to be a South African. So ask yourself the question each day – what have I done today that made me proud to be a South African?

That is where it starts. Like eating an elephant – one bite, one deed, one hello, one smile, one thank you at a time. So rather than futilely venting at the self-serving politicians, let’s rather do something without fear or favour that demonstrates our commitment to the country and its people.

Consider for a moment this mother of a quote from Martin Luther King Jr:

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one affects all indirectly”. How powerful is that thought “an inescapable network of mutuality”.

And what I am talking about can range from thanking the petrol attendant by name next time he / she fills your car, let the taxi in who is trying to earn a living as you go off to the hairdresser, support a child of your domestic lady, join an NGO etc. As so often it is the basic little things which more than anything help break down the damaging stereotypes that so bedevil our perceptions of one another.Misperceptions and suspicions that get in the way of us recognising our shared mutuality.

But importantly as said before this cannot be done by proxy. It has to be done by actively involving yourself in alleviating whatever it is you think is undermining our common cause. Each within our means and ability. Each with a positive intent.

And in so doing beware the cynics, bearing in mind that “cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small seedling ideas” (Caitlin Moran).

I mean if this county means something to you the simple question is “why wouldn’t you do something?”. Why indeed?

Of course there are other massive challenges and a more societal level. Número uno in my book being how to look after the capitalist goose but finding different, more equitable ways to distribute it’s eggs. Clearly a topic for much more discussion but just thought I would flag it now. At the same time am confident that we will solve it…because we must, because we can.

For now be inspired by what one person did. A person who was not even born here but one who fully embraced his adopted country, it’s peoples, it’s languages, customs and cultures. A person who unites us like few and makes us proud because what he does he does so proudly. Who fears not and moves us to tears.

That person of course is Johnny Clegg, who epitomizes everything I mean in spirit, word and deed. Think of how he knitted it all together.

So go now and do the same using your God Given talents and do so with a spring in your step and a song in your heart.

Let the fraying cease and the knitting begin as we start our individual journeys to be proud South Africans.

Knowing that there are no guarantees in life, or perfection. However this way at least if we fail we will fail greatly. The cause after all is great and good intent, albeit maybe a little naive, is surely better than the smug emptiness of “I told you so” cynicism.

  • Derek Carstens was Brand Director of FirstRand and Marketing Head of the 2010 FIFA World Cup LOC following which he became a game farmer in the Eastern Cape.