Post Rainbow Nation South Africa: the search for a vaccine against self-interest

This week has felt very familiar. The last time I felt this heavy and bordering on hopeless was in 2015 during the first occurrence of the #FeesMustFall protests. I watched as police shot rubber bullets and teargas into crowds of students protesting for their right to education; students the same age as their own children.

The median police officer salary is R15000 per month, $1000 per month, so these officers were shooting at students in positions that their own children would soon likely be in. All that violence to maintain the most base of comforts — nothing erodes empathy as quickly as the desire to maintain personal comforts.

There has been no sign of decreasing wealth inequality since apartheid. Since 1993, inequality has remained broadly stable and has even slightly increased within top wealth groups. The top 10% own 86% of aggregate wealth and the top 0.1% close to one third, while the top 0.01% of the distribution (3,500 individuals) concentrate 15% of household net worth, more than the bottom 90 % as a whole.

The racial categories introduced by Apartheid remain ingrained in South African society with South Africans continuing to classify themselves, and each other, as belonging to one of the four defined race groups (black Africans, whites, Coloureds and Indians). The 2011 census figures for these categories were Black South African at 76.4%, White South African at 9.1%, Coloured South African at 8.9%, Indian South African at 2.5%, and Other/Unspecified at 0.5%.

Given South Africa’s history and all these wealth and race distribution statistics it’s not difficult to realise that the pains of everyday life in South Africa are not evenly distributed. It is no coincidence that protests mainly consist of black people. It is no coincidence that when fellow white students formed a wall between us and the police, the police lowered their weapons.

Rainbow Nation is a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe post-apartheid South Africa, after South Africa’s first fully democratic election in 1994. The phrase was elaborated upon by President Nelson Mandela in his first month of office when he proclaimed: “Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

But, how true is this? How at peace are we with ourselves when swathes of people march each year due to poor service delivery while the rest of us invest in more security measures to keep ourselves safe? The table shrinks while the walls grow tall.

An argument I’ve heard in my peer group as to why Apartheid no longer affects “us” is that “we” all have MacBooks now and Sipho is the head of my department. There is an all not too surprising theory that opportunities are available to all. A theory that the child who grows up in a shack and studies by candlelight on an empty stomach has the same chance at success as the child being driven to school on roads flanked by trees.
In contrast, I grew up in a neighbourhood where local elections were decided by food parcels. Politicians in my area, and many places like it, knew a base truth: people are hungry. Hungry people have no patience to wait for promises to bear fruit — they need the fruit now!

Poor South Africans were already marching in 2019 due to poor service delivery and the unrelenting chokehold of poverty. This all happened many months before a global pandemic. A pandemic that for the past 18 months has taken jobs and lives. A pandemic whose end is nowhere in sight.

Being an involved citizen is not only complaining. You also need to do the work to understand situations thoroughly, else you risk voting for atrocities being committed against people simply because you were unwilling to bear some mental discomfort.
However, if you feel politics are unimportant, nothing but drama, then congratulations, you’re a benefactor of the status quo. Your task then becomes, “how can I extend this same peace of mind to everyone else?” NOT, “how can I build barricades to protect myself?”

If we are to measure societal success by individual comforts, let us adopt this fully, for as long as these individual comforts do not extend to everyone, we have failed. If you truly want to be self-interested, make sure everyone else is as comfortable as you are.

For many in South Africa, it is still storming. The burned stores we see are only an indication of what could come; this chaos is only a light pour. If we do nothing, the rainbow will soon be eclipsed by dark clouds and winds strong enough to uproot the jacaranda and mimosa trees.