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We can't take a wrong turn with rights

Date Released: Thu, 5 May 2011 09:14 +0200

THE year 1994 was a revolutionary breakthrough. Racial oligarchy, brutal oppression and repression finally gave way to a democracy in which all South Africans were accorded full citizenship rights. Critical to this development was the imagination and courage we displayed to rid ourselves of tyranny and to forge a constitution and Bill of Rights that held out the promise of far-reaching political, economic and social reform. We looked forward to the promise of the progressive realisation of hard-won citizenship rights so we could live productive, rich, rewarding and secure lives.

Certain realities, however, seriously compromise our constitutional ideal of full citizenship rights for all. Indeed, they could condemn large numbers of us to conditions that are more akin to being subjects. In South Africa Pushed to the Limit, Hein Marais warns of the danger of the "recourse to rousing affirmations of identity and entitlement" and to populist discourses of authenticity - "who is a real South African, who is a real African, who is black, what is a man, what is the role of women". These utterances are accompanied by ever more narrow and exacting interpretations of culture and tradition.

His comments were put into perspective in recent events: the crass utterances of chief government communicator Jimmy Manyi on race; the repugnant tabloid chatter of Kuli Roberts on so called coloureds; and Minister Trevor Manuel's amazing outburst that Manyi has "the same mind that operated under apartheid". Given the apartheid legacy, there can be no quarrel with redress and social equity for disadvantaged poor, black and female South Africans. As Albie Sachs notes, pervasive inequities "cannot be wished away by invoking constitutional idealism".

Still, we find ourselves in the grip of a profound paradox; the use of race to promote redress and advance social equity. In Sachs's words, we are making "conscious use of racial distinctions to create a non-racial society". Such an approach has many dangers. For one, employing solely race for redress purposes could benefit only or primarily the black political and economic elites, and simply reproduce the severe class inequalities we already have. The conspicuous consumption of our sushi-loving elites and the rapid ascendancy of politically connected elites into wealthy business people make no difference to eliminating the massive inequalities in our society. For another, using race to advance redress and social equity could ossify racial categorisations and ensure we continue to construct identities primarily along the lines of race.

Surely our goal, as well as our strategy must be to erode and dissolve racial categorisations and ensure that our identities are instead rich, multiple, fluid and dynamic rather than frozen along race lines. We must confront the charlatans among us who stridently seek to give ever more narrow and exacting answers to the questions of "who is a real South African, who is a real African, who is black, what is a man, (and) what is the role of women". We must loudly proclaim that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity. We must insist, for all the reasons that were given at the "I am an African" speech at the launch of our constitution, that we are all Africans. We have a long road still to travel before inequality racism, sexism, prejudice and intolerance are defeated. As Njabulo Ndebele notes, "the fact that racism may still exist in the actions of young students suggests that racism continues to be fed by institutions such as families, schools and churches" and we need to give attention to how we bring up our children. Issues of race, culture, identity, language and many kinds of hurt remain to be confronted. We will only be free and equal when we begin to tackle these issues with sensitivity honesty and courage.

Having failed, yet again, to win the Cricket World Cup, we have nonetheless triumphed in the dubious honour of now being the most unequal society on Earth. Already a perversely unequal society in 1994, during the past 17 years income inequality has increased in general and within so called racial groups. The percentage of income of the poorest 20 percent of South Africa has fallen since 1994, while that of the richest 20 percent has risen. The poorest 20 percent earn 1.7 percent of income, the richest 72.5 percent. Forty-three percent of our fellow citizens eke out an existence on an annual income of less than R3 000 a year - R8.22 a day. Hunger and disease, poverty and unemployment continue to blight our democracy. Millions of citizens are mired in desperate daily routines of survival while, alongside, crass materialism, corruption, tenderpreneurship and unbridled accumulation run rampant. What does citizenship mean for those who are poor, unemployed, struggle to survive or live in fear of rape, other violence and crime?

South Africa is an infinitely better place today than it was before 1994. There have been many positive social developments. Our institutions of democracy and justice and our media remain robust and vibrant, as do voices that seek to safeguard constitutional values and ideals. On the final page of Long Walk to Freedom, Madiba writes; "The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. For us to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning." He adds: "I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended." The truth is that we may be citizens, but our citizenship remains to be fully developed. We are yet to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The long walk to full citizenship rights for all is not yet ended. We dare not linger too long in our walk to freedom, for there will be grave costs if we do so. We simply must re-imagine our future, forge new ways of conducting our affairs, and build new identities that are free from an obsession with race and focus instead on social justice and human dignity.

Dr. Saleem Badat is vice-chancellor of Rhodes University. This is an edited version of a speech at recent Rhodes graduation ceremonies. He writes in his personal capacity. Another Take Saleem _Badat