From tolerance to acceptance: The controversy over the Zuma painting has revealed us all to be racists
In his book The Other Side of History: An Anecdotal Reflection on Political Transition in South Africa, the late Frederik van Zyl Slabbert argued that one thing the “old” and “new” South Africa have in common is a passion for inventing history. History is not seen as dispassionate inquiry into what happened, but rather as part of political mobilisation promoting some form of collective self-interest.
Indeed what we have recently observed is a state where everyone from politicians, media, civil society and artists seek to outcompete one another in an orgy of criticism and denunciation. All want to create their own history. Among politicians there are those who want to present themselves as holy, while showing others to be a danger to society and democratic ethos. On the one hand, the media and some in civil society want to paint a picture of a liberation movement government that is against constitutionalism. On the other hand, the government wants to present the media and other formations as nothing more than a bunch of spoiled brats whose appetite for more liberties is insatiable.
On an international platform we heard the last president of the erstwhile apartheid state, F.W. de Klerk, trying to rebrand the whole system of apartheid, which was ruled by the United Nations as a crime against humanity. According to De Klerk, the victims of apartheid, who are walking billboards of all that was bad during apartheid, are exaggerating, and that the world lacks proper understanding because while the system was bad, it was not as bad as Nazism in Germany.
Last week we saw the Democratic Alliance upping the ante, moving a step further towards toppling the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) as the voice of the poor. The march, which was in support of a youth subsidy, ended up being the grand introduction of the DA to street politics as it wanted to present itself as an alternative to Cosatu.
However, the recent development involving the president of the republic, an artist, the art gallery and a newspaper exposed us as a country and our sponsored reconciliation as not perfect after all, in fact as being nothing more than a fraud. Now the whole world knows who and what we really are. As a country we have been unmasked: we are all racists.
To some among us the complaint about the art depicting Zuma’s genitals was a demonstration of a lack of sophistication and appreciation for art, while the other group was baffled by the identity of the person who defaced the controversial artwork.
Put simply, for many black people the artist represented all white people in South Africa and their “unchanged attitudes”.
Hence when the identity of the person defacing the artwork was revealed, it left them embarrassed. Some among whites thought that only blacks saw something wrong about the art. Alas, they were equally shocked when the vandal was unmasked.
Our media, including the public service broadcaster, SABC, has not been immune in all of this. A newsreader told all of South Africa that a white man and a black man had been arrested for defacing the artwork. One honestly wonders whether race was an issue at all in the act of vandalism.
But what has been the lie? Since the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of political parties, our political and thought leaders have been painting a picture of a unique country and a unique transition.
The political narrative was that our transition from apartheid to a democratic order was unique and above all African standards. And as such, what we see in “other African countries” such as Zimbabwe will never happen here because we are somewhat special as the “rainbow people of God”.
The late Dr Oscar Dhlomo observed in the 1990s that the South African transition had a few unique features. Firstly, the mode of transition was a peaceful negotiation process rather than a violent revolution.
Secondly, the negotiators were the erstwhile political “haves” and the erstwhile political “have nots”. The “haves” were negotiating themselves out of a position in which they enjoyed a monopoly of political power and influence while the “have nots” were negotiating the mechanics of breaking up this monopoly in such away that they were enabled to play a leading role in the governance of the country. Concurring with Dhlomo, Van Zyl Slabbert posits that there was equally a consensus that the manner in which white domination was to end in South Africa would be unlike any other situation where this came about, such as a colonial withdrawal to “the motherland” by the white minority or an externally imposed formula for transition by some “legitimate” international intermediary, such as Resolution 435 in Namibia or Lancaster House in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe.
In another context, giving historic perspective to the transition, Saki Macozoma stated that the critical question at the conclusion of negotiations was whether a programme for fundamental transformation of society was possible given the nature of the negotiated settlement in Kempton Park.
As argued above, all this has been a lie. But on a positive note I think this episode provides a perfect preamble for the ANC discussion on the “Second Transition” during its forthcoming policy conference in June. In addition, the episode provides food for thought for all South Africans who have been living the lie of sponsored unique transition. Perhaps we should declare this year’s Mandela Day the day for all South Africans to discuss one issue: how to move from tolerance to acceptance, as it is clear that we have failed to tolerate each other over 18 years. In deed we all need a second transition.
Nhlanhla Mtaka is the executive director of Ingabadi group, a political advisory, research and strategic planning company. Follow him on twitter: @ingabadigroup.