"It's been over 20 years. People need to get over apartheid." Is this a constitutional phrase? You may have heard this phrase at one point or another. While I am not exactly clear on its meaning, it appears to suggest that some need to get over the so-called victim mentality. It may also suggest that corruption and the poor decisions made by the current government are what has resulted in South Africa's current precarious socioeconomic situation.
While there is no doubt that corruption is rampant and that poor decisions have indeed been made, the phrase seems to suggest that because we have progressed beyond 20 years into democracy, blame for our current mess should not be shared by the previous political regime because enough time has lapsed for the new government to have fixed most issues.
If my decoding of the above phrase is correct, then the phrase is offensive to the values and principles enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Act 108 of 1996 ("The Constitution"). The opening words of the Constitution state: "We the people of South Africa, Recognise the injustices of our past; Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land; Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country..."
The phrase offends these words so carefully chosen as the opening lines of our Constitution. It expects that the recognition, honour and respect referred to be compartmentalised into something that does not form part of today's reality. This is incorrect and disregards that for many the current reality is linked directly to the past and there is little today's government can do to change that. Let's use education as a basic example.
A born-free child (born post-1994) cannot turn to his or her parents or grandparents for assistance with homework if these parents and grandparents were subjected to Bantu education and possibly cannot read or write. The born-frees thus continue to be disadvantaged because of the groundwork laid and the legacy left by the previous regime even though the born-frees themselves never experienced the disparaging Bantu education curriculum. 20 years has done nothing to alleviate an unequal education system that was in force for decades prior to democracy.
In the social context, the phrase is therefore deeply divisive, undesirable and does not serve the interests of anyone wanting to build a united and reconciled South Africa. In my view, the phrase is contrary to our Constitution's preamble. Looking further at the Constitution, section 9(2) provides that in order to promote the achievement of equality, measures may be taken including the enactment of legislation.
It is up to each one of us to educate ourselves, our children and future generations about the true nature of the atrocities of the Apartheid regime.
One such piece of legislation, the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discriminatory Act 4 of 2000 ("the Act") in its Preamble defines its purpose as endeavouring "to facilitate the transition to a democratic society, united in its diversity, marked by human relations that are caring and compassionate, and guided by the principles of equality, fairness, equity, social progress, justice, human dignity and freedom."
The Preamble to the Act also states, "Although significant progress has been made in restructuring and transforming our society and its institutions, systemic inequalities and unfair discrimination remain deeply embedded in social structures, practices and attitudes, undermining the aspirations of our constitutional democracy...".
The phrase is, unfortunately, an expression of an attitude that undermines the purpose of the Act as set out above. It is deeply offensive to many and when unpacked and properly considered, should be deeply offensive to all. 20 years has certainly not seen the eradication of the effects of the previous regime, which effects will continue to be felt for generations to come. If nothing else, understanding of the implications of using this phrase may lead to an eradication of the lack of empathy among South Africans.
It is up to each one of us to educate ourselves, our children and future generations about the true nature of the atrocities of the apartheid regime, the reasons that apartheid was declared a crime against humanity, the suffering of our people and the struggle to overcome adversity. This education, as uncomfortable as it may be for some, will allow for genuine empathy and understanding among South Africans and will avoid callous and undesirable phrases being used without a full appreciation for the implications thereof.