Our fractured society is finally realising we need each other
Exposing racism, sexism and bigotry raises temperatures, but we keep returning to dialogue
Fracturing of the status quo in SA is seen as a necessary part of the national transformation project. For most, transformation means undoing the legacies of apartheid and creating opportunities for South Africans who were denied these under that old hateful system.
SA, not unlike the rest of the world, is emerging from a long period of not only racial but also patriarchal dominance and exploitation. Internationally, women are speaking out against sexual assault, outing their abusers and the system that enables them. They are reacting against their exploitation but at the same time proclaiming their agency, refusing to be victims any longer.
In SA, women are no strangers to struggle. Apartheid and colonialist mining practices were premised on forcing male labour off the land and into the mines, splitting families. Women have long taken a militant role in resisting this kind of exploitation, which is at once economic and racial.
SA has a long history of women being part of the liberation struggle going back to the campaigns against pass laws in the 1910s and the march by women on the Union Buildings on August 9 1956.
SA is simultaneously a unique environment, with its own manifestations of fracture and community, and an integrated part of the world, living through the same social changes and challenges
Organisations engaged in political or race struggle have always been a terrain for gender struggle, where women’s voices are marginalised.
Against this background, it’s useful to realise that women often have a valuable role to play in conflict resolution. A Council on Foreign Relations study found that when women participate in peace processes the resulting agreements are as much as 35% likelier to last at least 15 years.
Despite this, our participation lags significantly. In peace processes from 1990 to 2017, women made up only 2% of mediators, 5% of witnesses and signatories and 8% of negotiators.
Perhaps for this reason, of the 1,187 peace agreements over this period only 19% make any reference to women and only 5% refer to gender-based violence, which is often a significant component of conflict.
SA is simultaneously a unique environment, with its own manifestations of fracture and community, and an integrated part of the world, living through the same social changes and challenges. We are fractured from the world, but we share a common future.
At the advent of democracy, SA experienced a honeymoon "rainbow nation" phase, where reconciliation and nation building were priorities.
After this, the country entered a period of clarity where the glaring inequality demanded to be addressed. The National Development Plan was developed and laid out a vision for partnerships in building a developmental state within a socially just market system. It came complete with solutions, proposals and actions for a phased implementation.
After some incremental progress in tackling the nation’s triple challenge of poverty, unemployment and inequality, South Africans now realise the full scale of the problem — at a time when the economy is almost stagnating, with real GDP up 0.8% year on year in the third quarter of 2017.
The inequality between rich and poor in SA is entrenched, systemic and intractable. Within this dichotomy, it is black women who bear the brunt.
The systemic nature of the problem becomes clear from the slow progress of change. Industry ownership, employment and supplier transformation targets have been low and, even then, are proving difficult to attain, despite near unanimity on the need to transform. On social media and in society at large, there is increased militancy on the part of formerly marginalised communities: black people, women and especially the youth, as well as people with conditions and disabilities. Racism, sexism and bigotry are constantly being exposed and actively opposed.
This gives rise to a certain reactionary resistance and defensiveness among the dominant groups being challenged. The question is whether these are the last kicks of a dying system of exploitation and abuse or whether hegemony is simply asserting its dominance.
Creating a shared future in a fractured world is an accurate formulation in SA’s social context. Individualism is also rising as a disruption of legacy group identities, even though it often results in society forming new group identities as well as more progressive values.
Sometimes the polarised environment is one of categorical idealism and shameless corruption. Outsiders and insiders. A zero-sum game.
The boundary where pragmatism slips over into corruption is becoming increasingly blurred. New elites are emerging as the prime beneficiaries of the new liberation dispensation.
But all is not lost. Politically, the country is in the throes of tackling this situation. Political awareness is as high as ever, but whether this will lead to meaningful participation remains to be seen.
The governing party, once at the vanguard of a vastly popular liberation movement with an overwhelming mandate, is fracturing politically, ideologically and ethically.
National policy and elective conferences result in the party trying to reconcile the need for inclusive growth with its vision of a united, nonracial, nonsexist democracy against the background of fiscal inefficiency and ever-growing allegations of state corruption. This complex social environment is fraught with uncertainty, and tension but, paradoxically, it has brought about a renewed level of engagement, awareness and mobilisation. As elsewhere in the world, groups that were previously apathetic are now marching and campaigning for change. New partnerships are being forged.
Where previously the "party line" was sacrosanct, dissenting and independent voices are emerging. There are signs of a realignment in SA’s politics and in society.
Where previously there was a kind of cynical enmity between the government and business, rich and poor, men and women, there is growing acceptance that everyone is in this together. We will roundly criticise each other’s shortcomings and the next day engage in dialogue to build partnerships
There is disagreement, even vitriol. There is a sense that things are coming to a head. But at the root, there is an understanding, albeit reluctantly, that in order to make our society work, we need each other.
• Vilakazi is deputy CEO at MMI Holdings.