Non-racialism, the forgotten child of a democratic South Africa

1994 was nothing else but a deal. A deal to break the logjam between the apartheid regime and the liberation movement.

It was essentially a peace pact between the illegitimate white minority government and the black oppressed majority. The pact was necessitated by a desire to end a thirty year political stalemate in which the minority government could no longer govern in the old ways while liberation movement was unable to achieve its revolutionary objective of a “seizure of power” in a people’s war.

The secret talks between the apartheid government and the African National Congress that began in the mid 1980s bore fruit when president FW De Klerk, on 2 February 1990, announced in parliament that the 30-year ban on the African National Congress, the Pan Africanist Congress, the South African Communist Party and others had been rescinded. This paved the way for the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners as well as the return of exiles. It was the most important parliamentary speech since the National Party came to power in 1948. A new era of negotiations in South Africa had been ushered in in which long-term enemies had agreed to engage in talks that would lead to a democratic South Africa culminating in 1994 elections when Nelson Mandela emerged as the first democratically elected president of all the people of South Africa in a coalition government designed to address white fears and black aspirations.

Mandela’s presidency focused on reconciliation after almost five decades of apartheid rule in which the black majority had been politically oppressed and economically exploited by an illegitimate white government. It was five years of trying to lay a foundation for all South Africans to find each other and begin the process of building a just and non-racial society. With his sheer force of personality and as a global icon who was at some stage the world’s most famous prisoner, Mandela made an heroic effort to reconcile the different races that had been separated by the policy of apartheid. It is unclear how successful Mandela was in his endeavours.

Mandela was succeeded in 1999 by president Thabo Mbeki,  who seemed to have more urgent issues on his agenda than reconciliation and the building of a non-racial South Africa. It must be remembered that the liberation struggle was about the destruction of apartheid and its replacement with a “united, non-racial, non-sexist and a democratic” South Africa. Today we live in a united South Africa devoid of any homelands; the struggle for a truly non-sexist society is work in good progress as gender discrimination is under fierce attack from all societal forces; as for a democratic state, this year all South Africans are headed for elections to vote for the sixth democratic parliament. The creation of a non-racial country does not even feature on the political radar screen of a democratic South Africa as things stand today. In fact, there is a worrying increase in racial incidents reminiscent of the apartheid days.

Considering our past, it is amazing that neither the democratic government nor society as a whole are worried about continued racial hostility that has exemplified itself in Penny Sparrow, Clifton Beach and the BLFs Lindsay Maasdorp. While it is true that racism has largely won an ugly white face, racism is not the exclusive preserve of white South Africans. In my political and ideological training as a teenager at university I was taught that only Whites could be racist under apartheid because of their control of the state which they used to oppress and exploit Blacks. In 1994 a predominantly black government was elected by the people of South Africa. If my training was correct, and in a democratic context, it therefore pressuposes that even black South Africans can be racist. The myth that only white South Africans are capable of racism must be exploded once and for all. Racism is not about colour, it is a state of mind underpinned by prejudice.

As our icon Nelson Mandela taught us, “no child is born racist.” Racism is taught and in as much the apartheid government successfully taught most whites to be racist, a predominantly black government is capable of teaching its voters to be racist if not put under scrutiny. Martin Luther has taught us that people should not be judged by the colour of their race but the content of their character. We have a responsibilty to teach especially young South Africans that all people are created and that there is neither superiority or inferiority of any race.

It is, however,  unfortunate that just last year, ousted South African president Jacob Zuma stunned the country when he appealed to “black parties” to unite against Whites. For someone who spent his entire political life in the nonracial ANC this utterance was shocking. However, it was a subtle indicator on what the effects of power are to those who assumed it since 1994. Surely, if the president of the ruling ANC can express such a view, we are in trouble indeed. How many of his supporters hold this view?

My real point in this piece is to assert that since the dawn of democracy, non-racialism has never been on the agenda of government, labour, business and civil society as a whole in our country.  Immediately after democracy, there was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission headed by Nobel laureate Arch-bishop Desmond Tutu in an endeavour to reconcile the races and initiate a process of building a non-racial society after mutual forgiveness. This initiative was not successful and today we worringly observe the rise of racism in a democratic state struggling to build a united and nonracial nation. In fact, South Africa cannot be described as a nation as the different races appear to co-exist without much interaction. We appear to be stuck in our racial past and unable to make a break with that sordid past.

With new president Cyril Ramaphosa advocating a “new dawn” in our embattled country, non-racialism must be given a prominent position in that new dawn. There will be no meaningful new dawn if South Africans still look at each other through racial spectacles. If white people still see themselves as a privileged race, superior to others, and wish to maintain the status quo, then we are all in trouble. On the other hand, if black people, including Coloureds and Indians, are seeking are unforgiving and seeking revenge, then our future as a democratic South Africa is doomed. Like in the aftermath of any war, the losers must be gracious in defeat while the victors must be magnanimous in victory.

The harsh reality facing our country, especially after a decade of maladmistration and corruption, is that God and history chose to put us together in one country and that is our undeniable fate. We must accept that our fate and future are inextricably bound. The greatest challenge facing us today is the economy first and rest come second. In less than a year in office, president Ramaphosa has done nearly everything possible to focus the nation not only on the challenges facing us, he has shown admirable leadership in what needs to be done. He has crisscrossed the globe in pursuit of his objective of raising 1.3 trillion rands in foreign investment to boost the economy and create jobs. The team  he has assembled to travel the world to raise the money is truly non-racial and tgerefore sends an unequivocal  message to all of us on how to approach national problems in the country.

As a new social movement in civil society, the Patriotic Movement has placed the building of non-racialism in South Africa as a top priority. We have come to accept that government has either not shown any interest or is genuinely unable to deal with this matter. My strong view is that only civil society, through its many formations, can take this bull by its horn. Although political formations led the struggle against apartheid, it was only in the mid and late eigthies that apartheid finally surrendered in response to a total onslaught by civil society led by the United Democratic Front. The very same unions, churches, civic organisations, student organisations, arts groups, cultural organisations and  others that defeated apartheid are called upon to once again unite against the demon of racism, tribalism and sexism. Non-racialism will not happen automatically because apartheid is dead, it will have to be painstakingly built by all of us, brick by brick.


The Patriotic Movement takes responsibility to at the least mobilise all willing civil society organisations to agree to work together, not separately, in a united effort to build a truly non-racial society. This has just begun and we call upon all patriots in our country to practically and meaningfully support this initiative. A programme of action will be unveiled to advise ordinary South Africans, across the colour line, on what to do to actively participate in the building of a united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa.

 Source:Sello Lediga is leader of the Patriotic Movement,

a civil society organisation (


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