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South Africa Rainbow Nation
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Africa

South Africa Wasn’t Ready To Be A Rainbow Nation

South Africa emerged from the ashes of Apartheid as a united, multi-racial democracy and came to be known as the Rainbow Nation after its first democratic elections were held. However, the multi-racial democracy turned into the poison chalice we, as the new, “born free” generation of this country, have inherited. We became a nation of compromise, not action.

This article was written to reflect the opinion of the writer and doesn’t necessarily represent that of the Essential Millennial.


It’s hard not to love Nelson Mandela. As the “born free” generation, we will never truly know what it was like to be a non-white South African up until 1994. Books, documentaries and photographs can only tell you so much. But, what we do know is that the system was packed to the brim with crimes against humanity. Nelson Mandela was the freedom fighter that overcame it, the struggle icon, a personification of peace and reconciliation. He fought back against the “it’s complicated” scenario that was his time’s equivalent of the Israel Palestine conflict.

He spent 27 years in prison and still managed to emerge from his confinement as a gentle man, with a warm smile, who was able to forgive the oppressors that robbed him of a third of his entire life. However, I want you to separate Nelson Mandela the liberator from Nelson Mandela, the President. With all due respect to the man known affectionately as Madiba, along with every other veteran of the struggle that has since become part of the South African government or taken on politically meaningful roles under ANC leadership, this is a critique on Mandela as a statesman.

The Government of National Unity

“The five years … have seen a genuine change of political power, widespread respect for the rule of law and none of the political revenge killings that have marked other societies in transition. South Africa has many problems, such as desperate poverty and terrifying crime. But its suffering would have been infinitely greater absent the moral authority and democratic, inclusive spirit that made Mr. Mandela a giant as leader of the liberation movement and as President.”

New York Times, May 17, 1999

The statement above is false. It’s the veneer that we painted for ourselves for five euphoric years of democracy and the restoration of basic human rights. Mandela facilitated an extraordinary era of nationalism that I still fondly remember from my childhood. From our re-entry into the international sporting community – and a Rugby World Cup win in 1995 – to the new McDonald’s stores popping up all over the show as a result of an influx of foreign investment following the lifting of various economic sanctions, we were all high on a drug called “Madiba magic”. And it was nice… at least from the perspective of a white, middle-class boy who was oblivious to the political affairs of the time.

But, the truth is that a year before our first democratic elections, in April 1993, we lost the guy who probably would have been the president we needed: Oliver Tambo. Having spent decades in exile, gathering diplomatic support for anti-Apartheid sanctions, meeting other iconic statesmen such as Kwame Nkrumah, Habib Bourgiba and Julius Nyerere, as well as the UN , Tambo learned the lessons of statecraft, of negotiating and diplomacy. As the head of the ANC’s Mission in Exile, he had to oversee the growing number of ANC exiles, as well as the armed wing, the uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK). He led fundraising efforts and created ANC regional offices across the globe. It’s a matter of opinion and, because we can’t change the past, and there’s no way of proving the assertion that Oliver Tambo would have been a better first President of South Africa than Nelson Mandela was. But it’s not an unreasonable claim either, if you assess the results of Mandela’s five years in office.

Because Mandela had spent a massive part of his life in prison, and because you can only get so far as far as understanding the law is concerned (make no mistake, Mandela – like Tambo – was an exceptional lawyer), Mandela did what he could to compensate for his lack of experience in matters of governance. He made a move that was a true sign of forgiveness and reconciliation by compromising on a provision (Clause 88) in the Interim Constitution, which required every party holding more than 20 seats in the National Assembly to claim cabinet portfolios in a Government of National Unity (GNU). In this way, South Africa had become a rainbow nation… or so we thought.

The greatest betrayal

FW De Klerk – a man who spent a large part of his political career propagating Apartheid propaganda – had become the Deputy President of a government directed at overturning the inequities of the prejudiced system that he helped to build. And the National Party held seven cabinet portfolios following an election that they lost. Very little meaningful change had been achieved by the GNU, aside from an economic sugar high, with inflation dropping, the deficit falling and the economy growing as a consequence of the lifting of sanctions. But nothing had changed. Again, I remember feeling at the time that Apartheid was over. That I’d start to see more black kids at school with me, that we were all equal… but what the ordinary white man liked the most is that we gave people their political freedom, but we never actually gave anything up. And De Klerk’s National Party continued to play a role in the GNU up until just one day after the National Assembly’s adoption of our final constitution, when De Klerk announced that the NP would withdraw from the coalition government.

What Mandela wanted was a government that directed policies for building bridges, while achieving radical transformation, and for the ANC, which had been converted from a liberation movement to a political party practically overnight, to learn the trade of lawmaking from their white predecessors. What he got was the middle finger…

The NP, under De Klerk’s leadership had no intention of building bridges, their goal in their two years of “national unity” was focussed, primarily, on ensuring that the end of Apartheid brought about as little structural change as possible, even though white South Africa had already lost all meaningful political power. And, by withdrawing immediately after the Constitution was drawn up, he showed his hand.

We are still dealing with the shortcomings of our constitution (albeit our constitution is one of the world’s greatest) that are still holding us back to this day. The best example of this is the land issue, which has pretty much defined South African society since 1652. Twenty-seven years later and we still don’t have a solution to this key issue. Why? Because, as Minister of Constitutional Development and Provincial Affairs, Roelf Meyer, put it, “we were on different sides of the trenches, fighting and demonising one another. Everyone thought the people on the other side of the trenches had horns.”

“While the compromise of what might be viewed as a divided presidency [during the GNU period] was historically necessary at that time and was an integral part of the birth of democracy itself, it did not make for efficient administration,” according to a 2001 report, Democratic Governance: A Restructured Presidency at Work, 2000/2001: The Presidency, published by the government.

Where the ANC got it wrong

I may be a part of the so-called political left and identify as a progressive, but it would be disingenuous for me to paint the ANC as helpless victims in the GNU and for their poor performance as the governing party. Let’s be honest about this. And this involves a frank discussion, first and foremost about Thabo Mbeki.

Mbeki, respectfully, failed when tasked with the economic negotiations that were so critical for transitioning towards a free, equal and democratic South Africa. Mandela was unwavering in his stance on political freedom and did not give an inch in the negotiations, but Mbeki wasn’t.

As an incredibly smart, well educated man, Mbeki believes in textbook neoliberal economics. And, for that, he deserves praise. But his term as Vice President and as President represent a betrayal of the social democratic values upon which we agreed to run our country. Mbeki was, by far, our best performing President on the economic front, so far as GDP is considered an effective measure for economic prosperity. He presided over an average growth rate of 4.1%. However, GDP is a measure of output and doesn’t measure the critical outcomes that are a genuine test of the success of a policy. Mbeki’s economy, managed very well by Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel, was a success by neoliberal measures.

In terms of education outcomes, creating wealth for the most vulnerable citizens, healthcare and almost every measure that matters, Mbeki failed. His economics degrees, his exceptional, self-written speeches, everything he did was framed from a European perspective and failed to address the issues “on the ground”. We needed grassroots development, not to give oppressive systems a new facade of black faces that exploit our working class just like the white faces that came before them did.

Aside from Mbeki, we saw bad policies from the likes of Kader Asmal, whose dismantlement of training colleges that had the potential to convert low-skilled labourers into tradesmen is amongst the worst decisions ever made in our country, in my opinion. His failure with Outcomes Based Education (OBE), which was scrapped just a few years after its implementation. He achieved some of the most significant and far-reaching changes to the country’s education system in the history of this country, but it’s hard to say that they were successful, looking back. Other policies such as Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) have been introduced and reformed several times over and have served no purpose but to create a wealthy black elite and piss off white people.

At the end of the day, the ANC has merely followed in the footsteps of their NP forebears when it comes to widening inequality and failing to provide basic services to the most impoverished, vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our nation. Nothing has fundamentally changed and, while white South Africa’s resistance to change has been problematic to say the least, the ANC has been tasked with transforming this country and failed to do so. Excuse the pun, but this is a black and white issue, case closed. The data is there for all of us to see. We have to judge a party by their results and the ANC has been found wanting.

South Africa: A Rainbow Nation? Not even close

De Klerk himself admitted that he could not reconcile being part of the government and being the leader of the official opposition. South Africa had an opportunity to grow, to kickstart effective policies that would have overturned the inequities created by the Apartheid regime, but we didn’t.

The ANC turned into an incompetent government, plagued by corruption, inefficiency, cronyism, and worst of all, bad policies. I can’t remember the last time that we passed multi-partisan legislation with near unanimous public support. Can you? The NP’s successors, the DA, have blocked anything meaningful the ANC actually does, anything that they get right, because they’re not interested in structural change. And, worse yet, the DA’s messaging will always boils down to “Black South Africans don’t know any better, that’s why we should govern.” And this is an attitude that has continued ever since the NP took on that “paternal statesman” role, as the party that brought experience and expertise to governance into our young democracy. In reality, they showed the ANC how to position themselves politically and the manoeuvres to serve their own interests at the cost of the South African people.

Oliver Tambo’s epitaph, reads, in his own words:

 It is our responsibility to break down barriers of division and create a country where there will be neither Whites nor Blacks, just South Africans, free and united in diversity.

The solution

This part is an appeal to white South Africa.

As a white South African, I understand the (relative) struggles that my peers face. And being demonised as oppressors and the beneficiaries of a system that you never created or had any role in whatsoever (as “born frees”) is insulting. It’s prejudiced (note: not racist). But much like when you buy a business, you buy its assets and its debts. So it’s time for us to take accountability. If we don’t we’re doomed. It really is that simple.

Ever since I was old enough to understand the political landscape of this country, I knew, as a white man, I had two options: Start a business or move abroad. Permanent employment is very hard to come by – even if you have two degrees. And I’ve watched all of my friends emigrate and live happy lives in other countries while I’ve also seen a few start successful businesses and that’s wonderful. But I want to live in a better South Africa. I love our country and our people, and I don’t want to move. I want to be able to roam the streets at night and not fear for my life. I’d like to be able to afford healthcare. I’d really like not to see people living in appalling living conditions. I want South Africans to be educated and informed enough to make smart decisions when they vote and to elect the party that does serve their interests.

My appeal to white South Africa is simple. We can have that country… but there’s no long way around that allows us to escape the fact that we need to make concessions… we need higher taxes. What’s the point of living in a country where you have all the wealth, but have to build 20 foot high walls to protect it? Are we not all meant to sacrifice for our children’s future? By sacrificing today, we can create a better nation, a Rainbow Nation, in South Africa where everyone prospers and we all have equal opportunities.

And to pull that off, the solution is far easier than the various structural changes we’ve been trying to make over the last 30 years, with complicated clauses and plenty of ground conceded to those resisting change. We’ve gone for half-arsed solutions… watered down bullshit that’s done nothing. My solution is simpler, easier, but also certainly more radical.

A Universal Basic Income (UBI) is the solution that restores dignity to South Africans, it benefits us all and the price we it will repay what we put into it a million times over. Even the ANC government’s inefficiencies cannot complicate this. We want to create equality by giving people what they are owed. And that UBI also goes to white people… so there’s no way that we can say that it’s inequitable. We need radical change and we need it now. Funding this program would be a small price to pay, compared to what white South Africa faces if we don’t do it. And I’m fucking petrified of what that UBI-less future looks like.


The first five years of our democracy were wasted on a nationalist sentiment. South Africa was a symbol for hope, but in reality we were a student who knows their final exam is coming up and won’t bother to attend class or study until the day before. We procrastinated for five years. And the National Party took advantage of the Rainbow Nation rhetoric to ensure that white people never had to take accountability for Apartheid. Mandela won our political freedom for us, but the second liberation, the fight for economic freedom, seems never-ending. And until we address the way the Apartheid system was designed to create inequities in education, in living spaces, in basic public services, in the labour market, in our social interactions, things will never get any better.

The system of Apartheid was designed incredibly well. So well, in fact, that more than 60 years after Hendrik Verwoerd, DF Malan and the likes implemented their policies, they still plague our nation to this day. What the South African people needed was radical policies that would redistribute wealth from white people who’ve given nothing to the disempowered black, coloured, Indian and Asian South Africans that were left behind during the decades, the centuries, of racial supremacy, political suppression and systematic domination.

And what we need to realise is that, until suitable compromises have been made, until smart legislation has been enacted, until we achieve that real freedom that our people have been longing for way before I was born, South Africa will never be a Rainbow Nation. But, I still believe we can be…

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