A New Country

A New Country traces the history of South Africa from the fall of apartheid to present day as it relates to the promise of a Rainbow Nation. When watching Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom, was the promise of that day, of real freedom and a new equality for all in South Africa, was that promise kept? And a quarter of a century later, has South Africa been transformed, and if so, how?

The film interviews various activists, some from the generation who felt they were seeing their hopes realised in 1994 and the founding of democracy, and some from the generation who have come after, known as the ‘Born Frees’. And spoiler – they don’t think South Africa became a haven of racial equality as promised.

Why that came to be is an interesting story, and built intrinsically on the compromises made in the early days of constitution building, and de-apartheidisation. Firstly is just the fundamental myth that we are all sold, that they believed political liberation would lead to economic liberation. Same pal, same. After all if the vote is distributed amongst every person, surely that means power is distributed equally among us all, and wealth can’t fail to follow. Except in reality, that’s not how it works. For reference see [the world]. And because of this, economic reform was not specifically targeted as it should have been.

When it came to the economy, the initial impetus for redistribution fell second to the basic need of getting the economy back on its feet. After years of sanctions abroad as well as strikes and labour actions at home, the economy needed to be kickstarted back to life. This was, yes, for the obvious reasons to deliver the prosperity this bloodless revolution was meant to be about, but also, a necessary signifier of prestige, that a country could be run successfully under Black leadership. However, as the Reconstruction and Development Programme, set up to look into the transfer of economic assets back from the white elite, transitioned into the Growth, Employment and Restribution strategy, it became clear that transfer was simply going to be from one group of white capitalists to a new group of Black capitalists, without the wealth going down the hierarchy at all. The GEAR strategy seemed implemented purely to reassure investors and ensure capital had a comfortable and unchallenged status quo.

In some ways, it feels bad to blame new, idealistic statesmen in South Africa for not being able to make real change in the face of global capitalism. Jesus, all of us all around the world are David to that Goliath, and finding a winning strategy is the question of our era. Yet, it cannot be denied, that if you are asking why the dream of South Africa failed, the answer in large part is because it was sold.

And finally, the national narrative of South Africa about itself was never fully reconciled. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which granted immunity to those culpable under apartheid in exchange for full and frank disclosure of their crimes, was a noble goal which never really produced the results it set out for.

I mean, I understand why they chose to follow this path instead of going down the Nuremberg route. As someone who supports human rights, the execution of Nazi war criminals never sits right with me, even though no one ever deserved their deaths more. And it’s not as if Nuremberg resulted in a harmonious and cohesive Germany that fully faced up to its past either. So I understand why they would be willing to take a chance on an alternative, even one as abhorrent as that which gave immunity to murderers and torturers.

But it was too steeped in the Christian notion of forgiveness, which I am not a big fan of. I’m not religious but I have Christians in my family, so it is a concept I am familiar with, but it has never felt right to me. I’m all for victims and survivors being able to one day let go of their anger, on their own terms, for their own benefit. But I have found that the Christian notion of forgiveness inflicts a double-burden on those harmed, first to carry the pain of their injury, and then also to carry the duty of forgiveness of the abuser. It denies accountability, and obscures the reality that something done can never be undone. And I see that in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where victims were harmed, then denied justice for the harm, then were only given partial disclosure and insincere apology, and then were denied redress a second time, this time under a government that supposedly represented their interest.

It’s not surprising that a lot of the protests taking place in South Africa today focus a more honest retelling of the past. From the removal of statues venerating monsters to decolonising the curriculum to counter centuries of erasure by its beneficiaries. And finally to recognise that the promise of 94 was itself a piece of propaganda, one which worked for the existing power structure as well as the incoming inheritors. A Rainbow Nation is a bright, colourful symbol of hope which obscures the tempest which brought it about.

So here we are, a quarter century on, and South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world. Within its borders, you can see extraordinary wealth and extreme poverty. It has never reconciled its history, the nation’s collective consciousness has a schizophrenic idea of itself. The pre-apartheid cycles of protest and repression have begun again, and this time without the optimism that was exploited in the 90s for demilitantisation. Where now for South Africa?