When is the winter of our Discontent?

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After two decades of democracy (and opportunity) it’s still unclear whether a sustainable future is possible for South Africa. But, will the current unrest in our universities bring us any closer to the vision of access and equality for all? Nonhlanhla Masina unpacks the issues…

Whenever we’re pushed into a reflective space in South Africa, our deep division and social misunderstandings surface. This is our complex reality, yet most of us seem to bury our heads in the sand, in service of the rhetoric: “our rainbow nation”. I don’t know if we do this due to our inherent optimism, or to keep our fear of a violent revolt at bay.

At our first ever African School For Excellence (ASE) symposium, I had to think through a question that  interrogated our country’s “two decades of liberation” and the “opportunities” it brought with it. I was forced to reflect. On graduating high school, my peers and I were commonly referred to as the “Mandela Matrics” – the first group to complete our entire schooling process in the post-1994 reality, inextricably linked to the democratic transition. This group was expected to profit from the advantages that previous generations could only imagine, but these opportunities have, in most cases, failed to materialise.

In these discussions, I often taken issue with those who equate “opportunity” with “infrastructure inputs.” A new classroom does not automatically bring better learning; an RDP house generally does not increase a family’s income. In this symposium however, I realised I was doing the same thing. The first thought that popped to mind was my community’s access to water and sanitation, moving from a long-drop and water tank to fully serviced toilets and running water. Why the hypocrisy?

This confusion regarding the real problem is reflected in our conversations about equality. Focusing on the myriad of symptoms, rather than the root cause of our imbalanced opportunities and skewed playing field. The individuals we’ve put into positions of authority are not reflective of our country’s people, who understand the very problems we are attempting to solve.

The opportunities that lead to a sustainable future do not automatically equate to infrastructure quality and access – but it sure looks like that way to the majority of our communities. Surely sustainable opportunity discourse should seek to redress the systemic socioeconomic inequality we inherited as part of our democracy? Yes, our improved standard of living should be part of the discourse, but not the crux. My community has running water and, with the looming local election, it has finally got its roads fixed, yet more than 50% of the youth are unemployed, some termed “unemployable”, some of whom are my close childhood friends – who I believe are capable of greatness.

I fear the concept of opportunity is a façade. We’re made to think that it exists, within reach, for the vast majority, but the reality is that it only exists for the reserved few who can access it, and the rare lottery winner like myself. We’re a budding democracy, at a time where a shared voice is needed, we focus on surface issues rather than taking the necessary steps to produce a truly equal people.

As I sat there, growing disheartened and left with more questions, rather than a viewpoint, I asked myself, what is our “voice”? Over the last few months we’ve seen a surge in expressive discontent among the young and the old. We have also witnessed increased interrogation of those in authority – who pledge to protect and serve the public – in their response to the discontent and opposition. I worry that a lot of our reaction originates from a place of fear. We either want to scare people, or we are scared and then attack those that scare us. Only the occasional bouts of horrific violence seem to awake us from our numbed state of impotent discontentment.

This discontent is deeply imbedded in our subconsciousness, and surfacing it is inevitably painful. Engaging in a debate on such topics very easily gets heated and intimidating. The varied reality of our people easily translates to anger on one part, ignorance on the other, and shared lack of humility. A united “voice” would mean redress, and comfort both with our identity and with that of others; equally human and equally capable. I do not think we have achieved that yet.

We are yet to address our indebtedness to our struggle (and how it guides our choice of leadership and the way in which we write and implement policy). As long as the youth remain bound by obligation to the previous generation, can we ever become fully liberated? Perhaps this question underpins my generation’s search for its “voice.”

Our society remains racked with hidden divisions. Individuals’ experience with this country, and their perspective on its future, are wildly divergent. Income level provides one such division, race another, social capital and influence another. Those most vocal in attempting to solve our problems, whether in business realm, the NGO realm, or the public realm, tend to stem from the most privileged 1% of the country.

I do not know the answer to all of the problems facing our country. I do know, however, that we will not solve them through a narrow view of the issues, one based on the shallow and limited perspectives and experiences of the privileged few. The most valuable perspectives in the ASE symposium often came from those who are typically pushed out of the conversation.

To get the right answers we need to ask the right questions. We also have to get the right voices around the table, and to empower them to speak freely and confidently. At the moment, we rarely do any of these things. This needs to change. Fast.