Tue Sep 26 07:21:56 SAST 2017
Homeless and in a wheelchair at 63

Zolile Ncapayi is 63 and unable to walk. He progressively lost the use of his legs over 30 years ago.

'We are a shocked nation' - Allan Boesak

By Allan Boesak | 2012-05-10 09:49:02.0

SINCE the coming of democracy, as a nation we have been grappling with seemingly unsolvable problems and invincible challenges.

Every day brings new stories of corruption in government, revelations of shocking criminal activities at the highest levels of our law enforcement agencies, chaos in education, service delivery protests that turn destructive and self-defeating, and horrendous incidents of violent crime.

The past weekend also brought us another horrifying racism incident seemingly rampant among white youth.

And through it all, at the basis of it all, is our ongoing, relentless and unaddressed poverty, and the yawning, and growing, chasm between the rich and the poor.

We are still reeling from the recently revealed, vile incidents of rape that ravage both the young women involved and the soul of our nation: the 17-year-old mentally impaired girl from Soweto, gang-raped over days by young boys who then let the video they made of the crime go viral; the 12-year-old girl from KwaZulu-Natal raped by a 15-year-old boy who gouged her eyes out for good measure; the 12-year-old boy who confessed on television of having raped his one-year-old sister repeatedly over months. We are a shell-shocked nation.

"We suffer from a profound sense of anxiety," wrote Archbishop Desmond Tutu, "and - increasingly, disillusionment - over the moral and spiritual well-being of the nation".

"We are," the Archbishop continued, "a wounded people. We carry the recent scars of apartheid and the ingrained hurt of centuries of colonialism before that."

The Archbishop is right. We are indeed a traumatised people. Among perhaps many reasons, I should like to advance only three.

First, we have, despite vehement and angry denials, not dealt as honestly and thoroughly with our past as we should have.

Second, we have taken our reconciliation process, its blessings and gifts, for granted - as if we were entitled.

Third, we have not had the courage to accept the burden of culpability for our past, nor the responsibility for genuine, all-encompassing transformation necessary for a secure, humane, and dignified future.

We have perhaps understood the art of negotiation and political compromise, but we have not embraced the challenges of moral responsibility, and we have not understood the impact of this truth on our political and communal life.

We have closed our eyes to the consequences of revelling in a kind of triumphalist political pietism, while remaining, at heart, an unreconciled society.

We have, in other words, sat back and waited for miracles to happen, even as we professed no belief in miracles and depended only on the hard realities of politics.

We discarded our responsibility to work for real change and genuine reconciliation while we created new mythologies we could hide behind.

For our guilt, we hide behind a demon of our own creation. For our responsibility, we hide behind an angel as a gift from God.

Two names have become symbolic for what I regard as a tragic error, and the dilemmas it now causes for South Africans: Eugene de Kock and Nelson Mandela.

This is how I see our mistake and our dilemma: South Africans have hidden all our culpability for the injustices of the past behind De Kock, and we simultaneously have hidden all our responsibility for justice in the present behind Mandela. De Kock was named "prime evil" for his role in the apartheid era killings at Vlakplaas.

Both men have grown to larger-than-life proportions in our minds, have become our over-powering symbols of absolute good and absolute evil, and have been made, each in his own way, to vicariously carry the burdens and responsibilities of reconciliation for the rest of us.

In February 2011, Mandela became quite ill. The panic that that news engendered in South Africa was astonishing to watch. It was also unusually instructive.

Rumours about his health and even his death rotated endlessly on radio, television and the social media.

Assurances from the government that he was doing better were greeted with wide public scepticism.

Pundits were already speculating on the "after Mandela" scenarios. But it was worse than that. For me all this collective hyperventilation raised a question: why are South Africans so panic-stricken at the thought that Madiba - at the age of 92! - might die? It has to do, I think, with Mandela as saviour of the nation, as the personification of our collective goodness, over against De Kock, the symbol of prime evil.

Mandela is our vicarious fulfilment of reconciliation, hope and future.

We have made him the incarnation of everything we have been mercifully granted in the miracle of our peaceful transition and which we, like the prodigal son, have wasted with unthinking recklessness in our neglect of justice.

We have made him the dream of reconciliation and unity we, in hot pursuit of our own interests, otherwise regard with such scorn. He is the moral refuge for our denied racism and our secretly nurtured ethnic selfishness, for all the compassion which we so easily discard except on special occasions like Mandela Day.

Mandela has become the hiding place of our unfulfilled promises to the poor and now of our unnameable fears; he is the fig leaf behind which we seek to hide the shamelessness of our pursuit of self-indulgence, fiercely protecting our neo-liberal, capitalist Elite Pacts and interests.

Mandela is the ever-rising wall behind which we take refuge against the growing anger of the destitute and the wronged.

Because we recreated him in our own self-protecting, self-justifying, ever-victimised image, we have made him God's visible pardon for our frigidity towards the weak, the wounded and the downtrodden in our society.

  • This is an edited version of Boesak's lecture, Demons, Angels and the Search for Reconciliation, delivered at Monash University this week.