Ido Lekota

Fifteen years ago South Africans basked in the glory of their first democratic elections as the then Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu christened us the rainbow nation.

In his first month as the first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela elaborated on the notion of rainbow nation and said: "Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld - a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world." (Wikipedia)

Essentially the term "rainbow nation" was intended to capture the coming together of people of different races in a country once ravaged by racial divisions.

As millions of South Africans go to the polls today, they have to ask themselves: "Is the rainbow dream dead or is it still alive?"

Noteworthy is that not all political commentators saw light in "rainbowism", some criticising it as glossing over pertinent issues that continued to confront the new South Africa. These included the legacy of racism and economic disparities, whereby the majority of those who are poor remained black.

In fact there were those, like South African Communist Party deputy secretary Jeremy Cronin, who argued that "allowing ourselves to sink into a smug rainbowism would prove to be a terrible betrayal of the possibilities for real transformation, real reconciliation, real national unity that are still at play in our contemporary South African reality." (Wikipedia).

In his paper The Myth of Rainbow Nation (1996) Adam Habib also warned about the danger of glossing over the challenges that post-apartheid South Africa faced in the name of reconciliation.

By focusing on racial harmony, the notion of rainbow nation assumed that the predominant conflict in South Africa has been and was one of racial antagonism, the professor said.

"As has so often been suggested, class variables are just as critical as issues concerning race, in coming to understand the nature of the South African conflict. The rainbow metaphor, by only focusing on race variables, is thus theoretically misleading," wrote Habib.

Essentially, he argued that a key challenge for South Africa was the consolidation of the new democracy. Such consolidation was facilitated under conditions of an expanding economic system.

"Such an expansion of the economy generates necessary surplus resources that could be used for redistribution, thereby legitimising the democratic process," Habib wrote.

Simply put, the new government had the responsibility of ensuring that the economy is expanded so as to increase the standard of living of the majority.

In addition, there should be a drive to transform the racial character of ownership relations in the South African economy.

It must also be acknowledged that the consolidation of democracy is not only achieved through economic, but also by political means.

This entails establishing institutions that enhance democracy through the chapter 9 institutions (that is the South African Human Rights Commission and the Public Protector) and an independent judiciary.

Taking all these into cognisance: Is the rainbow dream dead or alive?

If realising the "rainbow dream" is about removing some of the ills of apartheid - there has been some achievements that South Africa and the ANC government, in particular, can be proud of.

These include:

l The restoration of dignity to many South Africans who were previously treated as subhuman. Though millions of jobless and homeless could argue - rightly so - that this affirmation is detracted by the poverty trap, which enforces their substandard existence;

l There are more opportunities for South Africans previously marginalised because of race.

As political analysts Steve Friedman points out: "It is not only the fat cats who have made progress when it comes to access to education and owning a house with electricity."

l The issuing of social grants

In this regard, one can only agree with ANC deputy secretary Thandi Modise that it is easy for someone from a middle-class family who has never experienced poverty and hunger to dismiss the social grants introduced by the ANC government.

As Friedman argues further: "These grants have made a difference to ordinary people who now can even participate in the economy using the grants."

But there are major challenges that the country continues to face.

These include rampant unemployment, the fact that black economic empowerment has benefitted a few; cronyism and political appointments in the public sector.

The recent admission by ANC treasurer-general Mathew Phosa that the party made mistakes in its implementation of affirmative action and black economic empowerment should be lauded.

The admission marks a candid assessment of insufficient progress towards the fulfilment of its commitments under its manifesto, which is mainly to improve the lives of the poor - the majority of whom are black.

It is only through keeping to the their manifestos that the ANC and other political parties contending the election can keep the rainbow dream alive.

The challenge for the voters is to ensure they are not used as "voting cattle" or fodder, commanding the attention of politicians only every five years. They must use their voting power to hold parties accountable. This is the most powerful weapon to ensure the consolidation of democracy in the country.