Sad time for tolerance

THE past few days have seen South Africans engaging in robust debate about the kind of nation they want to build under our nascent democracy.

THE past few days have seen South Africans engaging in robust debate about the kind of nation they want to build under our nascent democracy.

It all started with the announcement by newly appointed University of Free State rector Professor Jonathan Jansen that he was withdrawing the charges against four students who compiled a racist video showing black workers eating food believed to have been urinated on.

During his inauguration speech, Jansen announced that he was withdrawing the charges against the "Reitz Four" (as the four students are known) in the name of reconciliation.

He went on to announce that the three students who were suspended by the university over the racist incident would be allowed to return to the university (the fourth student has already completed his studies).

Jansen also promised the abused workers some reparation.

His announcement raised political temperatures, with some of his critics accusing him of kowtowing to white racists.

Most of his critics, including Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, pointed out that instead of achieving reconciliation, his actions would lead to further racial polarisation because those who perpetrated this heinous deed had not apologised to the victims.

Jansen has indicated that he is standing his ground, but maybe before he digs his heels even deeper, he should pay a visit to the Apartheid Museum at Gold Reef City.

At the entrance of the museum there are several concrete structures depicting the pillars on which our post-apartheid democracy stands - democracy, reconciliation, equality, responsibility and freedom.

After visiting the museum, Jansen must ask himself whether in making his decision he has taken these pillars into consideration - especially in relation to how such a decision affects the abused workers' ability to benefit from them.

Going back to the debate around Jansen's decision, it probably evokes among former activists' memories of how, pre-1994, they engaged in robust debates about the kind of post-apartheid South Africa they wanted and how they sought to achieve it.

This is not an attempt to romanticise debate at the expense of the blood shed by many South Africans in the struggle against apartheid.

But it is a depiction of how multi-pronged the struggle against apartheid was, and how that culture of engagement remains important as we continue to grapple with the kind of a post-apartheid nation we want to build.

Held at various venues, including smoky bars, the debates saw those committed to the liberation of this country engaging in concepts like colonialism of a special type, Leon Trotsky's permanent revolution and the role of the proletariat as the leading force of revolution.

To support their debates, the activists devoured volumes of writings by the likes of Leon Trotsky, Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, Franz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral.

But unlike today's debate, the only time death was mentioned during these robust intellectual encounters was when the activists made their commitment to killing apartheid.

"Death to apartheid and its surrogates," they would chant.

Post-1994 the scenario has changed. The oppressed now have political power and with it has come opportunities to hold political office.

This has also led to bizarre behaviour by some former revolutionaries who made statements like: "I did not struggle to become poor."

On the other hand, those who go against what is perceived to be right by the politically powerful are no longer tolerated.

They are now branded "enemies of the revolution who deserve to die".

Jansen has suffered the same wrath, with a leader of the ANCYL labelling him a criminal who deserves to be shot dead.

Another victim of this obsession with sending political opponents to meet the grim reaper is ANC stalwart and former cabinet minister Kader Asmal.

Having expressed his reservations about the quality of leadership of some ANC leaders, he was told by a leader of the Umkhonto we Sizwe Veterans Association that he should go and choose a graveyard to meet his maker.

The statement was even more insensitive given Asmal's perennial fight with the cancer ravaging his body.

Unfortunately, this infantile display of political intolerance goes against the grain of what the liberation movement in this country had nurtured.

It is sad indeed.