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Undoing the Rainbow Nation

File picture of a worker passing hundreds of South African flags lining routes in and out of Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International airport.
File picture of a worker passing hundreds of South African flags lining routes in and out of Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International airport.
Image: Halden Krog © The Times

A failed rainbow nation and a race card is all we have to show for South African race relations 25 years on.

Conversations about race, in a country plagued by a brutal history of race discrimination and inhumanity, still range from doubtful contemplation to fervent denialism.

There’s dishonesty, so rank, constantly hovering in the air and yet we continue to walk around with lips sewn shut and signs around or necks that read: “We’re okay!”

I was one of the first young recruits into the acclaimed Rainbow Nation project of 1994. If I had to describe the politics of my early childhood in a word; it would be blinkered. It is also the word I would use to describe the underlying principle of our dysfunctional rainbow nation – a social engineering project aimed at soothing white anxieties about being cleansed from the stolen land they have occupied for centuries.

The rainbow nation was never in service to black South Africans, for if it was, it would centre their trauma and demand accountability from those who actively maintained or were complicit in their oppression. Now, we lament the inconceivable persistence of racism, in a post-apartheid society still without addressing the reality that our leaders cultivated the very conditions for that persistence.

Last week, one of many white teachers in our young democracy assaulted a black learner. Many responses aimed to shut down any suggestion of racism with no debate.

How, in a country with this history, can we be so sure? Where do we think all this racism went? This is the consequence of a forced racial harmony and the silencing of trauma in the absence of serious consequences for historical injustice. Interpreting the level of disrespect showed by the learner is subjective and reasons for it are varied, but these things happen in almost every public institution in South Africa. White people who have swung the corporate ropes from one position of authority to the next, still preside over the fates of black people.

The dynamics of such an interaction can never be freed from the historical context of racism for as long as whiteness is left to claim authority time and time again.I will bet many white people do not believe they are acting out of racism in the same way a fish does not know it is in water.

A nation building project that aims to obscure reality, rather than account for it, allows no inquiry into the nature of that reality. White South Africans are dismissive of their racism, which did not go anywhere, while black South Africans remain in a perpetual cycle of self-doubt about their trauma and experiences. These dishonest interactions will continue to eat away at the integrity of our public institutions if no effort is made to address what are now the consequences of a failed rainbow nation.

It is time to be honest: our nation building would have been better spent healing the colonial divisions wedged between Black people while making white people understand how they have contributed to this historical injustice and what is required of them to correct it.

Not this mind game that keeps us all in doubt and anxiety for what we may be misinterpreting about racial violence we have known since time immemorial.

I am often asked what kind of diversity scholar I am to call for such harsh critiques of people. Diversity does not mean forcing difference into one monstrous mass of non-consensual sameness , that is hybridisation.

Diversity means equality of the terms on which everyone is represented in their fullness and honesty about the circumstances that necessitated this diversity in the first place. To many people that means that those who are considered perpetrators need to live in perpetual apology, but it simply asks for an awareness of fact that indoctrination into a system of inhumanity does not simply disintegrate at will.

It is a lifelong endeavour that requires daily work if it is to be successful, and if you are offended at being asked to be more human towards someone, then you probably do not think much of their humanity to begin with.

The rainbow is dead, and white is not a colour.

Jamil F. Khan is a PhD Critical Diversity Studies candidate

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