Is Covid-19 our chance to address the past and build better future?

South Africa needs to create a new society or another generation of children will have to fight the pervasive racism that informs our present. / David Harrison
South Africa needs to create a new society or another generation of children will have to fight the pervasive racism that informs our present. / David Harrison

In the wake of the global #BlackLivesMatter movement that started in the US after the death of George Floyd, past and present pupils from 20 schools in Cape Town have taken to social media to protest blatant racism at their schools.

Within days, an Instagram account posting mainly testimonies of racist and homophobic experiences, had garnered a following of more than 10,000.

This comes as South Africa observes Youth Month and on June 16, it commemorated the 44th anniversary of the Soweto uprising.

The 1976 uprising started with students in Soweto rejecting that mathematics and science be taught in Afrikaans in black schools.

This was the final straw in a long line of oppressive measures. The youth leaders were inspired by Steve Biko and his Black Consciousness Movement and their protests set SA ablaze for the first time since Sharpeville, 16 years earlier. Then, the passive resistance campaign against pass laws had culminated in the massacre of 69 protesters. Forty years later, students espousing black consciousness ideologies on university campuses around the country were once again at the forefront of political protests, in what became known as the Fallist Movements of #RhodesMustFall followed by #FeesMustFall.

Assistant professor in history of Southern Africa at Durham University, Anne Heffernan, observes that though these students may have changed the topic of conversation around education more effectively than any since 1994 when SA had its first democratic elections, and gains such as the outsourcing of jobs on campuses have been made, the movement to decolonise university curricula and faculty has not moved off-campus.

Restructuring post-apartheid SA to address poverty and gross inequality, was always going to be complicated. The negotiated settlement that ended apartheid involved significant compromises. Two strategies were adopted: the establish-ment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to engage with the human rights' abuses, and recon-
struction to move the country forward socially, politically and economically along with the removal of barriers of class, race, ethnicity, gender and language.

Professor and head of the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute at the University of South Africa, Vusi Gumede, argues that the economic inequality in SA post-democracy remains high and is still a race issue, requiring a complete reconfiguration of society.

Nearly 50 years ago, while speaking about white racism and black consciousness in Cape Town, Biko stressed the same need to overhaul the whole system in SA before hoping to get black and white (who needed to address the inferiority and superiority complexes deliberately cultivated by the system) "walking hand in hand to oppose a common enemy".

As South Africans we have yet to address the colonial and apartheid history and to truly bring about restitution, thereby contributing to the healing of intergenerational trauma and substantiating the possibility of a re-imagined post-apartheid SA. We need to think about the kind of country we want to build, to think about what transformation means, by examining the narratives of those who were oppressed and how we may be free. Unless we take this oppor-tunity to candidly learn from our mistakes and to consider what it means to be human, the hurts will not be healed.

Today SA is fighting the Covid-19 pandemic with almost 100,000 confirmed cases and 1,930 deaths. The pandemic has exposed the deep inequalities in healthcare, education and economics in a society where black people continue to live in apartheid-era townships that make social distancing impossible. Is Covid-19 Biko's common enemy, the rupture that demands SA finally address its shortcomings and lost opportunities? SA is presented with an opportunity for introspection. Will SA seize this moment to finally address its past and create a new society, or will another generation of children have to fight the pervasive pandemic of racism that continues to inform our present?

-Kamies is a postdoctoral Fellow at department of history & heritage studies, University of Pretoria

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