Sunglasses and Reconciliation

In the twenty years since the end of apartheid, South Africa has tried to reconcile its past of racial discrimination while also build a country in which the various peoples and races celebrate their diversity yet feel a common identity as South Africans. At this time in particular, many individuals find themselves reflecting upon their past and speculating what it means for their future. First, people are recognizing the centennial of the infamous Natives Land Act of 1913. Passed by the Union Parliament, the legislation prevented the majority of South Africa’s population from owning land and concentrated all valuable property in the hands of the white minority. The Land Act was the first segregation law passed by South Africa and would remain a cornerstone of what would become the apartheid system until the 1990s when a land restitution program commenced. Second, on a somber and historic note, as South Africans come to terms with the fact that Nelson Mandela, the country’s first Black president, will leave them sooner rather than later, people are examining not only his legacy but wondering whether the “rainbow nation” he and other freedom fighters fought to create can survive without Madiba (the term of affection by which Mandela is widely known in his home country). Those ruminations also come at a time when a new generation of South Africans who have not lived under apartheid—but are still suffering from the vestiges of the state-sanctioned discrimination—is coming of age.

I attended a book reading that sought to raise awareness of a local organization’s efforts to build a library in Khayelitsha, a Black township in Cape Town. While the program organizers had planned for the day to focus on the need to provide literature to youth in the township, the discussion quickly turned to the political atmosphere of South Africa and the country’s “attempts” to move beyond the vestiges of apartheid. The man who opened the program railed against the injustices of the former Afrikaner government but he decided to also highlight what he perceived as the failure of the African National Congress to rectify the situation. To explain his point, I was unexpectedly used as an example: The man took the pair of sunglasses I had worn to the event and told me that although he had my sunglasses, we were still friends and that I should feel no ill-will towards him. When I told him that I needed my sunglasses and that he can buy his own pair, he “compromised” and said that he would give them back eventually, but at a time of his own choosing. As he continued to talk to me and the twenty people assembled, it became increasingly clear that he was drawing parallels to the Land Act and its effects. The sunglasses represented the land and, in his opinion, the government wanted the races to live peacefully and reconcile despite the fact that nearly all of the land was still in the hands of the whites.

Many Black South Africans are coming to the conclusion that although they now have the ability to vote for their elected leaders, their lives—i.e. their economic conditions—are largely the same as they were under the days of minority rule. Some people fault Mandela as being too conciliatory toward the white population and some even wish he had followed the example of Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe by implementing a widespread land redistribution with the goal of removing the wealth out of the hands of the descendants of those who profited from the Land Act. The man at the book reading said that there can only be peace when what is rightfully theirs is returned to them. However would that bring the peace and prosperity that so many South Africans desire? Or rather, will it only increase tensions between the races? For better or for worse, I doubt that question will ever be answered.

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