The great South African “marriage” of 1994

Reflecting upon what is happening between Israel and Palestine vs. what is happening in South Africa, Judge Dennis Davis is quoted to have said: “Over there they are talking about divorce – but here we are talking about marriage”.

Divorce and darkness vs marriage and light

I am not sure what the good judge would say about the coming together of West and East Germany in the early 1990s. Were they also talking about a marriage between the two geographical entities (which after all consists of one “volk” and therefore have much in common) or do they prefer the more neutral word of “uniting”? Or are they merely building a partnership or perhaps only trying to make a co-operation agreement work there? Or do they merely strive for “cohesion”?

Words create worlds, and it is important that we are clear which words we use when and why we use it.

Which words can be used or are being used to describe what is happening in Rwanda? The genocide in Rwanda is on the same historical time-line as the unity or marriage of Germany and South Africa. What happened in Rwanda, and what lessons can we learn from the Rwandese and the way they have now structured their society? Are they talking about marriage or how best to manage a divorce?

Citizens across the world CAN learn from one another, if we wanted to.

As we continue reflecting on the word “marriage” for South Africa and other societies, we can begin to ask about the appropriateness of using that word to describe our life together as one nation.

The problem with marriage, according to Rev Moss Ntlha, is that it starts with love. And in order for it to be sustained, it has to be and can only be held together by nothing else but love.

The democratic “divorce” by FW de Klerk and the New Nats

The South African marriage of 1994 was soon followed by a divorce. By 10 May, 1996, the South African marriage was on the rocks. FW de Klerk led the New National Party out of the government of national unity (GNU).  This was unfortunate as the country had by that time not yet formally adopted a new constitution. This only happened on 4 December 1996. It might be worth thinking of the new constitution as both an ante-nuptial contract that was in the making and largely agreed upon, as well as the contract that informed or shaped the divorce agreement.

As South Africans, we do not reflect enough about this democratic divorce and what its implications are and how we are still stuck between our marriage and our divorce. Was the marriage then a mirage, or was it real? If we could frame our conversations and questions in this way, perhaps it would begin to make more sense for all of us as we would all have the same reference point.

Marriage, divorce and reconciliation

Having used a strong word such as marriage for our life together as South Africans, we also reframed an existing public holiday on December 16 as our “Day of reconciliation”.  To make matters even more interesting, we also unofficially reframed Heritage Day on 24 September as “Braai day”.

The rugby victories of 1995 and 2019 are indicative of how we have changed over the years: in 1995, Chester Williams was the only black South African in that team while in 2019, we had a black captain in the person of Siya Kolisi. Some would call that progress while others would want to downplay the significance of it all.

South Africans have been fortunate: we also hosted a very successful FIFA world cup in 2010, a festival of unity, the first African country to do so. How do we reflect on this?

For the sake of the children

Even though a political divorce was attempted, South Africans have on the whole decided to stay together “for the sake of the children”. We call it “Ubuntu” or “samehorigheid” and while we often doubt ourselves, many people across the world believe that they can learn something from us.

If our Ubuntu can be extended as wide as possible, to include others from across our continent, South Africa could truly become a beacon and lesson for others.

But there are aunts and uncles in our South African family, mainly but not exclusively politicians, that constantly spread mistrust amongst all of us, either by what they say or by what they do.

Seeing that the political divorce did not quite work as they thought it would, will they now attempt something more permanent, or something that will permanently drive South Africans and other Africans apart, towards a new apart-ness or apart-heid? Will we South Africans ever tolerate or allow this?

Mistrust amongst South Africans: can our marriage survive this?

In a parable that could probably only be scripted by South Africans, the majority of our electorate voted in someone called Jacob Zuma to head the South African household for about 10 years. Interestingly, USA citizens did the same in 2016 by electing one Donald Trump, albeit for a shorter period and with much more profound global implications, and we now have that example which to compare ourselves with.

Besides the USA example, we fortunately also have the New Zealand example, where a country elected a brilliant, empathetic and compassionate woman leader as Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. What can we learn from this, and how can we juxtapose these events with each other so that our learnings are optimal and that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past?

How do South Africans continue to build love and trust?

Much have been said and written about South African resilience. Fortunately for us, one of our more trustworthy uncles is still alive – Desmond Tutu.

He would urge us to continue to reconcile, despite our differences. He would urge us to ignore the voices of division. As he said when he handed over the position of General Secretary to Beyers Naude: “We are all black – some of you just came out of the oven sooner than some of us!”

Can we continue to love one another and continue to build our life together in this spirit? Has God given South Africans a mission? If so, what is it? And how do we fulfil this mission so that we can be what Palestine-Israel was meant to be: not to walk the violent and lonely path of divorce, but to act as a parable of trust, a light to the nations, especially the nations of Africa? With Barack Obama we can affirm: “Yes, we can!”

Edwin Arrison, 28 February 2021

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