The Rainbow Nation – South Africa

Rainbow_nation_flagAfter spending the entire month of February in South Africa, I think I should take a moment to reflect on my time in this fascinating country.

I find South Africa quite a contradiction. How a nation can laud its achievements in multiculturalism and pluralism, while deep divisions in society, and between races, remain. A friend in Soweto made a comment which stuck with me. She said: “While physical apartheid has ceased to exist in South Africa, psychological apartheid persists in most South Africans.”

The one man who attempted to heal this scarred nation was Nelson “Madiba” Mandela. When I read his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom many years ago, I was touched how this man could face such injustice during his lifetime, being imprisoned for 27 years, and released in 1990 only to call for a unified South Africa, instead of retribution for apartheid crimes.

I visited Robben Island, the prison complex off the coast near Cape Town. I saw how harsh the living conditions were for Mandela and the other political prisoners imprisoned there for many years. For 20 years Mandela had to eke out a daily existence in this penal colony, never giving up hope that one day he would be released from his cell and become the first democratically-elected president of the republic.

Mandela’s Inaugural speech on 10 May 1994 really sums up everything he stood for as president of South Africa.

“We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South African, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

Madiba and MeThis man inspires me. He’s now 94-years-old and battling illness. Unfortunately, South Africa lacks the leadership that Mandela provided from 1994-1998 when he decided to step down and let the next generation step up. From Thabo Mbeki to Jacob Zuma, the ANC – African National Congress – continues its political dominance and, in 2012, celebrated its 100 years as “Africa’s oldest liberation movement.”

Times have changed. As Mandela said, South Africa needs a new generation to come together and continue the healing process. Divisions between black, white, Indian and coloured (I believe this is the classification for mixed race) is seen on the streets of every city I visited. In Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban I never saw the “rainbow nation” South Africa claims to be. Instead, I saw something much different. JoBurg felt predominantly black, while Cape Town seemed to be white. And Durban is definitely Indian (even Mohandas K. Gandhi lived here for awhile).

There didn’t seem to be much cohesion. Of course I met and made friends with all of the above during my travels, but even when I spoke to them I didn’t feel too optimistic. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t judge anybody. South Africa has a history that no other nation does, so it will take many years to look past everything which happened from 1948-1990. Apartheid still lingers and South Africans do love to talk about it, which, to me, shows openess.

Mandela squareTo conclude my time in South Africa, I climbed Table Mountain and from its peak I could see Robben Island. It was nice to finally make it up there to see the natural beauty of Cape Town. I also walked around Durban to admire the beautiful architecture and beaches that surround this warm city. On my return to Joburg, I was treated to a nice afternoon in Jeppestown, meeting shop owners and residents who call this rapidly-gentrifying area of the city home. This rainbow nation has a long way to go, but it may soon get there.

And I definitely look forward to returning in the near future.

Adam Bemma is a journalist, humanitarian, and media consultant based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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