The End of the Rainbow Nation Myth

Sisonke Msimang

If you ask South Africans of my generation to name the most important political event of their lives, many will cite the assassination of Chris Hani. Mr. Hani was revered for his bravery in fighting against the apartheid government and for his internal dissent within the liberation movement.

In 1990, after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Mr. Hani questioned the decision to suspend the armed struggle in favor of a negotiated political settlement. He worried that the men who had upheld a racist system for decades could not be trusted to simply hand over power.

Mr. Hani was gunned down in the driveway of his home in front of his 10­ year­old daughter on April 10, 1993. White supremacists Clive Derby Lewis and Janus Waluz admitted to killing him. Their intention was to destabilize the country’s transition to democracy — and they very nearly succeeded.

For a week after Mr. Hani’s death there were outbreaks of violence. Nine days after the killing, a huge crowd gathered at Johannesburg’s largest stadium. Angry and worried about the threat of unrest, Mr. Mandela closed his eulogy by pleading for calm: “When we leave here, let us do so with the pride and dignity of our nation. Let us not be provoked.” He reserved his final words for Mr. Hani himself, saying, “You lived in my home, and I loved you like the true son you were.”

It is difficult to overstate Mr. Hani’s importance to black South Africans. Having escaped three previous assassination attempts he was legendary long before his murder.

His death lies in the middle of a tumultuous but ultimately triumphant era in South Africa’s political history; it occurred roughly halfway between the brutal murder of the black consciousness leader, Steve Biko, in 1977 and the quiet passing of Mr. Mandela in 2013. This symbolism is not lost on those of us who continue to mourn his passing at this time every year.

Mr. Hani has come to occupy a place in the imagination of black South Africans that is virtually unrivaled. Whereas Mr. Biko was an iconoclast who smashed the idols of white supremacy, he was only 31 when he was murdered. He didn’t live long enough to fulfill his enormous potential. Mr. Mandela lived to 95, long enough to both achieve his political objectives and to transcend politics. Mr. Hani, however, was 51 when he was assassinated. If Mr. Biko died too soon and Mr. Mandela had ample time, many believe Chris Hani was cut down just as he was ready to lead.

The men found guilty of Mr. Hani’s murder have never expressed remorse for their actions, and haven’t been forthcoming about crucial aspects of the crime, fueling suspicions that they were part of a wider conspiracy.

As a consequence, Mr. Hani’s family has not forgiven the killers and is unlikely to do so. His widow, Limpho Hani, remains bitterly angry. She fought their T.R.C. amnesty application and in recent years has opposed each medical parole application lodged by the 79­year­old Mr. Derby Lewis.

Her rage against both men and their refusal to even pretend to be sorry stands in stark contrast to the banal script of reconciliation and forgiveness that has dominated South Africa’s political landscape for the last 20 years.

Those of us who are tired of the empty politics of reconciliation — which assumes that whites have paid for their sins and blacks have forgiven them —  find some succour in knowing that Mr. Derby Lewis will likely die in jail.

In the early 1990s, peace and reconciliation were preached with an almost religious fervor. In 1995, one of Mr. Mandela’s first acts was to establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in order to formalise the forgiveness process. Very few people were jailed, and hundreds applied for amnesty on the basis that their actions had been politically motivated.

Today, many black South Africans see the T.R.C. as a disappointment. Although the commissioners — led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu — envisioned a process in which telling the truth would lead to forgiveness, this rarely happened. Too few (mainly white) perpetrators told the truth, and too many (mainly black) victims were encouraged to forgive them anyway. To make matters worse, when the T.R.C. reached the end of its five­year mandate, many whites saw this as the end of a historical chapter that did not need to be revisited.

Moving forward hasn’t been so easy for blacks. The structural effects of apartheid are still evident in the layout of our cities, in our schools and universities and in our workplaces. Even those born after 1994 deal with interpersonal and institutional racism on a daily basis.

This is not the case for most young white South Africans. They continue to enjoy better access to employment, education and health facilities. Yet on university campuses, and on social media, young whites often espouse the view that talking about race and racism keeps society locked in the past. Some even go so far as to suggest that talking about racism is itself racist.

This attitude has pernicious effects. In a survey released by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, only half of white youth surveyed agreed with the statement, “apartheid was a crime against humanity,” as the United Nations defined it in 1966. But what name then do we give to a crime that allows the next generation of one population to deny the injustices it has done to children of another?

I believe that Mr. Hani would have eventually ruled South Africa as president if he had lived. I like to think that he would have defied his mentor, Mr. Mandela, by offering us a less conciliatory path to dignity.

Mr. Hani may be gone. However, a new generation has embraced his brand of restlessness. Like Mr. Hani, we are cynical and distrustful of those who hold power — irrespective of race. The only politicians we admire are dead.

We have lived with choreographed unity for long enough to know that we now prefer acrimonious and robust disharmony. We see reconciliation as part of a narrative that was constructed on the basis of anxieties that are no longer relevant: Democracy has taught us that raised voices don’t have to lead to war.

This may not feel good, or even comfortable. And it does not offer the peace many black South Africans imagined 20 years ago. Nonetheless our impatience for justice is a new kind of hope; a sign that green shoots may yet emerge from the ruins of the rainbow nation.

*This article appeared as an op-ed in the New York Times on April 12, 2015. To see it on their website please click here.


With a background in funding non-profit organisations fighting for democratic change in Africa, Msimang has become a powerful advocate for the better use of money and power on her continent. She writes about money, power and sex. She is the former executive director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa.

To read publications by Sisonke Msimang on our website please click here.

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