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South Africa: the collapse of the Rainbow Nation myth

"A future in which everyone shares in the prosperity of our beloved land is still possible, but it requires South Africans to transcend the barriers of settlers and natives"


Thirty years ago, South Africa emerged from a dark period in its history to face the legacy of settler colonialism and apartheid. The nation-building journey it embarked on was dubbed “rainbow nation,” a term that Archbishop Desmond Tutu used to characterize South Africa during its first democratic election in 1994. However, as evidenced by the recent elections, which revealed significant fractures and cracks that pointed to a shift in the political tectonic plates in the electorate’s attitude towards this endeavour, the goal of building a nation rooted in the “rainbow nation” ideology remains unfulfilled if not elusive thirty years later.

The crux of the issue is the unresolved land dispute in South Africa, where the ownership of the majority of the land still lies with white people. It is the most obvious contradiction that gives South African public life its shape and complexion. Land touches on every socio-economic aspect of our lives, including infrastructure, settlements, cultural capital, and space (or lack thereof), and constitutes the entire framework of economic power. Without equitable land ownership, the majority of black South Africans face institutional barriers to social mobility, marginalization, and social degradation. This is despite popular rhetoric that describes South Africa as a country full of opportunities and with the best constitution in the world. While the 1996 constitution states that “We the people of South Africa recognize the injustices of the past,” the land question—a huge, glaring injustice that gives rise to various social ills—is the line polarising South Africa. Moreover, according to the World Bank reports, over the years, South Africa has earned the unfortunate title of the world’s poster child for economic disparity. As a result, the rainbow nation myth is collapsing.

A country built on falsehoods and deception

As anyone who grew up in South Africa in the early 2000s should know, there were real and coordinated conversations on radio, television, and any other public arena to encourage our people to embrace the rainbow nation and engage in reconciliation and healing. However, this strategy was unsuccessful since a nation cannot emerge by refusing to correct past injustices and displaying contempt for the truth.

Today, it is rare to find shards of this kind of unity in public discourse—unless, that is, South Africans coalesce around their men’s rugby team, the Springboks, in a poignant display of patriotic nostalgia. After filling stadiums, South Africa’s demographic groups separate and return to their homes, which are still segregated by the horrendous apartheid spatial segregation statute, the Group Areas Act, enacted in 1950. Except for a few black bourgeoisie who have transcended class barriers and have joined the white population in retreating to pleasant suburbs,  the legacy of apartheid’s geographical division remains, and the majority of the citizens remain trapped in townships that are spaced out from the city centre.

Stifling dissent

Those who dare to voice their opposition to these realities face public humiliation and abuse from those who wish to return us to the apartheid era. In today’s South Africa, there are similarities between the way Black people’s speech in relation to racism is monitored and the way it was during apartheid. While today’s monitoring is perceived by some mainly as a shield for the rainbow nation myth, it also prevents the emergence of a united nation by sustaining economic apartheid.

Recent years have seen the US-based South African billionaire and owner of X, formerly known as Twitter, Elon Musk, join the right-wing group AfriForum in spreading false information online that a genocide against white people is occurring in South Africa, or rather that one is imminent as a result of strong criticism from opposition parties like the EFF and others who have called attention to the country’s racial relations and have been branded as fascists.

Last year, the University of the Free State, a historically all-white university in the former Transvaal colony, suspended and looked into the alleged racism of a young lecturer named Dr Pedro Mzileni after he gave a guest lecture about colonialism and the history of racism in South Africa. The probe was prompted by a complaint from AfriForum Youth, who claimed Mzileni used rhetoric targeted at fueling racial divisions. He was accused of referring to white South Africans as “land thieves.” Following an investigation over alleged remarks made during a guest lecture, the university cleared Dr Mzileni. This shows that silencing is not limited to the political sphere.

All of this serves as a reminder that modern-day South Africa is founded on a denial of truth and history. And, the most pernicious untruth is that anyone who speaks up against the divisiveness and economic injustice in post-1994 South Africa is a race-baiter and an unpatriotic.

Deceitful elites

The ruling elite who ushered in the dawn of democracy in post-Apartheid South Africa have failed. They never really intended to build a nation. The rainbow nation myth, which rests on the idea that historical injustices can be addressed only in theory but not in practice, was always doomed to fail. We have two options: either we open sincere discussions regarding the status of the nation, or we face an inevitable doom by retreating to ethnic and racial polarization.

Ugandan academic and intellectual Mohamod Mamdani once argued that the colonial state made ethnic and cultural identity political, which made citizenship a challenge. Because postcolonial states ignored this, a large portion of postcolonial violence can be attributed to it. The current Sudan war and the violence we witnessed in Rwanda in the early 90s are startling evidence. This is what happens when societal issues and difficulties are not addressed at the political level while allowing new political identities to be formed. We also run the same risk in South Africa as the rainbow nation’s currently thin veil continues to fade.

Unresolved colonial legacy and the failure of nationalist revolutions to de-ethnicize are at the centre of all this chaos, where some are not viewed as indigenous and are perceived as intruders, while others want justice and demand land ownership thirty years after the end of apartheid. In this chaos, identities imposed by colonialism are reinforced. Calls for Zulu independence, Cape Independence, and the re-emergence of Khoi-nationalism are all relics of the colonial state. They are an indictment of South Africa’s choice to politicise ethnicity instead of cultivating citizenship through inclusive policy.

In his book An Ordinary Country: Issues in the Transition from Apartheid to Democracy in South Africa, Neville Alexander, one of South Africa’s foremost intellectuals warned in 2002 that political instability in South Africa was inevitable. Indeed, a storm has been gathering since 1994 when the first winds of reconciliation-without-justice blew empty puffs of false optimism for black South Africans. Promises of a better life for black people, which were once the ANC‘s proud rallying cry, are no longer in the language of the ruling party. The material circumstances of ordinary black South Africans remain dismal, with each new dawn heralding a dark day.

Towards a citizenship founded on truth and fairness

Through land confiscations, forced labour, economic deprivation, underdevelopment, impoverishment, cultural humiliation, racial exclusion, and discrimination, colonialism and apartheid created inferior and detrimental social relations for the black population in South Africa.

For South Africa to truly belong to all “those who already live in it,” as stated in the Freedom Charter, descendants of the settler minority will have to participate in the nation-building process by relinquishing their ill-gotten wealth. In his most recent work, Neither Settler nor Native, Mahmood Mamdani contends that stopping the cycle of violence requires community effort. He sees hope in the unfinished business of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. What links black and white South Africans together is a kinship based on our shared experience with colonialism and apartheid; thus, the nation-building project requires, as it was done in the early 1990s when we managed to avert a civil war, that we come together again to address the economic question that was not addressed in the first negotiations. This would be a step towards true nationhood founded on equality, fairness, solidarity, and cooperation—all as outlined in the constitution—and towards redressing historical injustices.

As Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe famously stated, “It is darkest before dawn.” A future in which everyone shares in the prosperity of our beloved land is still possible, but it requires South Africans to transcend the barriers of settlers and natives and build a nation united by common political aims and desires.

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