Wilde Things - Consumed by our past

By Fingal Wilde

I rate Justice Malala highly when it comes to political commentary. And in his “at home and abroad” column in the August 31 - September 6 issue of the Financial Mail, he once again nailed it. Read and enjoy.

Moaning about apartheid and what it did to us will not solve the unemployment problem we face today. South Africa's horrific past cannot be ignored or underplayed. Yet the challenges of the present, and the uncertainties of the future, demand our urgent attention. We make a huge mistake if we wallow in the past and fail to grapple with the future. I fear, increasingly, that this is what we are doing. The story of humanity through the ages is one of extraordinary cruelty. Humans have tortured, colonised, raped, enslaved, suppressed and established dominance over smaller, weaker groups for thousands of years. In recent memory, you just have to look across our border at the incredible cruelty of the Germans in Namibia, where concentration camps and torture methods later used in World War 2 were practised and "perfected". You only have to read the history of the Democratic Republic of Congo to see what the Belgians did to the Congolese. These places are not special. Americans starved, tortured and nearly obliterated the Native American population. The Russians arrested their intellectuals and imprisoned them in the most extreme conditions in gulags throughout the 20th century. In China, anywhere from hundreds of thousands to a million members of the Uyghur ethnic minority group are held in concentration camps. Just 29 years ago, ordinary Hutu men and women in Rwanda tortured and hacked to death a million of their Tutsi neighbours and fellow churchgoers because of prejudice. The history of man is the history of wanton cruelty and subjugation. At the same time, it is the history of perseverance, innovation and progress. In South Africa, a crime against humanity — apartheid — was committed. Its defeat in the early 1990s was an example of the triumph of good over evil. In his inauguration speech on May 10 1994, Nelson Mandela made this clear — and charted a path to the future: "Out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud. Our daily deeds as ordinary South Africans must produce an actual South African reality that will reinforce humanity's belief in justice, strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul and sustain all our hopes for a glorious life for all."

Thirty years since Mandela gave this line of march, I sometimes wonder whether we are stuck, grieving the "extraordinary human disaster" that was apartheid, unable to build the 'glorious life for all" that he envisioned. When we have to grow jobs, we talk about how the past is holding us back. When we talk about human rights in the world, we don't want to look at what is happening today, but at what perpetrators did in the past. South Africa is not the only country that has to grapple with a horrific past. We are not the only ones having to navigate a deeply polarised geopolitical landscape. South Korea has over the past 70 years emerged from war and rapidly invigorated its economy and raised its people from poverty. Singapore did the same. Over the past few years, South Africa has walked away from these examples. This is the crossroads South Africa has been stuck at for 15 years. While the world grapples with the staggering implications of rampant artificial intelligence systems for our lives, we seem to be on the side lines, consumed by our past and almost removed from the urgent issues of the present and the future. We are stuck in a rut about how to deal with increasing poverty, unemployment, corruption and widening inequality. Our past is no excuse not to face up to the future — and the present — and their demands. Moaning about apartheid and what it did to us will not solve the unemployment problem we face today. That can only be done by implementing sensible policies that create businesses that employ people and pay taxes. This is possible. Justice requires that we deal with the legacies of the past. Justice also requires that our children don't become victims of our current policies and their ineffectiveness. We have to balance these two. Our growth rate and unemployment numbers tell one story. We are stuck in debates about the past while the present is overwhelming us.