It scares me more than it inspires me now how far South Africa still has to go as a country.  

I’m still inspired by the potential of the place – the beauty, the resources, the resilient spirit of the South African people – but it becomes clear how far we still have to go when you travel from the European bubble that is Cape Town to the African metropolis that is Johannesburg, and even more so when you do that with a more worldly perspective. The contrast is stark.

The outrage over the Secrecy Bill has made this even starker. Is the government intending to use the legislation to protect their power by concealing corruption? Or is this new bill a much-needed redraft of apartheid-era legislation in the interest of national security?

Let’s go back in history quickly to understand where we have come from as a nation – I feel this is the best way to understand the way forward. In 1652 the first White European settlers arrived – the Dutch. They, however, were not the only White people interested in settling at the tip of Africa. Although it took more than a hundred years, the British eventually developed an interest in our shores and in 1820 began establishing their settlements in earnest. But there were other people here first – the nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes of the Khoisan, the truly indigenous people of South Africa. White expansion from the ports of Cape Town and eventually Durban forced the Khoisan inland. But there was pressure from the north too – vast African tribes, Bantu-speaking from East and Central Africa – had migrated south to farm in the fertile lands they found there. But this migration of Black Africans was by no means united – tribal divisions, dialect differences, and cultural cleavages: all factors that contributed in making the migration a splintered affair. Then there were the slaves – huge numbers imported from Malaysia and eventually India with vastly different cultural and religious backgrounds.

Think about that for a minute – indigenous Khoisan people slowly eradicated by Black tribes from the north and White settlers from the south – the Black tribes distinctly unique and often opposed to each other; the White settlers split bitterly at times between English and Afrikaans speakers. And of course, we know how well the White and Black elements of South African society got along with each other. Then there are the Indian and other Asian influences on South Africa… and you quite easily have what people like to call the ultimate melting pot. Wars were fought over racial and tribal lines, almost always over the right to occupy/own (depending on your cultural background) the 1.2 million square kilometers of land that ultimately became known as South Africa.

And now we are faced with the question – whose country is it?

Most recent history has seen the rule of the country pass from White, largely Afrikaans hands to Black liberation-strained hands – our leaders were Xhosa, and now they are Zulu. Opposition parties are starting to get significant Black representation (witness Lindiwe Mazibuko of the DA), but the ruling ANC has a firm grip on the country and will have for a while to come.

The question – whose country is it? – became very real to me when I travelled up to Joburg, having spent a couple of weeks in Cape Town. In Cape Town, I felt like I was in a bubble, separated from the rest of Africa by a thin veil of colonialism that sits as precariously as the tablecloth on Table Mountain. In Joburg it is clear that this is an African country. White’s work in ivory towers next to the Black elite – separated from the poor majority, mainly Black, by sixteen security gates and an electric fence. They don’t fuck around in Joburg. Shit’s real there. The Black elite enrich themselves at the expense of the poor majority and so the gap widens. The White’s just continue to keep themselves as secure and indeed, as separate, as possible.

And again, we are faced with the question – whose country is it?

The recent suspensions of Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu from the ANC Youth League elicited a quote from them which sums up this divide perfectly. “All who rejoiced the NDC outcome are our enemies, plus white monopoly capital, plus you, the media.” These are the future leaders of our country?

Contrast this with the United States – a country with so many ethnic and cultural minorities you would be forgiven for thinking you were in China, Russia or Italy in some areas (there are also a few differences in the American situation that bear consideration, the biggest being that White people were never a minority in this land – I won’t go into the implications of this here, maybe for another post). But despite the differences in background, religion and way of life, citizens of this country identify themselves as one thing – American. They don’t agree on everything. They are a nation of debaters in fact, but they all argue for the same thing – to improve the country they identify with, for the benefit of all the people within it. They have a black president but this is not an issue when his government is challenged on healthcare or immigration or the American economy. One of the opposition Republican candidates competing to run against Obama is black.

The point is, in South Africa, racial cleavages are so deep, and so wide that the reconciliation process has years of hard graft ahead of it. And these cleavages are not only deep, but plentiful – between white and white and between black and black. Real issues are not debated as openly and honestly as they should be because these debates so often degenerate into a racial issue. As soon as the race card is pulled, everybody downs tools (and all reason it seems) and begins with the accusations. The point is then lost entirely.

For South Africa to progress as a nation, the answer to the question – whose country is it? – needs to be a clear and resounding “ours” from all South Africans, not just from the Black elite; not just from those living-in-the-past White’s seeking to hold onto power and dominion (because of fear) over the Blacks; not just from the poor disenfranchised; and not just when we host or win a World Cup again.

While it would be easy to give up on the situation, one thing true South Africans have is an indomitable spirit. Respect and love for each other will be the weapons in this fight. The fight will be long and hard. But a fight for a unified national identity is worth it. Just ask the Americans.