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Flaws of the ‘Rainbow Nation’

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The advent of the “rainbow nation” was an idea coined by Desmond Tutu to ensure stability and cohesion among the diverse people in South Africa. With the advent of democracy, there was a promise from the newly elected ANC government to correct the imbalances of Apartheid and create an inclusive society where all citizens had equal opportunities and freedom.

The constitution of South Africa was established in 1996 and is one of the most revered documents of rights and law in the world. It carves out the rights afforded to all citizens who live in South Africa as it says, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it.” But some people have more rights than others and racism still simmers at the core of the nation’s identity with the vast numbers of non-white people who still live in poverty.

The Rainbow Nation myth

What were the flaws then of this rainbow nation ideology? Was it just an idea without actual action?

Horst Kleinschmidt is an anti-apartheid stalwart who was detained under apartheid laws and eventually forced into exile. He said that when South Africa transitioned to democracy the foundations for what the new South Africa would look like were not strong enough.

“There is implicit in the challenge from the younger generation something that says you didn’t push the boundaries far when change came and of course some of us stand accused of that. We were part of a structure that I think failed in breaking the model that existed for the South Africa and it’s haunting us already,” said Kleinschmidt.

Christienne Julius, collections manager at the District Six Museum says that Apartheid was a system of separation and that the Rainbow Nation idea validated these separations.

“The idea of the rainbow nation is very problematic because it’s basically an idea that those racial classification still exist, that we are separate but together.”

Julius runs workshops involving different generations of people who lived in District Six, before the classifications act and during the time when Apartheid systems came into law. She explains the differences between older generations of District Six residents versus the younger District Six generation.

“When you speak to older generations of District Sixer’s, they don’t see colour to certain degree, they’ll speak about their neighbours who lived next to them, whether the neighbour was Afrikaner or African. They’ll speak about that person as being a District Sixer’s and people being a community and being in solidarity with each other.

“When you speak to younger generation of District Sixer’s, the ones who literally grew up during the 1970’s in District Six as the community was disappearing and who was very much part of the a system, after the racial classifications officially happened… they see colour more than the other generation. When you speak to those generations, it’s surprising because they are racist…”

According to Adrian Van Wyk, a Masters student at Stellenbosch university specialising in history, the rainbow nation ideology was a fallacy.

“There hasn’t been an active form, post 94 of re-imagining who we are as a country or what we are as a country. It was like these ideas were taken and boom, that’s the rainbow nation right there.”

Scars of apartheid

The Rainbow Nation ideology was indeed a filter, a filter to help people deal with living alongside one another with a past of great inequality and latent resentment. But the psychological effects of apartheid still remain. Kleinschmidt believes that to solve the inequality issue, citizens need to be more active in demanding for their rights.

“I believe it is my duty to make any people of good will to stand up and say that we want much more than merely the restitution processes that government announces and lacks the political will for, that the city has and lacks the political will for. We need to stand up again today and be ordinary citizens who support initiatives, where people claim their rights back.”

“We’ve all picked up the habit of seeing people through race and post ‘94 it feels like we’ve picked it up even more, so that people feel very comfortable talking about coloured people in a particular way or African people in a particular way but these are things we need to unlearn,” says Julius.

How do people unlearn what has been effectively institutionalized and systematically executed? Van Wyk said looking back to the past and re-imagining what the country was, is and wants to be, is imperative.

“We’ve got a violent past, it’s so abusive, it made people believe they were below human. Have we acknowledged this? Have we acknowledged the pain? Maybe our heritage is pain. But are we actively acknowledging our past? Okay we don’t like our past, let’s reimagine it! There is pain but there’s also triumph,” said Van Wyk.

It’s clear that heritage is more complex than food and culture, it deals with the past and the present and all the struggles in between. The rainbow nation ideology may have been problematic but it also deserves interrogation and systemic solutions. The country needs more solutions driven by work and implementation, rather than rhetoric. In essence, the Rainbow Nation ideology is not enough. VOC (Rafieka Williams)

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