Negotiating South Africa's past: can we forgive and forget?

Saturday 30 October, 3.30pm until 5.00pm, Café

As host of the FIFA World Cup 2010, South Africa scored a winning goal even if the home team, Bafana Bafana, failed to make the last sixteen. The country showed that where there is the political will, major achievements are possible. Their stadiums were stunning and the pitches first class. The international fans and media were overwhelmed by the warmth and exuberance of their welcome, and pre-tournament paranoia about crime and security proved largely unfounded. For a brief moment sport united the nation; however, as in 1995 after the Rugby World Cup, that feeling of unity may prove to be ephemeral as South Africans look to the future. 

South Africa is uncomfortable with the very idea of the future. The ANC constantly invokes Mandela and its history of struggle to maintain its legitimacy and silence its critics - it is even proposing a ‘media appeals tribunal’ to curb ‘defamatory’ news stories. President Zuma’s penchant for wearing tribal costumes and his endorsement of the tribal custom of polygamy is criticised by many, but endows Zuma with the authenticity of an African leader connected to his people at a time when he is fending off charges of corruption or political inadequacy. The ANC youth leader, Julius Malema, in a bid for a power and a share of state handouts, courts popularity by singing old MK rebel songs that seem irrelevant and inflammatory today.

At its birth, democratic South Africa tried to lay its troublesome past to rest through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; an innovative and much applauded institution that was to be imitated in other areas of conflict resolution such as Ireland and Rwanda. It was meant to be cathartic; to allow South Africans to forgive and forget. Yet one could argue that this therapeutic ritual immersed the nation in the past and redefined what it means to be South African. Either South Africans are black victims who deserve pity and have become embroiled in fighting for compensation and restitution instead of a better society, or guilt-ridden whites apologising for their past or fleeing the present. The murder earlier this year of the far-right AWB leader, Eugene Terreblanche by two of his black farmhands raised new fears about whether the past has indeed been buried or whether old enmities are waiting to resurface.

The past has made South Africans what they are, but is it time to move on and make our future? What kind of ideas and leadership could break the impasse and inspire that future?

Listen to session audio:


Steve Bloomfield
foreign editor, Monocle Magazine; author, Africa United

Audrey Brown
journalist; presenter, BBC World Service's Network Africa

Dr Jennifer Cunningham
recently retired paediatrician; author, The end of apartheid?

Trevor Steele Taylor
film programmer, Grahamstown Film Festival; curator, South African Season, British Film Institute

Sharmini Brookes
freelance writer and blogger based in Johannesburg; contributor Artslink and spiked

Produced by
Sharmini Brookes freelance writer and blogger based in Johannesburg; contributor Artslink and spiked
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