The following remarks were delivered today by Democratic Alliance (DA) Leader, Mmusi Maimane, at a public address in Potchefstroom, North West.
Fellow South Africans
Our history in this country is one of pain and segregation.
Last month we commemorated the 160-year anniversary of the abolition of slavery in South Africa. Known as Emancipation Day, around 39,000 slaves were freed on 1 December 1838.
Centuries of colonialism, apartheid, nationalism has delivered to us a society that is profoundly unequal.
We were then, and we are still today, a nation of insiders and outsiders. We all call ourselves South Africans but we live in two separate worlds.
Some of the borders of these two worlds are physical. Apartheid laws put us in different places – opposite sides of towns, highways and railway tracks – and today most of us are still confined there.
But there are other non-physical walls between us that keep us divided into our separate worlds. And one of these walls – arguably the highest and strongest of them all – is the inequality in our education.
We are blessed with some wonderful schools in South Africa – schools that can hold their own with the best in any country. But we also have schools where many of our children receive an education that ranks among the very worst in the world.
That’s why four out of five children in our country cannot read – and understand what they’re reading – by the time they get to Grade 4. That’s why half our children drop out of school before they reach their matric exam.
Nothing determines your path in life more than the quality of your schooling. And nothing entrenches the divide in our country more than our failed education system.
I think of this every time I drop my children off at their schools. I think of how incredibly fortunate they and their classmates are to go to schools that will give them every possible chance to get ahead in life.
And then I think of the millions of children in rural villages and townships who will never know this kind of education. Boys and girls who will walk to school hungry, sit in overcrowded classrooms in mud schools, be subjected to dangerous and inhumane pit toilets and whose teachers are unable to teach them the very basics of the curriculum.
What chance do they have in life? When even those with a good education struggle to find work, what must these children do one day?
Apartheid used Bantu Education to deliberately miseducate people. It was a tool of oppression that sought to keep people “in their place”.
But when we got rid of Bantu Education we failed, for many people, to replace it with a system that could lift them out of this place. It pains me that our children still die in pit latrines.
Surely this is our greatest challenge today – to ensure that we don’t pass on the legacy of poverty and inequality to yet another generation, and then another after that.
I, for one, accept this challenge. I want to take up a big hammer and help smash down the walls that keep half our country locked out.
I want to be part of a movement that fights for a future that works for everyone, and not only those already on the inside.
I’m not satisfied with the results of our struggle for freedom. Yes, the laws that kept us apart are gone, but that’s not enough because we still live with the legacy of these laws every single day.
We see this legacy in the places we live, how we commute, where our children go to school. We see it in the queues at clinics, the queues for social grants and the queues to collect water from solitary stand taps.
We also see this legacy in our attitudes toward one another – how we remain deeply polarised on issues of race. Our instinct is still to retreat into our corners of racial solidarity whenever we feel challenged or threatened.
This is one of the most damaging effects of our history.
When people speak of the scars of our past, this is what they mean. The way we still allow ourselves to become “us” and “them” in times of crisis. How we often cling to the idea that life here is a zero-sum game – that for every winner there has to be a loser.
If we want to break free from our past, then this is what we need to urgently fix.
And it is possible. We can stand united and work together, even in times of great distress. Right at the birth of our democracy we saw this for ourselves.
When Chris Hani was gunned down by a right-wing extremist in his driveway, one year before our first democratic election, our nation was plunged into crisis. People were ready to take up arms against each other. Some said civil war was unavoidable.
This never happened though, and there are several reasons for this. But I’d like to think one of them was perhaps the fact that Nelson Mandela reminded us that it was a white woman who took down the registration number of the car, which led to the arrest of the killer, Janusz Waluś.
In our very darkest hour, with a race war looming, we got a tiny little glimpse of the kind of cooperation that could just rebuild our country. A reminder that we are indeed better together.
We are not each other’s enemies. Our real enemy is a system that still divides us into insiders and outsiders.
Our enemy is the violent crime that causes so much pain and heartbreak for farmers and farm workers. This further divides us.
We need to rediscover the spirit of unity and cooperation, because, as a country, we are once again going through a painful moment.
Life has become extremely hard for millions of our people who cannot find work and who struggle to make ends meet, and this has put enormous strain on our society.
In particular, it has put strain on the relationships between us – between South Africans who come from very different places and are learning how to live together.
This relationship we have with each other is similar to a being in marriage. We may have come from different pasts, but 25 years ago we made a commitment to face the future together.
And just like any marriage, we need to continuously nurture and protect our relationship, or else we will end up hurting each other and driving each other apart.
My wife is a white South African, and I am black. Early in our relationship we drew many conclusions about each other – about our cultures and practices. She would use words and I would hear something else. I would say something and she would hear the opposite.
But here we are today – our marriage is strong and we are raising two beautiful children. And our union has given our children an opportunity to see our colour without ascribing prejudice. They will judge me on whether I am good father or a bad one, not whether I am a black father or a white father.
We must condemn the notion that if you’re white in this country, you must be a racist, and if you’re black you can’t be one. As Thuli Madonsela once said, systemic oppression does not absolve you from racism.
We must build society where it is only the content of your character that matters – not a society in which we live in our separate racial laagers, but a truly non-racial one. This is the future. Those who want to divide us are the past.
Right now we need to be more mindful than ever to get this right. Because of our perilous situation, we cannot afford to damage our relationship any more than we already have.
We must make a conscious decision to listen more and perhaps speak less.
We should try to understand why we so often see a situation in such contrasting light. What would it look like to me if I were someone else?
Areas of conflict should be opportunities for us to lay our concerns, our fears and yes, even our resentments, on the table without these being turned against us. These should be opportunities to grow closer together and not drift further apart.
We must be calm and rational. We must encourage tolerance of one another’s views.
But too often these days we end up doing the exact opposite. We allow the loudest voices to drown out the rational ones. We let those who don’t care for our future together dictate how we should feel and act towards each other.
And when we allow the extremists in our society to frame our conversations – when we let them reduce the most complex issue to a crude binary choice – we end up driving each other back into our little corners of racial solidarity.
We become “us” and “them” once more, and we do damage to our relationship that we may never fix.
That is what happened at the primary school in Schweizer-Reneke last week. We all saw an image that reminded us of the worst part of our history. It invoked painful memories of our brutal past.
Many responded in anger. This is our human nature.
However, what transpired at that school in the days that followed should never, ever be allowed to happen again.
Thugs storming the school grounds and jumping the fence, threats to burn the school down, parents arriving carrying firearms – how can this be acceptable in a place of learning? How do you explain any of that to those traumatised little children?
I understand the anger that this has caused in the community. I understand both the initial reaction to the photo, as well as the reaction of the parents, who instinctively wanted to protect their children.
We are humans and we react with human emotions.
What I don’t accept, though, is the actions of those who leapt in to inflame this situation for their own political gain. And here I refer to players on both ends of the political spectrum.
These actions of theirs come at a great cost – both to the community of this school, and to our society as a whole. What they might see as short-term political victories have profound ramifications.
There are victims all over this story. Clearly, the biggest victims are the children. But others include the suspended teacher, Elana Barkhuizen, who suffered the kind of swift mob justice that so often accompanies these stories.
The school itself has also suffered tremendously, as have the parents of the traumatised children.
A further victim in this story has been the DA Youth Leader, Luyolo, Mphithi, who has dishonestly been lumped in with the actions of the EFF and ANC, when all he ever did was commit to seek answers.
When others went to Schweizer-Reneke to inflame the situation, he went there to understand what had happened. To ask questions and to listen.
Which is precisely what he has done on many previous occasions, whether he was standing up for Indian people against the EFF’s racist attacks, condemning the racism of Adam Catzavelos, or speaking up for white unemployed youth excluded from government’s Youth Employment Service.
The attempt to now paint him as one of the villains in this story is nothing but cheap opportunism by those seeking political mileage from this issue. Those who would rather divide than unite us.
What happened in that classroom still needs to be determined. If it was indeed a case of racism, then there must be consequences. But until we know, we need cool heads to prevail.
Our only goal now should be to resolve this situation calmly and away from these children, so that they can get back to doing the things that Grade R girls and boys do.
In seeking a resolution and the truth, we must guard against those who will try to continue to use this issue for their own populist gain. Because I can assure you, the plight of the children, their teachers and this school means nothing to them.
As we saw earlier with the Clifton beach story, there are many parties and individuals whose sole aim is to convince us we are enemies. For them there is nothing to be gained from a strong, united South Africa. Their entire political strategy is one of divide and conquer.
They are experts at manipulating emotions in our racially-charged society and finding easy scapegoats for our country’s problems.
Fellow South Africans,
If you’re looking to stoke fires, South Africa is not a hard place to do so. We are, today, the most unequal society in the world, with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world.
Every three months, as new jobs data is released, this number goes up. Today almost 10 million South Africans cannot find work.
As more and more people are shut out of the economy by this rising unemployment, the inequality in our society continues to grow. The chasm between the insiders and the outsiders is wider now than it has ever been.
In our towns and in our cities, this inequality is always on display. The resentment and the anger this has caused among desperate South Africans cannot be overstated.
They were led to believe, over the past quarter of a century, that life would get better and that opportunities would open up for them. They were promised that their generation would be better off than their parents.
But every time these promises of economic freedom were repeated and then broken, more and more fuel was added to the fire.
Today, 25 years into our democracy, this has become a powder keg waiting for a spark. The disappointment of broken promise after broken promise, along with the daily reminder of our nation’s glaring inequality, has made our situation extremely volatile.
Those intent on driving wedges into the centuries-old fault lines that still remain in our society don’t have to try very hard.
Now I know, when we deal with highly charged race issues, it is easy to become despondent. It is easy to believe that the idea of a South Africa that is reconciled and that belongs to all of us is beyond our reach.
But this is simply not true. There are many of us, from all political walks of life, who essentially want the same thing: a South Africa that we can share peacefully and safely. A South Africa that works for all. This is not an unattainable dream.
But if we are to achieve this, then our narrative must beat the one that says we cannot work and live together. We have make this centre ground of ours the strongest, and we have to find many allies in this fight.
There will always be those on the extremes who won’t want to be part of this project. Those who believe that South Africa must have winners and losers. And for them the fight will never be over until everything is either won or destroyed.
But the truth is, our country can only survive and thrive if we do it together. If we harness the power of our combined imagination and creativity and if we recognise that our very unique diversity is our biggest strength.
This means building schools that are diverse and inclusive.
It means developing our economy into one that is resilient and future-proof – an economy that is able to attract a vast diversity of skills.
It means building diverse communities where the spatial planning of Apartheid is reversed.
But if we want to do so, there are a few non-negotiable principles we must adhere to:
Firstly, we can never tolerate racism or racists, regardless of the colour of their skin.
Secondly, we must learn to listen first, before we react and shout at each other.
And thirdly, we can only build a reconciled nation through political parties that strive for this goal. No party that stands for nationalism – whether this is Afrikaner nationalism, Zulu nationalism, black nationalism or any other form – can possibly build one, unified nation.
We have to come together around common values, because values can transcend race.
This is the core of the DA’s offer. We aim to build a better South Africa for all people, on a foundation of our values: Freedom, Fairness, Opportunity and Diversity.
There is no other future worth pursuing. We are in this together – this marriage of ours – and we must do what it takes to make it work.
Twenty-five years ago we all shared a dream. We weren’t sure of all the details yet, or exactly how we would get there, but we knew it involved all of us.
We set off on a journey together towards the South Africa we wanted to build and live in, and everyone was excited about it.
But we lost our way since then and, sadly, many people have lost hope too. We have been drifting off course for so long now that many of you won’t even remember exactly what it was you wanted for our country.
We simply have to rediscover this. We have to remember what it was we were aiming for back then and chart a new course to get there.
There will always be those who’ll want to divert us from our course again, and turn us against each other. There will always be those who will blame others to mask their own failures.
We cannot let them win.
We simply have to make a case for a united, shared South Africa that is more compelling than theirs.
We have to imagine the country we want for ourselves and for our children – one South Africa for all its people – and we have to believe we can build it.