Image from https://unequalscenes.com/south-africa
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
– Stanley Kunitz, ‘The Layers’
16 December is Reconciliation Day. It’s one of those strange public holidays, set aside to mark a brutal moment in South African history, but slightly repackaged to convey a departure from brutality. In previous years, it has often functioned as an end-of-year stop sign for many South Africans, marking the moments in which we down our tools and begin our Christmas breaks.
This year, it is another strange day in a series of strange, horrible days. So many people have lost so much. In a country like ours, where so many have so little to begin with, the losses have been staggering and unbearable. Much has been said about this pandemic and all the truths it has laid bare. How much some human beings care for one another, and how creative they are in their care work. How little other human beings care for themselves or each other and how much more work it seems to take to not care.
For my Master’s thesis, I interviewed a white woman who grew up in the thick of Apartheid. She remembers going into an informal settlement, and being shocked at the conditions in which black people were living. It was a watershed moment. She told me, “I asked my mother – how can people live this way? How is it OK to allow it? She said, oh, well, they like this.” Even as a young child, she knew her mother’s answer was a lie. She knew there was something deeply wrong with this country and that the (white) adults in her life were not being honest with her about what and why exactly that was. COVID-19 has presented such a moment for many South Africans. It has shown the extent to which the inequality runs in the fabric of our society. It has revealed how quickly the thin veils and social mores and niceties we tell ourselves evaporate, leaving us to stare our wretchedness in its face.
I’ve heard some people call COVID-19 an equaliser. We are all vulnerable to this highly contagious, incredibly invasive virus that seems to travel (and travel and travel). But in South Africa, we know that is not true. A quick glance at the granular data will tell you that, as it ever was, with every other lurgy, class is a major determinant of one’s chances of catching and recovering from COVID-19. And race remains a major determinant of one’s class position.
So what is there to reconcile, this Reconciliation Day? We no longer live in the South Africa in which the Battle of Blood River took place. Even so, this is not a country entirely at peace, having exorcised the ghosts of its bloody past. This Reconciliation Day feels like one of reckoning. We are reckoning with the deep wounds of conquest which have not healed and the river that still runs red with blood. We are reckoning with this truth: inequality is not just a condition we can ignore whilst others endure. It is literally life-threatening. It literally kills.
And yet. Even in 2020, hope springs eternal in South Africa. Reconciliation Day acknowledges brutality and loss whilst celebrating how far we have come in a few generations. It is not a perfect peace but it is far closer to peace than the horrors of colonialism and Apartheid. The violence that turns a river red with blood will eventually abate as the water cleanses and soothes. Reconciliation of these two states of being is the South African lot.
I cannot imagine a more quintessentially South African way to end a year like this one: a day to rest, reckon and reconcile.