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Artillery Row

The collapse of the “Rainbow Nation”

The rise and fall of secular religion in South Africa

Carl Schmitt posited that “the central concepts of modern state theory are all secularized theological concepts”. No contemporary nation-state exemplifies this idea as well as post-apartheid South Africa.

Whilst scholars were predicting that the “end of history” was upon us, South Africa was undergoing a seismic transformation to a modern democratic liberal republic in the embers of the 20th century. This shift, at a unique epoch in world history, is showcased in the drastic change from a minority-controlled pariah state to a modern nation embraced by the international community. At last, one of the world’s greatest injustices had been solved. Behind this shift was the creation of a fundamentally secular theological framework for a new South African society. This civil religion permeated the country and created a collective state of consciousness in South Africans for a short while, before reality began to set in and material conditions did not improve.

The interim constitution, which was drafted and agreed to during the negotiations of the early 1990s, lays out the salvation doctrine in its preamble: “This constitution provides a historic bridge between the past of a deeply divided society characterised by strife, conflict, untold suffering and injustice, and a future founded on the recognition of human rights, democracy and peaceful co-existence and development opportunities for all South Africans, irrespective of colour, race, class, belief, or sex. The pursuit of national unity, the well-being of all South African citizens and peace require reconciliation between the people of South Africa and the reconstruction of society.”

The constitutional text lies at the heart of South African soteriology

The idea of a singular document providing a historic bridge between the past of a divided and repugnant society, and a future virtuous society founded on human rights, was entrancing. South Africans were enthused. Their constitution is afforded a unique degree of reverence, compared to most modern nations. Its creation and existence were crafted to be the antithesis of what came before, and it is seen as right and just. The constitutional text lies at the heart of South African soteriology, and it serves as the theological text to provide salvation and guidance. A modern constitution, it protects the rights of all peoples and guarantees access to adequate housing, healthcare, food, water, even an environment free of pollution.

Who could be against that? Well, what if millions of people, 30 years later, continue to not have access to food, clean water, proper healthcare or adequate housing? This incongruence has bred discontent and the collapse of the rainbow nation civil religion. Why would an individual believe in a document that has continuously lied to and failed them for 30 years? The lofty idealism and virtuous proclamations have been perverted and ruined by the very political party that instituted them three decades ago.

Despite this, there remain people who cling to the constitution and machinations of the post-apartheid apparatus, believing that if we all collectively believed hard enough in reconciliation and salvation, these material realities would disappear.

Beyond the new constitution, there were other elements and state actions that mimicked fundamental theological concepts to facilitate soteriology for the population at large and especially the white-minority. A specially designated commission known as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in 1995 to establish restorative justice, compared to the retributive justice employed at Nuremberg. This commission existed as a confessional for the actors on both sides who had carried out heinous crimes. By appearing before the commission and confessing one’s misdeeds, one might get clemency and be absolved of their sins. The confessionals were also recorded and catalogued. Whilst the commission undoubtedly provided some closure to the families of victims, it remains a contentious topic and controversial in its approach. Many feel it did not go far enough in terms of providing true reconciliation. Once again, this state commission mimics religious structures and events like the Roman Catholic confessional. Sinful actors were heavily encouraged to come forward and confess to the masses their actions perpetrated either in maintaining the apartheid regime or opposing it.

The other facet that encompassed the rainbow nation’s civil religion was the state-mandated civil holidays. It would only seem natural that a modern democratic nation-state would have collective holidays of celebration and remembrance for specific events. Once again, these state-mandated holidays mimic religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter. There is Freedom Day, which is celebrated on 27 April each year. Freedom Day commemorates the day of salvation and repentance when the first “democratic” elections were held. After 30 years of one party rule and mass corruption, one tends to wonder just how much freedom was really achieved.

The Rainbow Nation is dead, and the African National Congress has killed it

Another significant holiday in the calendar is Youth Day, celebrated on 16 June each year. Youth Day commemorates the Soweto Uprising in 1976 by protesting students. It is generally seen in the popular consciousness as renewed resistance to apartheid by the young generation, the beginning of the resistance that triumphed in the late 1980s. Alongside these two holidays celebrating instrumental events in the struggle against apartheid, there is also the sacred Mandela Day. Whilst Mandela Day, held annually on 18 July, is not a state-mandated public holiday, it essentially functions as such. It is a day to celebrate the supposed figure of salvation and father of the nation. South Africans are urged to perform 67 minutes of community service, charitable work or volunteering. This number was chosen because Mandela had supposedly fought for social justice for 67 years at the time of the holiday’s inception. For the new generation of South Africa, this quasi-public holiday is imprinted on them from a young age. Most gladly engaged with it, as who could oppose the father of the nation and his day?

What has been discussed so far is not an exhaustive list of the mechanisms, institutions and concepts that the new South Africa employs to maintain the secular religion, but it is an overview of the main examples and concepts that undergird it. The religion of the Rainbow Nation could only exist insofar as it generated optimism, hope and the possibility of a change in material circumstances. This illusory notion of the Rainbow Nation is now dead, and the African National Congress has killed it.

The progenitors and vanguard of the new state have transformed from the nation’s salvation into its damnation. South Africa since 2010 has experienced explosive debt accumulation, soaring unemployment, stagnant gross domestic product, increased crime and ever more frequent energy blackouts. These realities, combined with a lack of hope for the future, have shattered the idea of the rainbow nation. It is markedly easier to maintain the illusion of a hopeful, modern, democratic country when the economy is functioning well and most metrics of development are improving, than when the opposite is happening. A secular state religion that promises prosperity cannot survive when the possibility of materialisation diminishes.

The experiment of the national secular Rainbow Nation has failed. The illusion has finally been shattered, and that is a good thing. Hopefully, within the embers of the dying national religion, a new and more realistic path will be forged.

The hope and excitement for the future, whilst necessary, can become intoxicating. Expecting a revolutionary organisation to govern effectively and competently was a gamble that has not paid off. Rather than the collective psychosis that has enveloped South Africa for the better part of a decade, we can break that cycle and evaluate the situation openly, honestly and realistically. The possibility for redemption is there, but it remains unlikely that South Africans will seize upon it before it is too late.

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