As South Africa celebrates 20 years since the end of apartheid, a generation has grown up that not only doesn’t remember the horrors of apartheid, but also lacks even the faintest connection to the first black president, Nelson Mandela.
Even more troubling, it’s become a point of pride to show off white ethnic relations as the nation thrives while South Africa’s black majority languishes. But to this growing generation of South Africans, there is a world of difference between the civil rights leader who died 20 years ago and the leader of today.
That black South Africans are unemployed, underemployed or are just dropping out of the labour force is no coincidence. The pattern in the developed world is similar. What’s different is that the white side has changed too.
Older South Africans are largely more tolerant of the new realities, but are becoming even more driven by nostalgia. The new mood has been reflected in the recent popularity of prominent white business leaders such as Richard Branson. Rather than replace the old guard, they can be the insiders they have always believed themselves to be.
Branson declared that the “bond between the whole black population and the white community is stronger than ever,” while also saying that the “only way forward is to establish trust and respect and work together for our country’s future success.”
It is astonishing that there is a South African who feels free to say this. It is a throwback to the era when a generation of white Afrikaners considered Mandela their black President, while white men believe their own standing – and that of their entire families – is solely due to Mandela’s sins and virtues.
The country’s poor and black majority felt that their only opportunity for redress and for reward was for Mandela to die, and the appointment of a white man instead as his successor was not an option. Despite the constitutional struggle leading to the end of apartheid, whites continued to see themselves as the majority. It took more than one generation to kick this frame of mind out of white South Africa. Achieving the same with the black population is a battle that will last decades.
There are others who hold a similar attitude, especially younger South Africans who seem to see reconciliation as a matter of history. Instead of economic transformation, they focus on a mirror on the new order: white man rules over black woman and black man, which they see as the true romance of South Africa.
An encouraging sign is that many, particularly young blacks, are shifting from unconscious privilege to conscious empowerment. There is also a growing realisation that there is little else South Africa can do besides hope for the best.
For many older South Africans, reconciliation and law and order are the true joys of liberation, because these subjects have been at the heart of all of their careers. They expect the new leadership to engage in these exclusive turf wars, making room for the elite to spend their time on more creative matters, while the politics of the underclass become the concern of the junior classes.
For some of them, the bitter truth of the process is that it never happened, that the reconciliation that mattered never took place. De Klerk did not gain the genuine reconciliation many had hoped for.
Unfortunately, many South Africans – whether they are black or white – agree with De Klerk’s assessment of the legacy of those years. They were fundamentally bad times and should not be equated with one another.
This post was originally published in The New York Times.