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OPINION: Jansen’s post-racial utopia laid bare

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Pumla Gqola's book _ What is Slavery to Me?_ opens with a meditation on the euphoric post-1994 moment. "The new dispensation", she writes "came to symbolise the promise of freedom and multiple beginnings, individually and collectively, 27th April 1994 was an invitation to envision ourselves differently than we had up until that point."

The 27th of April 1994, the day South Africans took to the ballot boxes, then represented an opportunity for redefinition, a chance to imagine how the new post-apartheid order would recalibrate the terms and conditions of citizenship, of being and belonging. As I have previously written: "the initial post-apartheid moment served a symbolic function, symbolising the end of an era of oppression and the beginning of a new nation that had yet to take shape. The inauguration of the post-apartheid era was an invitation to disrupt the current order by both imagining and inventing a different way of going about the politics of race. However, the state instead, grounded their philosophy in a politics of impossibility."

That impossible politics, which some might argue was necessary to quell the threat of civil war and accompanying violence in the fraught early 1990s, continues to haunt the present. That violence, instead, is revealing itself in many spaces, and as some would argue, it has always been here - coated in the veneer of a rainbow nation dream that can no longer exist beyond being a vocabulary that has ceased to be relevant.

That newness, the invitation to difference that Gqola writes about, was a hope and a promise. The reality is far-removed from this dream - perhaps, because of this dream.

The events that unfolded at the University of the Free State (UFS) and continue on other campuses across the country are startling, even as they are unsurprising. Little is truly new.

The Daily Vox reports that violence erupted at a rugby match at UFS on Monday night, when a group of protesters interrupted the match, aiming to 'draw attention to the plight of outsourced cleaners'. This violence, they report, continued into the night at different sites on the campus. First-person accounts told of Die Stem being sung by a group of white students, who threw rocks at another largely black group - and of police firing stun grenades and rubber bullets erupting all aimed solely in the direction of the latter. While earlier this week, in Grahamstown, a student recently told of police intimidation and harassment.

These events are familiar - even as they are painful reminders of all that this country was. Of all that it is. This moment is not a departure. It is a recognition.

The image of Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar at the final of the 1995 Rugby World Cup is so often held up as a symbol of post-apartheid unity. It is almost uncanny, then, that events at a rugby match would point to the discontinuities that remain.

University of the Free State vice-chancellor Jonathan Jansen's mythic post- Reitz Four racial utopia and the rhetoric that he remains so attached to, has cracked open, revealing a space just as fractured, splintered and polarised as every other. Racist utterances on social media, the events on our campuses and daily violence surface the seething underbelly of a country where the non-racial centre cannot hold. Where it has never truly held.

Writing on CLR James' legacy, cultural scholar Stuart Hall notes that "honour is accorded by taking…ideas seriously and debating them, extending them, quarrelling with them, and making them live again". The same could be said of thinking through this moment in history. Public intellectuals, thinkers and writers are attempting to do this, to take this moment seriously, but as Songezo Zibi recently commented, this moment "exposes the uncomfortable absence of political leaders", as "society unable to navigate itself out of its own history". Students, too, are finding that their intellectual leaders are absent - in many ways. Zibi further states: "That navigation requires a clear path on which the physical infrastructure, economic power patterns and their intellectual foundations are geared towards social justice".

This moment has to be taken seriously, in all its difficulty, discomfort and messiness. Our previous discourse and that hoped for reimagining will not suffice - even as parts of it must remain, restructured around a newly imagined future. Because, as recent events show us, this is what it means to be here.

Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler

Images courtesy of Tarryn Hatchett.

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