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‘The Black and White Rainbow’ reveals how hard it is to build a ‘rainbow’ nation

Unity in diversity was one of the hopes of post-apartheid South Africa.

Carolyn Holmes begins her remarkable new book on race, citizenship and memory in South Africa with an anecdote. Visiting the Ncome River, the site of an 1838 battle between white Afrikaner settlers and Black fighters in the Zulu empire, Holmes describes two museums. The first is dedicated to the Afrikaner interpretation of the battle, a story of military victory by a group of pioneers determined to take the land they believed to be rightfully theirs. The other museum, on the other side of the river, focuses on the Zulu warriors who fought and ultimately lost there.

A bridge spans the river between the two museums, symbolizing the hope of post-apartheid South Africa, where racial differences and even the idea of what should be remembered and how can be overcome by connecting people of different backgrounds. Then, Holmes drops a bombshell: the so-called reconciliation bridge is impassable. Gates, locks, and razor wire make it virtually impossible for anyone to cross.

In “The Black and White Rainbow: Reconciliation, Opposition, and Nation-Building in Democratic South Africa,” Holmes brilliantly uses this metaphor to show that building the post-apartheid state in South Africa is far more complicated than it may have seemed to those who optimistically built the bridge in the years just after apartheid’s 1994 end. She shows that far from being the “rainbow nation” Nelson Mandela and other post-apartheid leaders hoped for and promoted the idea of, South Africa continues to struggle with two challenging, often-contradictory projects: nation-building and democracy-building.

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It is perhaps not surprising that creating a nation in which everyone feels they belong and sees themselves as part of the same political unit is particularly challenging in a country with a history as fraught as that of South Africa. How will individuals come to identify as “South Africans” when for more than a century they were identified by race and ethnicity (i.e., as Zulus, Afrikaaners, Xhosa or Britons)?

Moreover, how is doing so possible when huge inequalities still exist between the opportunities, educations, jobs and land open to Whites and Blacks? And how can this occur when strong differences of beliefs about what actually happened under apartheid, historical mythologies and ethnic resentment among some persists?

Newly liberated South Africa’s leaders were deeply aware of these challenges and tried to address them through two, globally lauded efforts. The first was the creation of the “rainbow nation” ideology, the idea that South Africa was made up of many different groups of people, all of whom belonged. Expressed everywhere from South Africa’s adoption of 11 official languages to the biblical narrative of a rainbow after a devastating flood, the “rainbow nation” is supposed to symbolize, as Holmes notes, “unity in diversity.”

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Second was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which served as a truth-telling and accountability mechanism to address human rights violations committed under the apartheid regime. The TRC was both practical and symbolic. It handled cases that would have taken years if not decades to wind their way through the criminal justice system. It was also supposed to form the basis for the new South Africa, building opportunities for forgiveness and reconciliation.

As Holmes shows, however, many ordinary South Africans are far more skeptical about these symbols than international discourse might suggest. She shows that citizens — both Black and White — are often skeptical about the extent to which the rainbow nation and TRC actually made a difference. Moreover, the idea of “unity in diversity” and rewriting history to be more honest is in some ways self-contradictory. “[H]ow can the contentious past be both remembered and forgotten in the building of a national community?” she writes.

Efforts to build a consolidated South African democracy have been equally challenging. Although South Africa has had a string of completely free and fair elections since apartheid ended in 1994, the ways that people participate in elections and other democratic activity are still heavily determined by race and ethnic identity. Voters are reminded of race every time they approach the ballot box, and tend to choose parties and candidates who share their identity. Political parties, meanwhile, have powerful incentives to promote identity as a basis for political affiliation. Thus, democracy comes to depend on seeing oneself as different from the other side.

Holmes convincingly shows that this tendency is disastrous for young and low-income South African voters, who are increasingly alienated from political processes and do not see voting as a meaningful way to change their circumstances. Moreover, identity-based political alignment creates enormous challenges for building a unified, national identity. How can diversity exist as unity when it is also the basis of political division?

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The Black and White Rainbow” explores these themes, as well as gender, land rights, performative identities and language, to build a comprehensive case for her central argument: that citizens of a unified nation, sharing a unified political identity, must agree to uphold democratic values in order for their democracy to succeed. But there is a paradox at the heart of these challenges, she notes: “nations ask people to forget their differences, and democracies incentivize remembering them.”

Holmes’ book is impressive. She learned both the isiZulu and Afrikaans languages in order to be able to conduct interviews with more than 100 South African subjects. Her findings are convincing, showing the ways that contested memories and nation-building projects deeply complicate the process of democratic consolidation.

In a book filled with both theoretical and practical contributions, Holmes shows that building bridges — whether literal, symbolic or institutional — is not enough. Her takeaways are that policymakers must consider what their goals actually are and how best to achieve them. They must also accept that, contrary to much of the conventional wisdom about nation-building, the passage of time may actually make things worse, not better. For all of these reasons, “The Black and White Rainbow” deserves to be a classic in the field.

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