MYSTICS in The Middle Ages believed that omphaloskepsis would help them attain serenity and enlightenment. The practice of intensely examining (skepsis) a single focal point, such as the navel (omphalos), originated in ancient Greece, but did not have a name until the early 20th century. Today, such introspective navel-gazing is viewed as fruitless and self-indulgent.

The searing debate on race in SA has become a bit like that. A collective bout of omphaloskepsis is being consumed by profitless navel-gazing. SA is exceptional, but so too are all societies, in their own way. That South Africans believe they are unique and superior is an often-heard criticism across the continent. If only they would lift their gaze, other Africans say, their current woes would seem less inimitable.

All societies have fault lines. Race, ethnicity and religion are the most volatile. Language, class and geography can create deep divisions. Some states have managed them successfully, others not. Apartheid was distinct in the way state repression of the majority was systematically formalised in law. It was not unique in the levels of violence deployed across its main divide (black and white) or in its marginalisation of out-groups (non-whites).

The 20th century offers myriad parallels. Nor is SA remotely special in experiencing setbacks and reversals. Fault lines that lay beneath societies can erupt at any time. This is the historical norm, particularly where nation-building processes are in their infancy. Only six countries worldwide have had less time than SA to construct a new national identity and common purpose.

Shortly after I moved to SA, I read the transcript of a speech given by the distinguished educationist Prof Jonathan Jansen, in which he warned that SA was in "a very dangerous state" concerning racial issues. He added that Mandela’s rainbow nation now rested "on the precipice". That was February, 2010. Was Prof Jansen being hyperbolic or prescient? My impressions at the time were quite different. I was a foreigner, exhilarated by the possibilities offered by my new home. Perhaps I couldn’t see the signs that led him, drawing on infinitely deeper knowledge and experience than my own, to issue such grave counsel.

Six years on, race relations feel a lot worse. Yet, SA has not fallen off the cliff. It’s still hanging on that precipice, even if it’s inched closer to the edge. Nation-building can be like that. The character of states is often formed by their most precarious moments. That is not a comfortable thought, but is better than the alternative.

The seal of the US includes the words E pluribus unum  — "Out of many, one". In some ways, all nation-building efforts share that aim. But many tumble catastrophically, notably the US, nearly a century after it was born. About 750,000 Americans died in its civil war. That would be the equivalent of 7.5-million today. Imagine that alternative.

Countries once hailed for their success at nation-building – Sri Lanka, Yugoslavia, Lebanon, to name only a few — would later become bywords for the brutal communal violence societal divisions can generate.

SA’s racial divide is a social and political problem. It has ceased to be a security problem, at least at the macro level. Many pluralistic societies have not reached that stage. Large-scale communal conflict is an ever-present threat. The ferment sparked by Penny Sparrow is disquieting and reassuring. People are talking. No one is dying.

Rwanda has pursued a different path to (re)build its nation in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide. No one is dying. But people are not talking. The state won’t let them. Its president has come under fierce criticism for allegedly using the genocide as a pretext for amassing his personal power. He believes the ethnic slaughter that nearly wiped-out the minority Tutsi population is still too present in society for competitive politics and a free media. Agree or disagree, Rwanda will one day have to reopen the conversation and travel as far as SA.

The transition to democracy is still the country’s greatest export, a feat that ignited minds everywhere to the possibility that no divide was unbridgeable. Now that confidence in the "state of the nation" has plummeted, it’s worth considering how President Jacob Zuma could import wisdom from elsewhere into his speech this evening.

He could start with a mild corrective to one of SA’s founding myths. There is no permanent "solution" to the racial fault line that Sparrow set rumbling again. No elixir, no combination of policies and actions that would resolve its inherent complexities.

Canada has tried to resolve its main divide (linguistic) since before independence 150 years ago. Only 20 years ago, the country came within a hair’s breadth of splitting along that divide. That it remains "unresolved" has not prevented Canada from building a society admired and envied globally. Progress in SA, as elsewhere, rests not on elixirs but modus vivendi — second-best solutions that keep things on track till better solutions can be found.

Another bit of wisdom relates to words. Politicians of all stripes have vied to sound toughest on race. Words like "equality", "tolerance" and "mutual respect" have been devalued. Apparently, only two groups now inhabit this land — "racists" and "nonracists". Their swagger reminds me faintly of former US president George W Bush. In office, Bush pulled no punches in describing the US’s enemies, but later regretted some of the words he chose. They alienated people he sought to win over.

Nonracialism must be nurtured. It cannot be implemented by edict, not least in a society in which history is so painfully present. Education, dialogue and laws all play a vital part. But nonracialism will never become a reality without experience.

The "contact hypothesis" introduced by the Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport in the 1950s bears that out. His theory was that racism and ethnic conflict abate the more people and communities interact and get to know one another as friends, colleagues or neighbours. This is not lily-livered utopianism. It’s been stress-tested in countless studies in the past 60 years.

Allport believed his theory would hold most strongly where different people pursued a common objective, although subsequent research suggests that all experience and contact between groups helps reduce bigotry and correct misperceptions. Only in environments of acute anxiety or fear should we expect the opposite.

SA requires neither dreamers nor demagogues. It needs leaders who promote unity, but understand — from their own and others’ histories — that eruptions along the stubborn racial divide might occur for decades, even generations, leading to political crises.

This is not to say the "Rainbow Nation" is dead. I think Tutu and Mandela always knew it was a destination. And that societies were made in the journey.

Dr McNamee is deputy director of The Brenthurst Foundation and co-editor of On the Fault Line: Managing Tensions and Divisions in Societies.