The statue of Cecil Rhodes is seen on the facade of Oriel College in Oxford, England. Picture: REUTERS
The statue of Cecil Rhodes is seen on the facade of Oriel College in Oxford, England. Picture: REUTERS

THE group of Wits students wearing T-shirts with the phrase "F*** White People" painted on them were toddlers, if not mere twinkles in Madiba’s eye, in 1994. Yet here they are today, scheduled to appear before the Human Rights Commission for hate speech, while university management has deemed their actions offensive and a plot to "manipulate the current political climate and the debates around race in society to deliberately provoke and offend others".

On the back of the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protests, these new Wits protests have left many asking why this generation of black "born-frees" carries so much anger against white people.

The reaction to protests demonstrates that despite SA's insistence on the "time heals all" narrative, evidence suggests it will take more than waiting to deal with the growing rift between races.

In my previous life, I found myself party to important people’s conversations on the question of a social compact, in forums hosted by local and foreign organisations concerned about the path SA has taken, and private sector leaders asking what role they could play in moving our society past this impasse. These people (mostly men) kept referring to the series of meetings between business and the leaders of the exiled African National Congress, who were persuaded to rethink what the business leaders saw as an "economically shortsighted ideology".

Now they were pondering what needs to be done to repeat such a moment.

But the late 1980s and early 1990s were a different time.

SA was ruled by an illegitimate government elected by a minority that sought supremacy over the majority at the majority’s cultural, social, psychological and economic cost. Apartheid was more than just an "economically shortsighted ideology", something business leaders are still struggling to recognise and articulate.

Second, leaders were far closer to the people than now. An older friend of mine often tells the story of visiting the university campus in Pietermaritzburg on a day when Chris Hani had come to give an update on Codesa proceedings and to assure students that black people were not being sold out. He talks of how, during the Codesa process, leaders felt compelled to consult constantly with their constituencies.

Leaders no longer live close to the people they lead; they no longer feel they have to account to them directly. Yet they meet with each other, trying to negotiate a social compact on the nation’s behalf.

Thirdly, most South Africans were more trusting of their leaders and hoped the change that would come with freedom would extend to far more than the vote. In the early ’90s, black people were angry, but mostly trusting of their leaders, and white people had not had enough time to decide that apartheid was over.

Then we used the first two decades of democracy to apply an economic and technocratic lens to all our solutions, working with a thesis that all our social problems would be solved when standards of living rose for most South Africans.

Those who are driving the conversation about building a social compact may have good intentions, but often show a reluctance to let go of their own powerful positions in this conversation.

They have not recognised that the past two decades have introduced an intergenerational complexity to how this nation moves past any defining moment.

The Wits students may not represent the thoughts of a majority, but we don’t know the frustrations, hopes and dreams of South Africans without leaders who are connected to the people. And without those leaders represented in important conversations about the future, we will keep seeing sparks of frustrations until something catches fire.

Ndlovu is the deputy MD of youth engagement and creative agency Livity Africa.