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OPINION: Mourning the 'new' South Africa

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore -

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over -

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Harlem_ (A Dream Deferred)_ by the African American poet Langston Hughes is often quoted in different contexts. The words of the poem are bent and reshaped around many instances where we question failing dreams, once full of vigour and promise and now overdue or postponed, when it seems that everything is shifting under our feet. To ask what happens to this dream, as Hughes does, is to question how reality has jaded, sobered or changed our perception of what was once possible, meaningful, or even necessary.

Reviewing Zakes Mda's Ways of Dying (1995), South African-born academic Grant Farred questions how Mda was already mourning the post-apartheid state, so soon after the onset of democracy. Two decades later, it seems we are turning on the same question, and in many ways are mourning the dream of the 'new' South Africa and its 'rainbow nation' metaphor.

Standing in a prison courtyard at Constitution Hill on Freedom Day, I came face-to-face with an aspect of apartheid. Reading the lists of food allocated to each prisoner according to race, and seeing them represented on steel plates, I was simultaneously struck by how far we have come, and how far we have to go - and the ways in which the similarities and differences between experiences have echoed, mutated and ricocheted across time in a strange kind of call-and-response.

The difference, between then and now, is both stark and relative. In a fractured and fragmented society, our experiences are divided by race, class and gender, or the intersections of these, and remain segmented.

In wrestling with what it means to have arrived at democracy, after a history of oppression, we are not unique. Both Sisonke Msimang and Nomalanga Mkhize have pointed out how the perception of South African uniqueness in the problems we deal with, is in itself a violent discourse that is unable to reconcile itself with our reality, or see the global echoes of our struggles, from the streets of Baltimore to the waters of the Mediterranean, or the pavements of Lagos.

As Mkhize argues: "we appeal to our special image of ourselves as a 'rainbow nation' - as though such an image has meaningful popular purchase; as though it can override a history of brutality". In popular culture terms, we are always Beyoncé, and never Michelle. At times it seems like we are stuck in the children's story Chicken Little, caught in a place where the sky is perpetually falling, and falling only for us.

The idea that we are exceptional has underscored the 'rainbow nation' narrative, 'alive with possibility' adverts and 'Simunye: We are One' jingles. As we come to terms with what we have become, we mourn how we are not the hoped-for poster-child of 'living together' that nations battling against themselves can hold up as an absolute image of total liberation, having achieved a 'miraculous' transition.

The deep divisions that remain continuously rear their heads at our dinner tables, in our status updates and online comment sections. This is not to argue that there aren't specificities and particularities about our experience, but to point out that in many instances, we fail to see how other parts of the world are dealing with similar issues.

As a nation, we are trying to make meaningful sense of the present, and to calibrate and calculate how far we have come, precariously balanced against a present that is conflicted, and a future that stretches out in numerous possible directions. As Farred argues, like Mda's characters Toloki and Noria: "The present...for the 'new' nation, functions as a barometer of change". For many, the present, because of the narrative of 'the rainbow nation' and the insistence on the 'new' South Africa, has to be either absolutely or sufficiently different from the past.

It often seems we are at war with history and memory, and its varied interpretations. What some view as an unnecessary obsession with the past that locks us in the 'Tower of History' and makes us incapable of building a new future, others see as a vital consciousness of where we were, that is crucial to imagining and constructing a different future, that does not wrestle with the same questions and inequalities.

Many are trying to make sense of and unpack a nation that has not fully healed, and remains full of contradictions where the past, present and the future are 'complexly bound-up in each other', and at times difficult to distinguish. Understanding the past and building the future are not mutually exclusive, as those who devalue the past's influence argue. Time does not work that neatly. We are able to simultaneously remain conscious of the past, and the way it bleeds into the present, as we attempt to construct a different future.

Beyond the obvious oppressions that remain, it is necessary to look at the textures in-between, revealing the invisible ways the past haunts us, even beneath the surface of our incredible successes. The idea of a 'burgeoning black middle class', unencumbered by poverty and in a shiny new LSM, does not tell the story of a young professional sending money home, struggling to adjust to different institutional cultures, or living paycheck-to-paycheck with no safety net, uncomfortably straddling different social classes. These stories get lost in grand narratives, desperate to rid themselves of the past's shadow, or reveal themselves in facts, figures and graphs. We are faced with challenges that are both new and disturbingly familiar. Outsiders still exist, clothed in the language of freedom, yet unable to fully access it.

To map out the present by being conscious of the past, then, is to try to make sense of what we have become, beyond the ideals of democracy, and the hope of change. It is to attempt to understand a society that is rife with violence and criminality, and plagued by corruption, but where these are only allowed to have a black face in popular discourse - most recently seen in the Jayde Panayiotou murder case, and how these unspoken inequities permeate society. It is to be conscious of the many gains and successes, but be committed to ensuring that these do not just benefit certain people, but are extended to all. It is to attempt to shift rhetoric, and replace it with reality.

The new South Africa was set up against the backdrop of an impossibility - making it absolutely different from the past. The dream was phrased in incredibly difficult terms. This dream, 'absolute difference', has been sustained by a promise, a prayer, a plea and a performance. Promised the rainbow nation, we attempt to perform it, pray for it to be a reality, and desperately cling to it, even when our performance fails, and reality and disunity is revealed, as the dream is yet again deferred. As Msimang writes: "We have lived with choreographed unity for long enough to know that we now prefer acrimonious and robust disharmony… This may not feel good, or even comfortable."

In many ways, it seems that we are mourning the post-apartheid dream already, grieving the death of an idea, a metaphor, and an ideal that always remains elusive and out of our reach. As we try to understand who we are and what we have become, as both a state and a nation, we come to terms with a dream that appears deferred, that requires being refocused and reconsidered in the face of sober daily realities.

We have to reimagine what it means to live and be here, apart from rhetoric and with the knowledge of the realities that we face, and not simply the ideals and ideas we cling to. Like Mda's Toloki and Noria, we are struggling to negotiate our pasts and map our futures, as the immediacy of this moment is our chief concern. Attempting to understand the past and history, in all its present textures, we are not simply locked in looking backwards, but understand that each generation is tasked with safeguarding and extending freedom, as Mandela argued. As we renegotiate the terms and conditions of the dream that can be deferred no longer, we begin to rephrase what the 'new' South Africa looks like, and what it demands of us, as the generation that is tasked with its remains.

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