Now that South Africa again has a government of national unity, it could do with an attitude and policy reset, too.

In a review of Chasing the Sun 2, a docu-series made by SuperSport about the South African rugby team’s 2023 Rugby World Cup triumph, Khanya Mtshali writes about “the legacy of patriotic myth-making” in the sport.

She reflects on the Rainbow Nation optimism that reached its peak with the 1995 Rugby World Cup win, at which Nelson Mandela famously wore Francois Pienaar’s Number Six jersey when he presented the trophy to the winning Springboks. Briefly, a nation was united across lines of colour, creed and class.

She argues, correctly in my view, that this optimism was based on a fiction about racial harmony that has not stood the test of time.

“Chasing the Sun 2 is less about South Africans reviving the mythology of the Rainbow Nation than pursuing what feels like a spectre of it,” Mtshali writes, adding, “For better or for worse, we’re a nation that continues to revive the ghost of Rainbowism whenever we’re faced with the kind of political strife that has been foundational to our national lore.”

In a different context, Terence Corrigan wrote: “Societies under stress are vulnerable to the lure of emotional appeals, and in a country with South Africa’s past and makeup, this risk is heightened.”

In his case, it’s a warning against appeals to racial nationalism. “This has been the tiger the ANC has been riding since the 1990s, using it aggressively as a means of consolidating its own position and rejecting criticism from without, and never more so than when confronting the DA,” he wrote. “In this, it has been eagerly assisted by a heterogenous group of activists, journalists and intellectuals. Race, so this argument goes, is at the heart of South Africa’s politics.”


It is true, of course, that the divisions of the past remain far from being healed, and 30 years on from their liberation from apartheid, a substantial population has seen only limited improvement in their lives and circumstances.

Although the emergence of a substantial black upper- and middle-class means that race is no longer an accurate determinant of disadvantage, it remains true that South Africa is still some way from achieving anything resembling parity of conditions and opportunity between the races.

It is tempting, therefore, to dismiss the Rainbow Nation rhetoric coined by the late archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu and enthusiastically embraced by president Nelson Mandela, as a fiction, as nothing more than patriotic myth-making.

“You are the Rainbow People of God,” Tutu said in 1991.

“Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world,” echoed Mandela in 1996.

The fractures in South Africa’s polity that have been exposed in the decades since, have tarnished this idealistic, and perhaps naïve, image of unity in diversity.

Yet the rise of populism, of racial nationalism, and of division between the races is equally built on myth-making, on rhetoric, and on propaganda – not least that of the ANC itself, which has promulgated over 100 race-based laws since the advent of democracy to keep racial classification alive.

The entire project of the National Democratic Revolution, which has its roots in the Marxist idea of class struggle, is premised on maintaining divisions between the colonists and the colonised.

Race relations

Yet survey after survey has shown that the majority of South Africans of all races do not harbour any special animus or resentment towards other races, and a majority of all races believe the future lies in working together for a non-racial country.

In a survey published in 2023, an Institute of Race Relations (IRR) poll found that about half of South Africans believe race relations have improved since 1994, while only about a third think they have become worse.

Broken down by race, the responses from black people were only two or three percentage points worse than the average, while the 83% of whites who believe race relations have become better and the 45% of coloured people who think the opposite are the outliers.

Similarly, while racism remains a significant challenge in South Africa, only 41.4% of respondents said that they personally experienced any form of racism in the past five years. The response of blacks was almost identical (41%); for coloured and white respondents, it was worse (53% and 50%, respectively); and for respondents of Indian descent, it was markedly better (23%).

It is also not in dispute that the vast majority of South Africans want a growing economy, rising living standards, rapid job creation, better education, better public health care, less crime and corruption, and appointments based on merit rather than race.

Wrong track

According to a survey Afrobarometer conducted in 2022, but published in 2024, a staggering 83% of South Africans think the country is headed in the wrong direction, and pretty much all of that must be laid at the door of deliberate ANC policy and corruption. It has held absolute power for 30 years, after all, and, through cadre deployment, extended its ideological control deeply into all state institutions and the economy at large.

Two thirds of all South Africans polled by the IRR agree that talk of racism and colonialism is a fig leaf used by politicians who are trying to find excuses for their own failures, and that the different races need each other for progress. Black respondents were the only group below this average, but still, 60% of them agreed with both these statements.

When asked to choose between creating employment and land redistribution through expropriation, 82% of respondents chose jobs. Seventy-five percent of respondents said that better education and more jobs would reduce inequality in South Africa.

In terms of policy priorities, respondents overwhelmingly chose job creation, followed by fighting corruption, reducing women and child abuse, fixing load-shedding, curbing illegal immigration, crime, and water/sanitation. Reducing inequality, racism and land reform were at the bottom of the priority list.


Perhaps, instead of rejecting the Rainbow Nation as a myth, we should re-adopt it as an ideal. It may not be reality, but it can be an objective of national unity.

If a society under stress is “vulnerable to the lure of emotional appeals”, as Corrigan wrote, then why should those appeals be negative?

The conditions in South Africa in the 15 years after the dawn of democracy were, after all, improving, and not deteriorating as they have been in the last 15 years.

Granted, the improvement was modest, and many of the seeds of decline were sown early on with nascent corruption, cadre deployment, and the protection of state-owned enterprise monopolies.

But there was also much in democratic South Africa’s early economic policy that produced economic growth, attracted investment, and reduced unemployment.


An important contributor to that early success was the much-maligned Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy, adopted in 1996 to the consternation of the unions and the left.

It formalised a set of policy directions that had been set in motion years earlier. Among these were fiscal discipline to reduce debt and narrow the budget deficit, aggressive anti-inflationary interest-rate policy, trade liberalisation, flexible labour policies, progressively dismantling exchange controls to stimulate capital inflows, and limiting the tax burden.

Its stated objectives were noble: “a competitive fast-growing economy which creates sufficient jobs for all workseekers; a redistribution of income and opportunities in favour of the poor; a society in which sound health, education and other services are available to all; and an environment in which homes are secure and places of work are productive.”

Its political goal was not so much to introduce new policies – since it largely continued the policy stance taken earlier with the Reconstruction and Development Programme – but to reassure investors that they could find a credible and stable policy environment in South Africa.

GEAR recognised that a GDP growth rate of 3% was insufficient to meaningfully reduce unemployment, and instead targeted a growth rate of 6%. This was never quite achieved, though South Africa did end up enjoying several years of 5% growth, interrupted by the global financial crisis and the rise of President Jacob Zuma and the gangster state.

The GEAR policy failed not so much in its economic impact, but in its implementation. It lacked wide support, especially among the formations of the political left.


With the left now muted in the government of national unity (GNU), it is time to revisit the policy objectives of GEAR, many of which are reflected in the manifesto of the Democratic Alliance, the second-largest party in the GNU.

If the last 15 years have demonstrated anything, it’s that an exclusive focus on redistribution does not reduce poverty, inequality or unemployment. Without vigorous economic growth, all other policy interventions will be stillborn.

It is equally true that a great deal of investment, which can kick-start growth, is based on sentiment and expectations, rather than hard reality.

An open, expansionary, growth-oriented and liberal economic policy stance that is friendly to business, trade and investment, together with a renewed sense of non-racial unity among the people of South Africa, may be just the tonic that the country’s moribund economy needs to begin growing again.

At the risk of being accused of naïve sentimentality, I’ll say it: bring back the Rainbow Nation!

[Image: The national flag in the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Photo by arboresce on Flickr, used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.]

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist, columnist and speaker who loves debunking myths and misconceptions, and addresses topics from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.