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The phrase was elaborated upon by President Nelson Mandela in his first month of office, when he proclaimed: "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."
The term was intended to encapsulate the unity of multi-culturalism and the coming-together of people of many different nations, in a country once identified with the strict division of white and black.
In a series of televised appearances, Tutu spoke of the "Rainbow People of God". As a cleric, this metaphor drew upon the Old Testament story of Noah's Flood, and its ensuing rainbow of peace. Within South African indigenous cultures, the rainbow is associated with hope and a bright future (as in Xhosa culture).
The secondary metaphor the rainbow allows is more political. Unlike the primary metaphor, the room for different cultural interpretations of the colour spectrum is slight. Whether the rainbow has Newton's seven colours, or five of the Nguni (i.e., Xhosa and Zulu) cosmology, the colours are not taken literally to represent particular cultural groups.
South African political commentators have been known to speculate on "rainbowism", whereby true domestic issues such as the legacy of racism, crime, and the like are glossed over and "sugar-coated" by the cover of rainbow peace. South African politician, academic, and noted poet Jeremy Cronin cautions:
|“||Identity formation as well as the myth of the "rainbow nation" and its performative intention have served to discursively create a national identity that has been top-down in its constitution and implementation. As a result, true reconciliation has been foregone in place of a simplified and somewhat candy-coated myth of peace that has served to reconcile those on the inside whilst pitting them against those on the outside.
Allowing ourselves to sink into a smug rainbowism will prove to be a terrible betrayal of the possibilities for real transformation, real reconciliation, and real national unity that are still at play in our contemporary South African reality.
- cited in Manzo 1996, p. 71
- Ngoasheng, Asanda. "South Africa's 'Rainbow Nation' is a myth that students need to unlearn". The Conversation. Retrieved 2017-09-18.
- "The Rainbow Nation - Dreams to Reality". Dreams to Reality. Retrieved 2017-09-18.
- Creating the Nation: The Rise of Violent Xenophobia in the New South Africa Unpublished Masters Thesis, York University, July 2003, Nahla Valji, Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.