Africans acting like foreigners 

(Written for the Daily Dispatch column, 14 April 2014 on print)

MY MOTHER on Sunday night said something to me over the telephone very similar to what I once overheard my grandmother say: “The world is ending!” I was 5-years-old and not ready for the world to end. It simply could not.


Then yesterday I read a similar view on a status update on the social networks. A bright young woman was scolding those saying the country was coming to an end with the removal of Cecil John Rhodes’ statue at the University of Cape Town.

I wondered why she cared enough to respond. I had overheard the same view but was not about to be bothered by those words.

But then my mother said: “When I saw the statue fall (on television), it seemed as though the world had come to an end.”

The evil xenophobic attacks in KwaZulu-Natal asserted that view. 


But if a statue is representative of a specific perspective of a particular era, then its successful removal has surely only served to uncover what has always been. 


Like the KZN naturists who made history on Easter weekend by celebrating what is apparently the first official nudist beach in Africa, our nakedness has been rudely laid bare for the world to see.


Afrikaans commentator Max du Preez has said that the rainbow nation is now more fractured than ever and called it a “mosaic nation”. I disagree. These events have simply uncovered the deep fault lines that were always there. The statues are, in fact, a false covering; beneath them lie uncomfortable issues that need to be addressed about land, poverty and wealth, race and ideology.


The statue conversation has been started by a generation that is demanding the decolonisation of spaces in favour of Afrocentric curricula and spaces. But even before the Rhodes statue had been removed xenophobia had lifted its hellish head in KZN.


Africans attacked other Africans.

What does this say about us as we seek to reclaim our identity? Are we so lost that we cannot recognise our own faces reflected in those we attack?

I was in the crowd when the Rhodes statue was lifted off the ground. I wonder if the shouting that day was like the shouting that sounded when Jericho’s walls fell. 


It was truly the end of one world and the beginning of another. But this new world must be so African that we no longer see other Africans as foreigners who must be burnt. We need to remember who we are – because right now we are the ones behaving like foreigners in Africa.


The world has been coming to an end since I came into the world. I would like to believe that with the born frees, a new world is emerging. But it is one that needs to be nurtured tenderly. 


The road to democracy was as polarised as the statue conversations are. But anger, belittling of others, complacency and racism will only poison our potential.


We need to be creating new spaces that are not painful reminders of the past but a celebration of a shared future. 


That 50 000 young people from across the nation across all lines of politics and race are expected to meet in Newlands Stadium to mark our 21st Freedom Day is surely a sign of hope, evidence of what is to come.


   

       

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Rainbow Lesson in #RhodesMustFall

  

THE University of Cape Town is an appropriate forum for stirring a debate of national importance. And the #RhodesMustFall issue may well be the first important national conversation in which black and white people have successfully engaged in on a relatively equal footing.


The ground at UCT is a lot more even than, for example, that between an employer and the Zulu domestic worker who recently said to me: “You are so lucky that you can hold conversations with white people.”

Her untranslated sentence was: “You are so lucky that you are not afraid of white people.”


This is a domestic worker who brags that her employer is a saint. The employer has gone beyond human kindness to ensure that the employee will not remain a domestic worker forever.


Yet the communication distance that exists between them and between most other South Africans in varying degrees cannot be ignored.


And there are few, if any, truly honest conversations that can take place when the dynamics are thoroughly unequal.


In the case of the Zulu domestic worker the barriers to meaningful engagement are her poor quality of education and her lack of confidence, cultural and language skills.

Racism in this case is fortunately, not an overriding factor.


I am learning that the disconnectedness in our country between black and white people is largely because our lives have been lived in largely separate worlds.

Even communicating using the same language can be frustrating. The intended meaning is often lost as it reaches the deafened ear of a listener, whose ear is trained to only understand his or her world and nothing further.


This listener is ever ready with a seemingly rehearsed response without ever trying to sit on the other side to hear the argument from there.


And in such a case no one is heard. No one understands. In that frustration racism is the default response.

Many black UCT students are likely to have spent their lives in schools and universities that groom them to be eloquent in English and expose them to that worldview. Very few white people have had the opposite kind of education experience.

In this sense the conversation is unequal. 


For me, the conversation has also highlighted a laziness about trying to understand another person’s world or experience. One person dismisses another person’s point of view without a thought because this is quick and easy.


The presumption is that only one worldview is acceptable or correct.

But such kneejerk responses trap people into monotonous mindsets that deprive nations of the wealth and potential offered by their diversity.

And there is no escaping it, we are diverse. We are Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s “rainbow nation”. And a rainbow is a harmonious blend of contradicting colours. In it the colour orange can never insist that violet is wrong, or does not belong.


I am of the view that South Africa has a wealth of perspectives and that our nation must learn to be at ease with these. We can only begin to value these diverse perspectives if we choose to understand them. And if we understand them, we may find that we love the full spectrum of the rainbow, not just the perspective we have been exposed to.


This understanding can only be authentically achieved if we deliberately immerse ourselves in a different world to the one we are accustomed to. 

  

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