A glimmer of hope

October 16, 2013 § 11 Comments

If you live in South Africa, and rather like the idea of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s rainbow nation – as I unashamedly and possibly idealistically do – then the last week or so will have left you feeling like a limp, wrung-out rag.

On the one hand we had the members of “Red October” who marched in their hundreds to protest what they call the “white genocide” that’s happening in South Africa. (For a debunking of that myth, read Nechama Brodie’s excellent article here.) The racist slanging matches that erupted on Twitter and elsewhere online were something to behold. I’ve never been more ashamed of being white, frankly.

And then, at the launch of EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters), a new political party, some supporters were seen toting banners that said “Honeymoon is over for whites” and “To be a revolutionary you have to be inspired by hatred and bloodshed”. To their credit, the party apologised; you can read the full report here. Sadly, however, at least on my Twitter feed, there seemed to be a lot less outcry about the racism exhibited by those EFF supporters than there was about the Red October brigade.

Whether we like it or not, race is going to be an issue in South Africa for a long, long time, and understandably so. For all the policies and laws that are in place, black people continue to bear the brunt of too many years of institutionalised, sanctioned racism, and white people continue to benefit from it, no question. We’re going to have to work very hard to change all of that, and having public, racist slanging matches is certainly not the way.

Frankly, white people need to check their privilege at the door, and stop telling black people to let go of apartheid. That would be an excellent start. Because unless you were a black person growing up under apartheid you have no clue about what the long-reaching effects of that experience are. And I won’t presume to speak on behalf of black people, but I do think that everyone in this country, black and white, also needs to disabuse themselves of the notion that racism can only be perpetrated by white people.

What we need, instead, is to learn to discuss race-related issues with maturity and sensitivity and kindness, with a view to understanding others and nurturing tolerance and inclusiveness, because these issues are not going away. How can they when they still, if you’ll pardon the expression, colour so much of what happens in South Africa? Until we can find a way to engage meaningfully around the long-reaching legacy of the abomination that was apartheid without attacking each other, we won’t attain the elusive liberty, equality and humanity we so desperately need in our country.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. There are small signs that things are changing, and in the meantime I choose to focus on those little glimmers of hope. Like the cleaner I saw in an upmarket shopping mall yesterday – who was white. In South Africa, that is almost unheard of. And my first thought upon seeing that was honestly: “At last!”

And then, last night, attending my daughter’s choir concert, I noted with relief how in many of the choirs (all of which were from private schools, in many ways one of the bastions of white privilege) the demographic had changed. Yes, one or two were predominantly white, but the at least four of the seven choirs there featured a veritable rainbow nation of children, with just a few white faces peeking through. That honestly gave me hope.

And when I heard those 480 children and their parents sing the national anthem into conductor Richard Cock’s cell phone so that a frail Professor Mzilikazi Khumalo*  could hear it, I couldn’t stop the flow of tears. That moment washed away a lot of the ugliness I’d witnessed online, and left me hoping again that with some effort, some kindness and the will to really listen to our fellow South Africans, we can overcome the blight of racism and its legacy in our country. It’s just going to take some work.

* Note: Professor Khumalo headed up the committee that put together the national anthem for post-apartheid South Africa.

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