Sunday, April 4, 2010

South Africa and Racial Tension circa 4 April 2010

Yesterday, Eugene Terreblanche was murdered. For those not in the know: he was a reasonably minor, if extreme, political figure, head of the AWB – a political party in South Africa centred on the interests of the Afrikaner populace of our country.

In recent months, a young firebrand political up-and-comer, Julius Malema (who has been billed as a future president by the present incumbent), has been stirring up racial tensions. Most notably, he recently was taken to court for, and was banned from singing an anti-Apartheid struggle song including the line (translated into English): “Shoot the boer, he is a racist”. The ANC later clarified this statement by pointing out that “the boer” in this refers to the apartheid system, but the damage had been done.

Of course, with the murder of Mr. Terreblanche, the iconic boer (Afrikaans farmer), this song has gone from mildly offensive racial slur to something much, much more sinister and morbid.

What We Should Do Instead

Go up to someone of another race, shake them warmly by the hand, smile and offer a greeting. And then go on and have a day marked by not saying anything bad about people of other races.

This evening, at a post-church coffee bar excursion, I conceived of, and proposed the idea of a racial unity march.

South Africa has a long history of mass-activism and marches to fight racial injustice. I feel that a march resonates with the struggle, and says, quite well, “we’re on a razor’s edge, and unless all of us – not just some of us – do something, we’ll end up in a worse position than we were in with Apartheid”.

The truth is that people in this country are still bitter about matters of race. There are people on both sides of the fence that wished that 1994 hadn’t been peaceful – that the whites and blacks of this country (and presumably the indians, coloureds and asians) had escalated tensions to the point of violence.

There’s another truth though: we know that other people are still bitter. We’re aware that it’s justified, or that there’s at least an explanation for it – old grudges, old mind-sets, stuff that you can’t get rid of easily. And because we know this, we can come together, acknowledge that while it may make us uncomfortable, the person standing next to us, whatever their skin colour, ethnicity or culture, is a person, deserving safety, dignity and equal rights.

So I think a march is what we need. To see people from all ethnicities and cultures mixing and standing (well,marching actually) together, saying that we will not give in to racial division, that we may not like, appreciate or even understand each other’s cultures, but we’re learning, we’re getting better, and the spectre of the recent past is large and looming, and we’re devoted to making sure it never happens again. That the mistakes of the past stay there, and that we can move forward.

My Exhortation to South Africa

You know, there’s a lot of pressure to perform as a country. We’re apparently the world’s (or at least Africa’s) best example of racial integration – and we’re not doing brilliantly. We’ve inherited an amazing legacy from Nelson Mandela. The standard has been set, but no-one is expecting us to live up to it: the man is practically a living saint.

But it feels like we’ve largely given up on reconciliation in favour of patriotism to whichever group we most strongly align to. We hold political figureheads up as either terrible examples of human beings (which isn’t fair: no-one is perfect, and politicians are often preyed upon by the media for no good reason – though on occasion this might be relevant and important, but at present the media is providing a soap opera of political intrigue and scandal that just feels tacky), or saints whose every misstep must be justified and defended.

South Africa: we’ve come so far in some ways, but we still have a long way to go in others. Let’s get ready for another push – we’ve met another challenge, it’s time to make a name for the kind of nation we want to be.

I believe in the people of this country. I believe that, with a vision of the kind of unity we want to have, we can do it. I don’t believe it will be cheap, and I don’t believe it will be quick. I don’t think that learning how to say “Hello” in another of our 11 national languages is enough, and I don’t think that merely accepting another person’s difference without understanding it is acceptable.

But I do believe the unity is possible. I believe that the biggest challenge that stands between us and that unity is a belief that we can achieve it. That if we believe, with all our hearts, that we can be the melting pot that every other multi-racial claims to be, then we can truly set the world standard for multi-racial, multi-cultural unity, and this country will have finally become the vision that the heroes of the struggle fought and bled for.

Cheap tricks will not do this. Billboards and TV ads will not do it. BEE, Affirmative Action, no one act of parliament or business will magically make this nation forget past or present injustices, or prevent future ones.

What we need is continual, uncomfortable dedication to meeting one another in dialogue, knowing that there will be differences in values and purpose, but doing so anyway, in order to continuously and slowly dissolve the tensions and keep them away, while maturing and advancing as a country.

Last Words

I have no witty ending, no quotable parting shot, only a desperate desire to no longer feel an alien standing next to a man of another race, to understand and value them as I do a member of my own. And that desire is not only mine: hundreds of thousands, millions across this country feel the same, and are prepared to pay some price: I beg you, for the sake of brotherhood, for the sake of peace, pay the price you can. And when you have reached the limits of the price you are prepared to pay, look again to the vision of a united South Africa, and draw from there the excitement and desire that will help you to continue on, until we’ve reached a point where race and culture are accepted and respected equally and universally in our country.

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