The death of Nelson Mandela has stirred in all of us some powerful emotions and perhaps in some, a desire to retrace the unsteady first steps of a fledgling democracy, even if some of us were too young to experience them first hand.
I am utterly bereft and I never thought I would be. I’m cynical, and I admire cynicism in others; I don’t believe in idol worship or iconography; I’m not persuaded by propaganda or politicians, even good ones like Obama. I have been moved and had my heart ripped open by the extraordinary events of the past few days, by the man who manifested them, and by the attention our little country received, punching far above our weight in influence and attention. In a rare failure of the head, the heart won.
Patriotism is a hollow thing, harmlessly put to use in sport, and dangerously wielded by exploitative political forces. National identity and pride are more valuable, omnipresent and useful. Until very recently we hadn’t golden thread to What binds us together in this country? What is it to be South African? I’m not ambitious enough to attempt to answer that, but I can think of a few things we can do to get there:
1. South Africa does not belong to you, and it never did. Owning things is a big part of being white: We toil away so that we can own our houses, pay for our children to go to good schools, to buy things that impress other white people. You cannot own a country, and in 1994 nothing was taken away from you that you had any claim to. You need to understand this and show some integrity.
2. You are responsible for apartheid, even if you didn’t support it, or you were born long after it was dismantled. Your history is the same as the plantation owners of America before the abolition. If African-Americans are still dealing with that inheritance more than 150 years later, you would be callous in the extreme to imagine that black South Africans must somehow ‘move on’ a mere 20 years since Democracy.
3. If your guilt keeps you looking inwards instead of out; if you keep building laagers and insist on your culture being under threat from some non-existent foe; and if you keep teaching your children that there was more good than bad before 1990, you are condemning them to irrelevance or exile.
4. If the whole wide world is joined in an opinion that is opposite to the opinion you harbour, you’re just wrong. And if you’re wrong, you can change. If you think they made too much of a fuss over Mandela, or that blacks will never run things as well as whites, or that life in 1983 was better than life is now – you’re objectively wrong. You cannot allow your own romanticized idea of your youth or a more innocent time obscure the truth of a brutal reality that went on for other people under your halcyon sky.
5. Don’t tell people, just because you fear change, that things have gone ‘far enough’ or that you are now the victim of unfair discrimination. You are not. You are still the beneficiary of history, even if you didn’t get the job that one time. When you talk about reverse racism or affirmative action you sound like someone who hasn’t read enough history books.
1. I’m sorry. Nothing I can do can rewrite the disgrace of the past. Please believe me that I’m sorry. Not because you have to, but because I care about history and while I might not have lived through the hopeless, desperate degradations you or your parents did, I have taken the trouble to learn about them. I know you don’t trust the white man, and I know we have lied to you for thousands of years, but I don’t want you to be my friend – I cannot ask that of you, I only want to be your equal. If you won’t accept my apology, we can’t get there.
2. You have been asked to compromise over and over again. It is not fair, but I will ask that you give even more: Taking everything I have will not reverse our roles and give you satisfaction, it will only make you into the same creature that oppressed you. You know how much you hate what racism and apartheid did to your mother, your sister and your own soul. To wish to exact that upon another would mean you have learned nothing.
3. Your chief is not your leader and your leader is not a chief. Just as white people have oppressed and asserted an authority they did not have over Africans, a black man who abuses you from a position of power is as much an oppressor. Freedom is something you have fought for. Nobody can give you freedom – and once that freedom is yours, they can never take it back, no matter who they are.
4. Please understand that white people are very easily scared. They’re skittish and nervous and the ones that are here in South Africa were chased out of Europe by other white people. In the back of their minds, they are waiting for any excuse to run again. They really believe that every black person secretly wants to kill them. Sometimes the dangers they perceive are real (the same dangers you face every day) and sometimes they are irrational and hysterical. Keep telling them everything will be OK. If they feel safe, white people can make a terrific contribution.
5. We need to enhance our self-esteem. Black South Africans have been beaten down and told for generations that they’re second-rate. You can break that cycle. Yours could be the generation to stand proud in the face of overwhelming odds against you. Nobody can do that but you, and you needn’t be lied to or be made to feel inferior again. Don’t let racists and sexists and religious bigots of all kinds try to own you or exact loyalty for anything.
Being black or white is not the most important thing about you. I don’t like the collective nouns or classifications people use to describe me. If you want to describe me, use adjectives like funny, ugly, sarcastic or relaxed. Don’t say I’m white, rich and young. I’m an individual. Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel that’s a healthy attitude. I know black people who behave the way racists think whites should and I know whites who think they’re black. They’re the most interesting people I know. Don’t let us develop a new lexicon for discrimination by calling people chizkops, coconuts or amaqaba.
We have an opportunity to embrace change and take the high road or hide away from each other and turn the fairy tale into a tragedy. I know which I’d prefer… Do you?