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Finding heart beyond heat and ice

By Barbara Nussbaum

South Africa’s high drama over Speargate has touched people deeply. Opinions have been thrown in every direction, from every corner. As we engage further in public debate in the media, we need individually and collectively to identify the many layers that make the complexity of the moment so profound.

We need to ask new questions that help us transform the raw pain and confusion of this moment into opportunities for healing, mutual recognition and nuanced debate. In facing the challenge of this moment, we need to nourish our nation’s soul by sourcing the wisdom of those who have incisive minds and compassionate hearts.

Personally, I sought refuge in the writings of former Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs, whose keynote address “Free Spirits and Ravaged Souls” at the Time of the Writer Festival in March 2011 poses a powerful question for our country. “How do you reconcile expression of a free spirit, on the one hand, with sensitivity to the ravaged soul of people subjected to historical hurt, on the other?” Other questions might include: What are the multiple meanings and impacts of art? How do these vary according to race, class, culture? How do we speak to each other with a more informed understanding of the range of interpretations influenced by wounding, poverty, power, privilege and political manipulation?

Healing is happening because we’re communicating but there have been many lost opportunities for healing this national high drama. In fact, more possibilities emerge for radical transformation when fires of collective outrage boil close to the surface. For now, shallow, cynical and defensive reactions co-exist with deep and complex emotions. But we can make corrective choices at every moment in history. Now is one of those moments when thousands and thousands of corrective choices can be made by each of us, by all of us.

Let us begin a communal healing journey – a transformative path to discover how “light might triumph heat” and how compassion might unfreeze what is frozen. Let us use this moment to all grow into more tolerant, more human versions of ourselves, where we transcend our initial reactions and feel the power, the humanity of the liquid gold that hides beneath our respective unconsciousnesses. We have experienced these healing moments in South Africa. We know how to do this.

During the recent ANC court case, as I watched Judge Claassens’s uncaring response to Advocate Malindi, I remembered the business submissions to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission held in Johannesburg during 1997. On that morning, it was only the Ruperts, founders of the powerful Rembrandt group, who acknowledged that they benefited from apartheid. And the Ruperts apologised, sincerely, with no prompting.

That was a corrective healing moment. It grew out of the goodwill and generosity in the soil tilled by former president Mandela, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and our other founding mothers and fathers. However, there were lost moments for change then and now. That morning, the majority of business leaders denied that they were beneficiaries of apartheid. Sam Shilowa, the then head of Cosatu, lightened a tense atmosphere with a powerful joke: “How great it is to know that we had so many business comrades in the apartheid years!” That day, mostly denial and defensiveness played out. When Dr Alex Boraine of the TRC suggested the benefit of an apology to one business leader, he said sarcastically: “Sure, how many apologies do you need for it to do the trick – three, four or five?” It is that kind of denial and defensiveness which takes away our shared humanity – it wounds those who have already been hurt and freezes the wounded souls of those who could have been more genuinely remorseful. A frozen and skeptical heart is as wounded as an angry one.

We now need to soberly face the cumulative consequences of what too many of us have failed to learn. Some become numb, some are fearful and ignorant and others keep hurts hidden. The beauty in this moment is that we have an opportunity to learn from each other. Paul Mashatile, minister of arts and culture, spoke on Justice Malala’s show on on Sunday May 27. With great dignity, he informed viewers that African men were forced to take down their trousers in order to receive a pass. I feel shame in acknowledging my ignorance. I did not know.

I am an advocate of ubuntu. Although ubuntu has lost its currency in South Africa, we desperately need to recover this understanding of communally lived humanity and find pragmatic ways to apply it to protect our national fabric. Ubuntu is about respecting all the voices. It involves patient listening with flexibility and openness to multiple perspectives. It demands accountability communal reconciliation, respect and dignity for all and social and economic justice.

And it is complicated. While I feel Advocate Malindi’s pain, it is difficult at the same time to witness the ANC manufacture the “currency of racial intolerance”. This tendency is well described in the May 26 Cape Argus editorial. Instead, we need the currency of compassion and healing. How could acknowledging our woundedness, applying compassion and cultural sensitivity, help us all become nationally stronger during this dramatic moment?

Ann Lamont, a Cape Town-based social entrepreneur offers useful insights. To her, “We’re seeing reactions which lack understanding of the multiple perspectives of the other. This isn’t a time for rigidity. There is clearly so much pain. It is a golden opportunity for us to really understand that pain.”

She continues, “Using the constitutional tool of the court (whilst critical) only deals with a legal dimension of what is so clearly a deeper problem. The tool of the court must be used in conjunction with the underlying principles of our Constitution and the creation of a space for understanding our respective wounds.”

A similar perspective is offered in a conversation held with Peter Gabel, a law professor at John F. Kennedy University in northern California. “The artistic expression should be upheld as a matter of law, but with some process to reveal and heal the embedded pain. This would require a public dialogue which would work best if the artist and the ANC lawyer both participate, with perhaps Tutu officiating.”

If South Africa chooses to seize this watershed moment, civic leaders will come forward to host such dialogue. One such leader might be Dr Mamphela Ramphele and her Citizens Movement for Social Change, a new organisation whose mission is to generate dialogue about the wounds of the past. Well facilitated civic dialogue is one of the only antidotes to the national division we risk. By using protests and the perceived expedience of ANC rhetoric to magnify racial intolerance to manufacture political capital, we stay divided. We need to radically remedy that division by coming together – slowly, safely, and thoroughly – one conversation at a time, owning our ambiguities, our resistances and working through the complex layers of our narrative. At this juncture, I feel an ironic kind of hope. The intense conflict we are having also brings a certain level of intimacy into our engagements. I thought Ferial Haffajee’s open letter to Zuma’s daughter was a moving example of such intimacy.

When people fight as much as we do in South Africa, it assumes there must be a certain level of trust among us that enables us to choose to continue to talk in the first place. Through our post-apartheid heritage, we have developed some capacity to take on painful issues and talk about them. This dynamic does not easily happen in other parts of the world.

While we clearly do not go far enough and we have a great deal to learn, we continually engage with each other through many informal means, mostly through the media. We now need to structure this engagement more honestly, more sensitively by hosting more dialogues, in large forums and in small groups.

The heart of our democracy will not heal, unless we heal each other. Courts will not get us there, conversations will. Boycotts and protests will not restore our collective dignity, conscious compassionate listening and dialogue will. We need to find a politics worthy of our humanity and learn to navigate more complex waters. Our only hope is to deepen our knowledge of each other, heal all of our wounds and find the heart that melts what is frozen, and the heart that lies beyond the heat.

Barbara Nussbaum co-authored Personal Growth African Style with Sudhanshu Palsule and Velaphi Mkhize (Penguin 2010).

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    • Ngelengele

      Critical analysis and I believe we can do better as a country. Our differences has created a space for these painting to expose our self hate and hate for others. We rejoice in the face of humiliation of one among us and proclaim victory when our very own means of expression is distroyed. We have become a nation of us and them, a nation divided along several lines (race, class and gender).

      This country has achieved a lot through dialoge and it can still win through it.

    • Dr Merle Friedman

      It is inspiring, at a time like this, where swords are drawn and the vitriol flowing, to read thoughts of this calibre. If we could all rise beyond the obvious detail, as Barbara does,
      and take hold of this opportunity, we could raise South Africa to another level.

      Well done for such a thought provoking and insightful response Barbara. I can certainly learn from you!

    • bernpm

      For serious healing you need to willing partners to go into a serious conversation with good will from both sides.

      Blaming the past for the future as a starting point for this healing process does not make a good start. The leaders of the people to be healed have not been leading them into the right mode.
      The latest statement of the latest police minister is blaming the “inheritance of apartheid” for the current woes and ills of the current police force. With one after the other police boss either in jail, suspended or otherwise out of order, who can take this man seriously.

      With busses of (unemployed???) people brought to a histerical protest march against an already resolved issue does not make for a healing process. It simply ridiculed the trumped up feelings of indignity. This shortly after mr Zuma was shown on TV in his cultural outfit celebrating his latest marriage and -seemingly well oiled- falling backwards exposing same.

      It does make it difficult to believe in this healing process while many people, kids and adults, in their own environment are seemingly getting on all right with their immediate country men. This Zuma story might have brought more blacks and whites together in disgust over the stupid way it has been handled.

    • http://none saskia van oosterhout

      Your article stands out for its spirit of forgiveness and ensueing healing and I enjoyed yr references to several very important recent processes, specifically the Citizens Movement for Social Change, and Ferial Haffajee’s open letter.

      I greatly enjoyed yr focus on the need for sensitivity about our attitudes to our fellow south african citizens, and perhaps the lack of knowledge about each others culture. My internal response was one of outrage at the white sense of entitlement about exposing something that is taboo in black culture. Yes, in SA there a great sense of hurt associated with exposed genitals, but my experience in other african countries has made me aware that exposing genitals, female or male, is absolutely taboo, even the words used in speaking about them, are taboo. How is it that an artist can be that insensitive to and ignorant about his fellow citizen’s culture?

      Imagine a black artist satirizing the continued enjoyment of ‘the good life’ by SA whites through an artwork showing the killing of the first white farmers at a police station in Zimbabwe when they went to report invasions by ‘so called’ war vets? Whites would feel very threatened, as they did when Malema and his youths were singing Kill the Boer, which was eventually banned through ANC intervention.

      So like you, I wish this to be a turning point for SA: a place where we can once again embrace each other in dialogue, and with sensitivity to the other, find the solace of our common…

    • Sandra Morreira

      Thought-provoking and meaningful article. If only we could move towards this kind of conversation and healing…..

    • Manuela

      Thank you Barbara for this well thought through and warm article. I have been waiting to read something about the Spear affair that is coming from a positive, considerate standpoint and not just deepening prejudice and racism.

    • MLH

      I think you are being too simplistic. It is no longer TRC material and no longer a supposed racial contest. With the court saying that it is not the business of the ANC, JZ’s extended family, but only JZ’s, my mother would have told him: ‘It’s not all about you’.

      And it isn’t. South Africans of all colours reacted to that painting and many black people agree that Haffajee and the gallery should not have climbed down. I’m not about to apologise for something that wasn’t my argument in the first place, but I am part of the fallout and I would have hurt none on the periphery intentionally.

      However, the more people cave to JZ’s ego, the more automatically reject those who suffer most from his government’s heartless neglect.

      I do believe we need to take a stand on this. I can sympathise because JZ was not taught at his mother’s knee how to behave; before and after the picture came to his attention; I can also empathise with every person who felt his own extras were on public display in the gallery, but what this is really all about is the stealing, the unemployed, the uneducated and those lacking reasonable housing, healthcare, transport, etc.


    • MLH

      I’m afraid that, in all conscience, I must empathise far more with them in this matter. Particulalry since it is now very clear that many black citizens have not automatically taken JZ’s side. In more ways than one, this is no longer about race and perhaps the ANC and JZ need to understand that too, as they clearly have not yet done.

    • M.M

      MLH my friend,I`m afraid you`ve missed the jist of Barbara`s article altogether.

    • Innocent Nkata

      Thanks for the fresh perspective Barbara. I am particularly steicken by how much South Africa now run to the courts at every instance – a nation having dialogue with itself through the courts. While this is not a bad thing in itself – because One of the purposes of the law is dispute resolution – I just don’t think the western influenced legal framework is the right framework. Rather I think this is very ripe ground for alternative dispute resolution methods within the African Indegenous law framework to stamp its mark.

      The western legal framework puts an emphasis on finding past wrongs and apportioning blame, driven by an impersonal search for who is right and who is wrong, and it engenders an adversarial culture of win/lose. By contrast, we should be searching for a framework which looks to the future, paves the way for one to say to the other I am sincerely sorry and engenders a culture of win/win. Perhaps it’s a good thing that the ANC protest has made the court case a moot point as it emphasizes the limitations of the legal framework in facilitating national dialogue.

      In a related matter, it is also interesting that this is happening at the same time as the debate on the Traditional Courts Bill. The reason why this bill is so retrogressive is exactly because it is proposing to give traditional courts a predominantly punitive role when traditionally these courts are more oriented towards reconciling people and maintaining future relationships.

    • http://www, Barbara Nussbaum

      Innocent, thanks for your comments. I agree with you that there are limitations to the “western legal framework puts an emphasis on finding past wrongs and apportioning blame, driven by an impersonal search for who is right and who is wrong, and it engenders an adversarial culture of win/lose.” And I agree with you that “we should be searching for a framework which looks to the future, paves the way for one to say to the other I am sincerely sorry and engenders a culture of win/win.”

      I think in this instance, that neither court nor the protest give us the appropriate vehicles to deal with the conversations that need to happen. The best way to include all the voices is through well facilitated dialogue – in civil society. There could be so many forums – I just mentioned the Citizens Movement for Social Change.

      There are some progressive thinkers in the west, who are searching for an alternative pathway to law and legal culture. One of my favourite authors on this is Dr Peter Gabel. You may enjoy his article, “Imagine Law”

    • Maverick

      I suggest readers google the intergenerational transfer of trauma. If we don’t deal with our current trauma our children and their children will have to carry the burden. The unresolved and denied trauma of Afrikaners after the Anglo-Boer War lead to 40 odd years of Apartheid. What will the unresolved trauma of Aparthied lead to – if we don’t acknowlege, confront and deal with it ?

    • Barbara Nussbaum

      Dear Maverick – I absolutely agree with your comment. We have not adequately dealt with the intergenerational transfer of trauma. My concern at the moment is that unless civil society steps forward proactively, we will lose the healing opportunity offered by Speargate . Already, while some writers are speaking about compassion, others make jokes and other commentators skilfully speak to the way that the ANC is milking the situation to gain political capital. While some hearts soften, others re-harden and because the issue is complex, it is too simple and too easy to use the argument of political manipulation to justify returning to a hardened cynical heart. The issues need to be divorced. Just because there has been political manipulation, does not mean, as you correctly say, that we can avoid dealing with unresolved trauma. We are all wounded. It would be a shame to not heal and resolve our respective wounds.

      Business leaders can play an important role here. In the 90’s there were lots of bosperaade and other transformation efforts that went beyond numbers, and dialogue was facilitated. Some of this happens today, but not to the extent that it should. Corporate culture is still largely Euroecentric and not including enough of the values that other cultures bring.