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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On our Reader Blog, we invite Thought Leader readers to submit one-off contributions to share their opinions on politics, news, sport, business, technology, the arts or any other field of interest. If...

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