To debate colonial statues or white privilege in South Africa will not help us to transform society, unless it helps us build the much needed coalitions to do so. Frequent racist incidents and the racial rhetoric in public debates show that our coalitions of trust are floundering.
It is not the raw frankness of our debates that cause our fragile togetherness, but rather that these for the most part only describe what we already know. Few offer new directions. We know the socio-economic distances between black and white. We know the rampant (micro-) aggressions of racism many face daily. We know the rage against history, forgiveness and reconciliation. We know our lethargy across divides to speak out or take a stand for justice.
What we don’t know is what black and share – the “we-things” that make possible the solidarities we so often and easily forget when we debate issues of race and history. No, I don’t mean the newly shared things of the opulent boardroom, the leafy suburbs or the campus classroom. Not the similar traumas of crime and violence shared across our land. Nor even the easier similar loves of sport, “braai” or Joe Barber, or even the global youth cultures of Facebook and “born-frees”.
The we-things hidden in our debates are something different altogether – things beyond the face, the skin, the voice or the pocket. Things that show the angry distances between black and white are no more than an expression of how similar we are; similar in our deepest, painful struggles against history and our most sincere, hopeful aspirations for the future.
Traumatic memory, troubled knowledge
While our traumas are different and black and white enter through different sides of our history, we all daily live with the memory and reminders of its traumas. We all struggle to deal with and not repeat our traumas; to heal our memories, and build new ones that speak of freedom. We all have deeply held racial notions of our society that inform our most basic emotional sense of others and ourselves. Notions we picked up since the cradle in a myriad of interactions with people at home, at school, at church and elsewhere. We struggle to notice and name our hidden stereotypes and prejudices and so disrupt what Jonathan Jansen calls our “knowledge in the blood”. We do so in many different ways, but we all must find the courage to revisit our beliefs and build new knowledge of those strangest to us and for our memories of a traumatic people’s narrative.
Mutual vulnerability, fragile togetherness
The ever-increasing complexity of living, loving and working in our society leaves us all with more questions than answers. Established knowledge, institutions and customs transforms rapidly, leaving people with a sense of shifting foundations and confusing definitions. The oppressed and oppressor are not as easily identified anymore. Our moments of togetherness with allies and the “racial other” are fragile. We all must unlearn and relearn codes of interaction, recalibrate our ways of talking and deal with the doubts of how families will respond when I invite “them” home. We risk the label of “traitor” or “coconut” when reaching out for reconciliation rather than rage. We all must consider the cost of togetherness.
Moral outrage, shared complicity
We all are familiar with shame and outrage with incidents of abuse and violence, unethical leadership and constitutional and democratic ignorance. In reply we pray, debate, march and vote. Yes, some of us go overboard and fall into religious or political bigotry, others withdraw behind their fences, but we all share some notion that what you consider good and right and just must prevail in our society. Often we are required to speak out against wrongdoing or to stand up for what is right. Not against the obvious evils of human-rights abuses or violent crime, but in the many little incidents of micro-aggression and compromised ethics between people when someone next to you is jokingly insulted or ignored at the service counter. Our silence and inertia tacitly supports such small injustices, but also makes you complicit in the greater evils of our past and present. We all daily must decide not what is legal, but what is right.
Intimate gaze, hopeful communities
It’s impossible for black and white to avoid interaction and the most hesitant among us must at some point at least across a service counter face the other. We live and move close to one another and must deal with our new proximities. None of us can remain aloof. We gaze at one another not from the controlled intimacies of the past, but the closeness of our daily life. Our closeness helps us to recognise one another’s hopefulness and make it possible to work together. Our families and communities now include also the racial other and make possible new ways of being together and new projects for hope in the face of our traumatic history. We all must daily decide to enter and maintain newfound places in another community and together build hope, rather than despair.
We all share the belief that we can make things better, at least for ourselves if not for others. We know we can make plans to overcome challenges, as we have in the past. This spirit drives poor students to achieve well on campus. It drives activists to disrupt established notions of right and wrong. It drives leaders to lead for reconciliation. While our individual aspirations may differ, we believe we can do better, even in the case of those among us, white and black, who still want to use the “master’s tools” to get what they want.
Identifying what South Africans deeply share is as important as exploring the depths of our differences. It means you’ll approach legacy injustices with strong coalitions and resilient solidarities. It means the content of your argument will change for the better. It means new answers to difficult issues may develop. But, solidarity is slow work if it is to sustain beyond populist displays of togetherness.
Talking about our traumas and the lives we live can establish powerful solidarities among us, even if the simple act of talking to a familiar stranger may be daunting for some. However, in our stories offers only part of the solution when building coalitions of trust – it sets the scene for the more courageous work of “seeing” the worlds behind “talking”.
I’m reminded of ecumenical student initiatives in the early 1990s that arranged for white and black students to visit and sleep over at one another’s home communities. The Masazane-initiative arranged discussions among students from Stellenbosch University and Kayamandi High school – white students from the suburbs shared a shack with friends in the township and black students stayed over with white families in town. Our Stellenbosch Student Church partnered with JL Zwane Memorial Church in Gugulethu and arranged the same for community exchanges between white and black youth.
As a white student, I gained some sense of their lives when black fellow students shared stories as we talked on campus about our lives and histories, but it was only after nights sharing the only bed and living with him and his family in the township that I could begin to understand our very different lives. I needed to enrich my talking with seeing. Similarly, only when he joined me and my family at home could we find that level of shared understanding to establish our coalition and work for change. We could move from our racial distances to an African solidarity.
So invite your black or white friends home and accept the invitation when they do. Share your intimate spaces of family and history by showing yours and seeing theirs. When you find the courage to travel that distance, you’ll discover we’re not as far apart as we assume, find the solidarities for the tough discussions on history, privilege and race, and quite simply, change our world. Only then will you find that as you are, I too, am Africa.