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The lies we tell ourselves about being ‘on the ground’

During ‘Youth Month’, I was invited as a panellist to the Activate! Exchange hosted in Johannesburg. ‘Being heard’ was a recurring theme in the earlier break-away sessions, so during panel discussions I pointed out that there’s a danger in demanding to be heard ‘out there’ when we ourselves are failing to listen to each other. The point was not only made in reference to those present listening to each other, but also within our respective communities and whatever spaces we occupy. My reasoning on this being that systematic change begins with changing what’s closest to us, moving from the bottom to the top because the creation of an inclusive society is a responsibility that rests with us all and not just government.

Two people not present disagreed with this view, arguing that “on the ground we are listening to each other”.

No doubt it is much simpler to have phrases that identify particular groups of people, but unfortunately phrases such as ‘on the ground’ and ‘the masses’ seem to have somehow led us to believing that our experience of community and life in general are homogenous- by virtue of belonging to those groups. Reality though is that even though so many of us are part of the so-called masses, our experience thereof is very different.

In 2008, I was reminded of this when I walked the streets of a Pretoria township with my lesbian friend. Suddenly, a community in which I thought we ‘listened’ to each other was vicious. It made cruel taunts and threatened things that I had never imagined another human-being would desire for another. It was then that I became aware of how sexuality can make an impact on one’s experience of community. You see ‘on the ground’, lesbian women continue to struggle for acceptance as evidenced by the brutal murders of Eudy Simelane, Nokuthula Radebe, Noxolo Nogwaza, Millicent Gaika and more recently Duduzile Zozo – among others. So clearly lesbian women, who have time and time again not only demanded justice, but acceptance as well are not being listened to ‘on the ground’. And this is not unique to lesbian women, but all women who regularly face various forms of abuse.

What sometimes happens is that when there’s a sense of ‘familiarity’, some women ask whether my children have the same father. It’s always the same, when the question is asked some kind of a tension builds up- followed by sighs of relief when I say yes. Once I was asked this in the presence of two men, who praised me for this because it apparently indicates that I am not a ‘loose woman’. Patronising praise, because was I a man no judgement would be made about me based on how many children I have and with whom. As long as there are people who deem it their responsibility to police women’s uteruses, can we really say that we are “listening to each other”?

Creating a community in which we are all heard, will not be achieved by pretending that we are listening to each other based on our own personal experience of being heard. Instead, what this does is perpetuate the divisive culture of domination in which some people’s experiences (and thus voices) are privileged over others. And saying things like “on the ground we are listening to each other”, suggests an acceptais problematic because it is only through listening to each other that we can truly find the unity needed to address the many problems faced by us – ‘the masses’ – without having to give up the identities that shape who we are as individuals and our experiences of being. These experiences differ, based on our gender, sexuality, age, socio-economic status among other factors.

I write this s someone whose womanhood has seen me go unheard ‘on the ground’. And I also write this as someone who is still more heard than others, by virtue of my sexuality and the perception that I am not a ‘loose’ woman. I could go on and on about the various factors that affect how much of what I have to say is heard, but the point is, that there’s a danger in the shared experience narrative.

Narratives are powerful. This makes it necessary that we realise that narratives such as “on the ground we are listening to each other” perpetuate dominant culture, because based on individual experience some believe that we are all being heard thus shutting out the many voices that aren’t.