As I wrote last week, I visited communities where people were forcibly removed from their neighbourhoods, where stalwart ANC activists now live in poverty without pension or insurance, where jailhouses were rocked by such systematized racism it makes you feel ill to think it was all real and not that far in the past.
Now, too little conversation appears possible between White, Coloured and Black Africans, for each occupies such a specific connection to this history that it seems almost impossible to walk in another’s skin. ‘What do you think of South Africa?’, one White woman from Johannesburg asked me. ‘The injustice has never been adequately addressed’, I said, ‘its effects seem to over-determine the lives of many blacks, and inequality appears so stark between racial groups’. ‘Yes’, she responded, as if we were having two different conversations, ‘now that Black people are doing so much better, Whites are having a hard time finding work.’ Her answer deflected engagement with so much of what I saw, for racial and economic inequality remain deeply interlocked in vastly structural ways, whatever a minority of individual and neoliberal gains.
Amidst these contradictions, I wondered what it would require for South Africans to end such a conversation understanding each other’s analyses and agreeing on fundamental truths, without belittling or disrespecting the other.
President Obama said as much in his end of term speech this week, that defeat is forgetting our better selves, our dreams for justice, our call to speak to each other in ways that avoid intent to wound. Whatever the blood on his hands in relation to bombings in Pakistan and his failures to reign in Wall Street impunity, whatever the imperfections of his decisions, like Mandela, he will be remembered for the dignity he brought to public deliberation.
We need far more of that here, for there is a vast chasm between what is required, whether from politicians and state officials or columnists who prefer to pelt small-mindedness rather than fill their word space with hope or strategy. Who will dust off injured good will and find the language and action necessary for a public to remember it can collectively create greater good, and know which best steps are next?
Last year was hell for women, men too, but, the numbers mean more than their simplistic comparison, for many more women are at risk specifically within relationships and in their homes, because they are women and in ways specific to women. Cynicism, meannness, backlash and attacks, however phrased as a bully’s style of jokes, fail to remind us weekly of our best selves and what we need to succeed beyond tears and terror.
This generation needs voices that not only educate, but also inspire by providing maps for us to find courage and effectiveness rather than bulldozers that crush spirits for a dollar a word. To do less is to fail to publicise voices defined by purpose and principle as much as distinction, humility and care.
In this time of anger and despair when everything, both large and small, seems to have become insurmountable and unsolvable, whether it is our levels of violence or our grinding economic slow-down, we have to do better than attack in any direction. We have to, instead, quietly do the work that brings in others in creating incremental improvements in every direction.
I left a troubled country that still dreams of its better self and am bringing home with me a reminder that those dealing in debasement cannot move us ahead, cannot give us the language of such dreams. There will be the difficult conversations, ones we still haven’t found language for, ones in which we disagree. Yet, each of us can do less to erode social trust and public truth if we speak and act for accountability and with humanity.
Mandela’s words have thus traveled home with me: “Let us refrain from chauvinistic breast-beating; but let us also not underrate what we have achieved in establishing a stable and progressive democracy where we take freedoms seriously; in building national unity in spite of decades and centuries of apartheid and colonial rule; in creating a culture in which we increasingly respect the dignity of all”.