Post 231.

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”.

Post 230.

I entered this new year far from home and, over just these short days, have been reminded that we have less to overcome than we think and more resources than we realise. It sounds optimistic to say, given our daily and long term troubles, but it is possible to make everyday life better, to end unjust systems, and to be driven by redistribution as much as by reconciliation.

Traveling South Africa, from the Eastern to the Western Cape, the duration, force and severity of apartheid is memorialized across the landscape. In Johannesburg, the apartheid museum encloses everything from dozens of bold resistance posters to yellow and bullet-pocked police vans, feared by old and young alike, for their association with police impunity and state killing.

The images of massacres go back to the 17th century, to Dutch Boer land grabbing and enslavement of Africans indigenous to Southern Africa as well as those brought to the area along with others such as Malays and Indians. There were also merciless torch-earth strategies by the British to establish their own sovereignty over the Boers. The possibilities for European wealth sustained centuries of suffering.

Coming from the Caribbean, I thought I understood colonialism. Living in the Americas, I thought I understood how recent it was that racism, such as in the US, dictated state policy. South Africa presents something else entirely – a social experiment that extended across every aspect of life, from the prison where both Mandela and Gandhi were held to the buses domestic workers could use.

The bus driver’s mother, who lived in the infamous District 6 in Cape Town, lost her home along with 60 000 others across a range of ethnicities, when they were forcibly removed to make way for a ‘Whites Only’ policy for the area. Her home has not yet been returned today. That is only another layer on the dispossession of Black people that occurred, by imposition of Boer law, since 1913, when whole communities were moved, enslaved, forced to work to pay taxes, made homeless and jailed. Africans who were indigenous to this area, known as the Khoi, had to go work on the wine-producing farms, and were paid in wine. They have the highest rates of fetal alcohol syndrome in the world today.

School children did not escape. It almost reads like a chapter in Aldous Huxley’ critical novel, ‘Brave New World’, which documents a world built on engineering inequality and subordination. The novel is absurd and clearly fantastical, but it is also disturbingly like the South African state then for whole groups were given different chances simply because of, sometimes random, labeling of their race.

Free schooling was for Whites. Black children had to pay. The quality of education at ‘Black Only’ universities could not compare to those reserved for Whites. Some children, like Hector Peterson, were killed in the 1976 peaceful protests against the imposition of Afrikaan as the language of schooling. Children were also jailed and disappeared. The cost to individual lives is hard to get one’s head around, and I walk around wondering how Black people manage to not still be angry. Turns out, they are, particularly around issues of land. Racism itself, as manifested in economic inequality, if nothing else, continues to heat a pot about to boil over. This is obvious from seeing shacks, slums and humble housing in townships in comparison to the palatial suburbs.

I saw one poet perform a piece called “I’ve Come to Take You Home’, her tribute to Sarah Baartman, stereotyped as the Hottentot Venus, who was considered to embody the link between apes and humans, and who was put on display for European audiences to gawk at her body. She then told us that her poem was translated and read in the French parliament as part of a campaign to bring Bartmann’s remains back to South Africa. They flew back with her remains, bringing her to be eventually buried in her homeland of the Eastern Cape.

What people survived here is a reminder of why all forms of structural inequality must be struggled against, and that change is always possible. It requires organization and commitment, and deep learning from the past to move ahead.