“The best minds are not in government. If any were, business would hire them away”, these words are attributed to Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States. It’s said that as part of Reaganomics, economic policies attributed to him, he ensured that he surrounded himself with the best minds available to ensure the success of his policies. The man was brilliant enough to realize that his career in the movie industry had not done enough to prepare him for the highest office in American public life.
He realized that you need to surround yourself with men and women who have the courage to tell you things you don’t want to hear but must hear. I believe we all need to surround ourselves with such people if we are to fulfill our purpose in life. A person, or people who will tell you the truth when you need to hear it, period.
Who tells you what you don’t want to hear but should hear? There are things that we encounter in life that put us in positions that we either have to share uncomfortable truths or even painful news with a friend, colleague or family but we know the recipient of the news will be shocked by the truth . This applies to all spheres of life, not just in leadership interactions only.
A few years ago when I used to watch Idols, I was fascinated not by the people who could actually sing, but by those who couldn’t. There were obviously those who went on the show for their 30 seconds of fame, most of those cannot sing. But the type of people that fascinated me are the ones who would get on stage, shaking like a reed, nervous as hell and then proceed to give a performance so cringe-worthy you were so embarrassed for them you could feel it in your guts. And then they would look to the judges expecting some praise, which obviously wouldn’t come and the contestant would break down in a flood of tears. It hit me that those people genuinely believed they could sing but did not have a single person in their lives brave and kind enough to tell them the truth. I don’t really know why I stopped watching Idols, maybe I couldn’t stand the sight of people’s dreams being crushed for my entertainment. So who tells you the truth that you should hear but don’t want to hear?
Men can attest to the fact that if you walked into a room full of your people the last person you want to let you know that your fly’s open is a lady. Nothing may be showing but you want that to come from another man, unless that lady’s your wife, not sister-in-law or worse, mom-in-law. Similarly, for those of you young enough to remember your first dinner date, imagine going to the rest rooms during the date to discover you had a sizable piece of spinach wedged between your front teeth. Death. You wish you had known about that offending piece of vegetable before but also acknowledge that on a first date, the person sitting opposite you may have felt it’s not their place to tell you. But these are just examples of simple personal interactions.
I got to thinking about this in one of those moments when I let my mind wander about just why it is that in almost all of the eleven South African languages we have the expression ‘truth hurts’. I’m not fluent in all eleven but I can hold a conversation in most of the languages and have come to learn that expression exist in just about all of them (iqiniso libuhlungu, Zulu for truth hurts, ntiyiso wa vava in Tsonga). The name of my blog, THE TRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE, came from one of those philosophical thinking sessions that I hold with myself. The title itself is obviously Biblical but the reason I settled on it is secular, if I can put it that way. Why is it that we know and agree that ‘…we shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free’, yet we also accept that ‘the truth hurts’. Given that most of us try to avoid pain in life, we basically don’t want to know the truth, we don’t want to be set free. Should the truth, in giving you your liberation, hurt you?
Many years ago, I had a cousin respond to an observation I had made about her in what I regarded as the most painful way. I said what I said to her and she turned around, looked me in the eye and said “you should be the last person to say that to me given that if I said the same thing to you, you would sulk for days”. At the time, that felt like a sucker-punch straight into my unprotected belly. Me, sulk for days, never! I sulked for days afterwards. I look back and realize what she said to me was true, yet I felt ‘It’s not her place’ to tell me.
So, who tells you what you need to hear but don’t want to hear? Whose place is that?
In the larger scheme of things, if you are living a balanced life, I believe the responsibility should fall on several people around you to tell you those things. If you’ve read my earlier blogs you’ve probably come to appreciate that I admire the leadership of Nelson Mandela. On the occasion of his handing over the leadership of the African National Congress to a much younger Thabo Mbeki in 1997, the world-revered statesmen said the following words to his successor: “Do not surround yourself with yes-men, for they will do you and the nation incalculable harm. Listen to your critics, for only by doing so will you become aware of the disaffection that ails your people and be able to address them”. The jury’s still out on whether the academically-inclined Mr Mbeki took Mandela’s advice to heart.
What Nelson Mandela said in that short sentence was, don’t surround yourself with people who’ll always suck up to you, rather listen to those who feel they have nothing to gain by sucking up to you. Then you will know the the truth.
I believe in our personal lives too, we need to surround ourselves with people who will not suck up to us all the time. People who will look us in the eye and gently tell us that we are going off the beaten track, however painful it might be to hear those words.
Sadly, most people’s reaction to the truth is to go on the defensive. We let our egos take over and let the person know, ‘it’s not your place to tell me that’. Because of these walls that we build around ourselves to protect us from the truth, because it hurts, we never reach our full potential as people.
Just this past week, the head of our Electoral Commission, Pansy Tlakula, was fingered in a damning report by another formidable woman leader in the guise of Thuli Madonsela, the Public Protector, as having put herself in a position of conflict of interest. Her commission has done business with a company whose owner she knew and once did business with. The report does not say she benefitted inappropriately from the business deal, but that she should have disclosed the connection. How did Pansy Tlakula react to the report? Like most normal human beings, like you and I, she went on the defensive, “I won’t resign”, she defended herself at every available opportunity, because ‘the truth hurts’.
It’s not very easy to surround yourself with people who will tell you the truth without fear or favour, most of us shy away from doing that because we don’t enjoy rocking the boat. I mean, would you rather risk being friendless by telling your friend the truth and losing them or is it better to hope they’ll realize the folly of their ways in the long run? Sadly, in certain instances, the long run leads to irreversible consequences.
I would rather you told me the truth, have me sulking, but knowing I know the truth. I consider myself blessed in the sense that in my journey of redemption, back from the lows of taking offense at every little thing, I’m based in church that preaches the word in a very practical way. In the past, I found it quite difficult to sit through church because I either came out feeling condemned as the worst sinner in the world or that I could not see a way in which I could ever be on the God’s right side.
But I’ve now been Blessed with a church that has become one of those friends, friends who will tell you the truth no matter what, knowing that the truth might hurt just for a little while, but the benefits of knowing the it are immeasurable.
In the 1980s, during the struggle against apartheid, a gruesome way of dealing with suspected agents of the apartheid government emerged in which suspected police spies were burnt alive through ‘necklacing’, a car tyre burned around the victim’s neck. ‘With matches and tyres we will free our land’ declared the then mother of the nation, Winnie Mandela. Archbishop Desmond Tutu came out and publicly lamented the gruesome act. He became the person who was willing to tell the nation the truth no matter what, the conscience of our struggle.
In our daily struggles as people, who is our conscience? Who tells you that your zip is undone and you are glad they did, not embarrassed they noticed it? In addition to trusted friends, family and colleagues, we must seek out people who have no benefit to our feeling good about ourselves and listen to what they have to say about our walk here on earth. If we do, we might just discover that the truth doesn’t have to hurt, rather, as the Good Book says in the Gospel according to John(Ch 8:31-32), “…we will know the truth, and THE TRUTH SHALL SET US FREE.
(I first published this post in August 2013. We’ve since had the trial and by the time you read this, the last bit of the trial might be over. I am reporting this here because sentencing takes place today and I’m hoping in some small little way, I will contribute to some justice for Reeva, the victim.)
There are issues that I’ve avoided commenting on in my blog. The reason is mainly that they have not been resolved legally or because I deem them too sensitive for me to look at objectively. Today’s blog addresses one such issue.
On Valentine’s Day this year we woke up to the surreal(or unbelievable?) news that a top South African athlete had shot dead his girlfriend in a case of mistaken identity, thinking she was a burglar. It didn’t take long before we found out that the athlete concerned was the era-defining Paralympic and Olympic athlete, Oscar Pistorius. I was gobsmacked. No, not Oscar, he’s the brightest track star to have come out of our country in years.
His role in changing the face of athletics will be better appreciated in years to come when more disabled athletes take part in the regular Olympics competing against able-bodied athletes. The one person who played a major role in that becoming a reality is none other than Oscar, giving us more evidence that there is nothing more powerful than a determined human spirit. At the London Olympics, the biggest roars in the track and field events were reserved for Oscar and Usain Bolt, although I thought the decibels of the roars were just a notch higher for the Blade Runner. Because of my previously stated love for the underdog, I simply adored Oscar too. For all intents and purposes he was universally liked and loved. As with most celebrities, the majority of us felt we knew him.
Here’s an extract from a piece written by the the chief sports editor of The Star newspaper, Kevin McCallum, who, like most of us, thought he knew Oscar.
“….The Oscar I knew told me to feel free to walk around the house with photographer, Debbie Yazbek, who had been a colleague at The Star. We had both been asked by a British publication to do a piece on Oscar in the build-up to the Olympics in 2011. We needed colour and background. We walked into his bedroom, which was upstairs. Debbie spotted the pistol first. It was beside the bed, the barrel pointed towards us. It was a shock. I hate guns. I will not have one. In the army I was a good shot. I’d felt the surge of power that comes from firing a 9mm and an R5 automatic rifle on a range. It was addictive. Like the need for a drink. I know addiction. I have family and friends who flirt with it and dive into it. The addiction of firing a gun can be the worst of all.
I asked Oscar about it when we went downstairs, and the Oscar I knew told me that you “never know”. That loaded 9mm pistol was not the Oscar I know. I do not know if it is the weapon that took the life of Reeva Steenkamp. I suspect it is. It is all I have been able to think off since Thursday morning. The gun in the bedroom. The Oscar I knew would not kill a beautiful girl. That gun was not the Oscar I know. The Oscar I knew was not sure of me in Athens in 2004. Now I am not sure I ever knew him at all. (http://www.iol.co.za/sport/more-sport/where-is-the-oscar-i-knew-1.1471907#.UhcRussaySN)
His intentions, guilt or innocence are what the courts are going to decide on in March 2014. The focus of my piece here is not his guilt or innocence but on whether ‘I made a mistake’ is always acceptable. I also hope it does not come across as me standing in judgement, the aim here is to reflect on things that I feel the mainstream media have failed to cover.
There are situations and circumstances when making a mistake is not allowed. Period. That statement might smack of an unforgiving spirit, but please hear me out. The refrain “I made a mistake, I’m only human” has come to be so universally accepted that those who continue to interrogate a person’s intentions after declaring their humanness are looked at as vindictive. One of the places I have come to understand a person cannot make a mistake is in the maternity delivery room. The doctor on call is not allowed to drop the newly born baby and claim “I made a mistake, I’m only human”. You are not only human in that situation, you are a professional, who’s had years and years of training, so making a mistake is not allowed.
How about a pilot flying an Airbus carrying 200 passengers. Can they crash their plane or land so badly that people lose their lives, only to claim “I made a mistake, I’m only human”. I think not. I can see you right now, getting excited and saying to yourself, but what does this have to do with Oscar Pistorius mistaking Reeva Steenkamp for burglar and shooting her dead? He wasn’t a professional who “made a mistake” in the line of duty. He’s a human being who made a mistake, after all, “he’s only human”, I hear you say. Really?
In our country, we are required to apply for a license before we can own a firearm. In its very basic form, the law requires the owner of a firearm to acknowledge that the instrument that they own under that license has the ability to take away human life, the most sacred thing on earth. Which is why every gun owner undergoes tests and is trained by a professional in the handling of firearms. If, like Mr Pistorius, you can afford regular practice at the shooting range, as has been alleged in the papers and, then you move towards the professional status. His Twitter feed also carried twits suggesting that he spends quite a bit of time on the shooting range. Like the doctor in the delivery room and the Airbus pilot, as a gun owner, you need to attain a level of professionalism where the “I’m only human” refrain does not hold water anymore.
Maybe I’m looking or asking for too much. Maybe I’m too much of a dreamer, and my innermost wishes remain just that, wishes. In my world, that serene, quiet place where guns, violence and human suffering would not be allowed, if by chance, you committed the “mistake” of taking a life through a gun, the last thing I would be looking for from you is proving your innocence in a court of law. Very often, man-made judicial systems are only impartial to those who can afford the most expensive legal counsel.
In my world, I would be looking for remorse. My judge and jury would be trained not to look out for whether you intended to kill the victim or not but whether, in the aftermath, you recognized that the path that took you there was at fault. That guns take lives and are not to be left by the bed-side table simply because “you never know”. The judge would be looking at you and asking if you realize that 55 guns in one family is not normal, it’s scary.
In that world, the innocence of the alleged killer would be secondary to the devastation caused to the family of the victim. Bail, for me, would be linked to the general well-being of the victim’s family. A sudden, tragic death like that of Reeva Steenkamp’s destroys lives. I’m tempted to say I know what her mother is going through right now. That I know the emptiness she felt on her daughter’s birthday a few days ago. That i would understand if she went into a state of permanent depression. That the best thing Reeva’s dad may have wanted to hear, more than Oscar going to court on Reeva’s birthday are these words:
“I acknowledge that I didn’t understand the addictive nature of the power that a gun brings. That in my naivety I failed to realize that by being so blasé about guns I have deprived the Steenkamp family of the joy of watching their daughter grow, achieve things in her career and give them joy. The courts can determine whether or not I spend time in jail for what I did, but I want her family to know that now I know that guns kill and I took a life. I’m sorry. I also know that her family will never recover from this. They will simply learn to live with the pain, which can take years to happen. If it wasn’t for my misplaced love for guns, this would not have to happened.”
But we live in a real world, not in my world. In the ‘real world’ admissions like that would most probably cause people to call for your immediate imprisonment.
But here’s what the real world forget. I know Reeva has a brother. A brother who in the aftermath of her death may have felt he should have been there to protect her. That maybe, just maybe, if he had spoken to her on that fateful day she would have ended up somewhere else and her life spared. He might actually be wondering to himself, am I such a bad person that thoughts of avenging my sister’s death are crossing my mind, not understanding that the pain caused by knowing that your sweet little sister meeting such a violent end can cause you to think awful things.
You might be wondering how I know all of these feelings. I too lost a brother to a “mistaken identity” shooting. For six years I have been praying, hoping and wishing to hear just those words said to my family, especially my mom who was the worst hit by the tragic event. Unfortunately, Kavani’s death has not left anything but a trail of misery from which we are still struggling to recover.Time has taught us to live with the pain, but hardly a day goes by when I don’t look back and think to myself, guns do not fix anything, they just wreak havoc. Similarities between Reeva’s and Kavani’s deaths? Someone thought they could set the world right through the power of a gun. It’s a deceptive power that causes more destruction than harmony. Spread love.
One of the few things that lets me know that I’m still me is being able to turn on the television, watch thirty seconds of a game and then settle in to support the underdog. You know, the guy who appears to be losing, supporting David against Goliath, simply based on size and not who’s righteous. Or supporting the homeless people being forcibly moved from the public park they are occupying illegally. That sort of thing. It reminds me that I’m still ok.
But lately, there’s a new trend of the underdog giving me reason not to care. The underdog using ‘any means necessary’ to win. The underdog cheating. That’s just wrong, it robs me of the opportunity to celebrate as though I’ll get a share of the prize money. The opportunity to tell the top dog, see, it’s not “the size of the dog that matters, but size of the fight in the dog”.
There’s been scientific research into why we tend to support the underdog. “The researchers propose that those who are viewed as disadvantaged arouse people’s sense of fairness and justice — important principles to most people.”(http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/12/071219155445.htm) I would agree with that but I think there’s more to it than that. Underdogs allow us to dream.
I was just a teenager when Ben Johnson was found to have used drugs in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea(there I go giving away my age again). He had beaten the then fastest man on earth, Carl Lewis, in the 100m dash. We had no Satellite TV , Twitter, Facebook, cell phones or the internet back then but the news spread quite quickly around the world such that, even I, in rural Limpopo, South Africa got the news: Canadian Ben Johnson had cheated to win an Olympic Gold Medal.
Johnson had not only cheated the legendary Carl Lewis out of a gold medal, he had cheated millions of us who support the underdog. By getting caught, he had introduced the world to an ‘underworld’ era of winning at all costs, where only prestige and multi-million dollar contracts mattered. I’m one of those people that automatically root for the underdog, I haven’t figured out why, but where Manchester United FC or Kaizer Chiefs FC are not involved I always go with the underdog. So when the allegations came that Johnson was a drugs cheat I so wanted it to be not true. My underdog had to be clean.
Little did I know that in years to come my innocence would be scandalized over and over to the point where my interest in certain sports would dwindle down to zero. When South Africa was re-admitted into international sports in the early 90’s, our cricket team played an instrumental role in building social cohesion. South Africans of all colours could be found cheering for one team in a sport that was previously the preserve of only one section of the population. Sport has that ability, to go beyond artificial societal barriers and bring together people in a manner unlike any other activity. And then came the match-fixing scandals.
Some of our beloved cricketers were alleged to have been involved in fixing the outcome of matches. Our national cricket captain, Hansie Cronje, came out publicly and tearfully confessed to having taken money from bookies to influence the outcome of games. This was a man who had the nation eating out of the palm of his hands. He played a huge role in getting us to know we can punch above our weight in the international arena. But, like Ben Johnson, he took away our innocence. He shattered our ability to believe in Magic, in Santa Claus. Now every time a favourite loses a game in cricket I always have that nagging doubt about the little possibility that somebody, somewhere knew what the outcome was before the game was played. The underdog’s victory parade is being dampened by the possibility that the outcome may have been fixed.
I know it’s difficult to think of Lance Armstrong as the underdog, I mean the man ‘won’ seven Tour De France titles. But just think back, when we all discovered that he had beaten cancer to get back on his bike he became an instant underdog. Let me hasten to admit, my knowledge and appreciation of cycling is limited to that one time in the middle of each year when the Tour gets underway. But like Tiger Woods did for golf, Lance Armstrong took cycling out of relative obscurity and put it on the front pages of National newspapers. People who didn’t give a hoot about cycling wished Lance would keep on winning, beating the cancer over and over again. Even the unfit on a spinning bike in their local gym kept repeating their hero’s mantra:”it’s not about the bike”.
The underdog was on top. Lance Armstrong’s book “It’s Not About The Bike” was on my to-read list. My faith in the underdog was being restored. And then of course came the rumors that he was a drug cheat. The underdog supporter in me went into denial. No, not Lance. I mean, have these people got no shame? This is a cancer survivor we are talking about. No, not my underdog. The evidence kept on coming, the threats he had made to people, the reputations he had destroyed trying to protect his own, still the underdog supporter in me wished it would all go away. When it didn’t go away, I started wishing for some remorse. I watched both interviews with Oprah hoping the cheating ‘underdog’ would break down and ask for the world’s apology. It never came.
I’m not into American baseball but I know it’s huge over there. They even have a World Series, and like soccer is to all kids around the world, playing in the World Series is the stuff of dreams for the majority of American kids. In my impressionable days as a ‘youth’ I even took to wearing a Yankees baseball cap. The game also has a social cohesion element over there. Like in most sports, this is one sport where the least privileged in society can make it right to the very top, simply based on talent and hard work. So a few weeks ago when it was announced that A-Rod, Alex Rodriguez, had been found to be a drug cheat I understood the deep disappointment that must have been felt by most people across America. This is one of baseball’s all-time greats. The ‘underdog’ had cheated once again.
Kids on the Asian subcontinent dream of one day being a Sachin Tendulkar, playing in the cricket World Cup. American kids dream of the World Series and the NBA, the rest of us feel we have a stake in Maradona, Pele and even Messi. They are not necessarily our role models but they represent a possibility that even the less than ordinary amongst us can achieve the impossible. They allow us to dream.
When they cheat, in a subtle round-about way, they cheat us out of our dreams.
You don’t have to be Argentinian to appreciate the role Diego Maradona played in world football. Some even dared to deify him, the God of football. Like most football fans i remember his mesmerizing run that seemed to take out the entire English team in that 1986 World Cup semi-final win over England. It’s even said that in South America, Brazil in particular, football is a religion. People elevate their sports stars onto pedestals. Not once have I had heard of one of these stars refusing to cash in on that popularity. I’ve said it before in one blog, if your livelihood depends on being liked by huge numbers of people, you have a responsibility to those people.
Watching Usain Bolt retain his title of ‘fastest animal above sea level’ a few days ago in the pouring Moscow rain, I couldn’t help but pray that he doesn’t dash the hopes of millions of kids and adults around the world one day. That this underdog from Jamaica will remain just what he appears to be, an underdog that fights clean. So that you and I can keep dreaming, without being rudely awakened by the news that the “the greatest of all time” is now the “greatest cheat of all time”. Think Lance, think Marion Jones. Enough.
Angelina Jolie. Just the mention of that name is probably enough to turn off those that are totally anti-Hollywood. I hope if you are one of those people you’ll bear with me long enough to find out why this past week, she turned from just another Hollywood star to an activist, a leader( for me at least.)
You may have read in the news that she went for a cancer screening test and on discovering that she had an 87% chance of getting breast cancer, she decided to have a double mastectomy. Both breasts removed. Not only that, she chose to let the whole world know about it. This is what I found absolutely amazing. You see, so many of us fight battles with unmentionable enemies day in and day out. Some of us win those battles, needless to say, some lose. But we’ve been socialized to think that our private battles are just that, private. That it’s not only a sign of weakness to publicize your private battles but its also a shameless plea for pity. And we know that self pity is considered a strong sign of weakness.
Back to Mrs Pitt, Angelina Jolie, I can tell you now that there are thousands of women who were wallowing in the self-pity that comes with having your breasts removed. Not out of choice but because they were faced with death. These women have now found out that even the most privileged in our society have issues over which they have no power. Those women, at least some of them, will now go to bed knowing that they are not alone. Bravery in battle isn’t just dependant on how skilled you are at fighting, but also on knowing that there are other soldiers around you who know and understand your battle. Not because they’ve read about it, but because they are going through it in exactly the same way that you are.
We are often told that the best kind of leadership there is is by example. Leadership by example in our world is sorely lacking. More often than not, political figures are in the news because they’ve failed this simple adage, leading by example. Sounds easy enough, Tokyo Sexwale nearly pulled it off when he spent the night in a shack in Diepsloot, sadly, we’ve haven’t heard anything emanating from that stunt. I say stunt because it was planned, like a stunt in the movies. See, leading by example cannot be planned, it must come naturally. Angelina Jolie could never have planned to have an 87% chance of getting cancer, so it was such a bold move on her part to decide to fight her personal battle in public, and in the process, inspire so many women. And Men. She is leading by example.
So many men are fighting private battles against prostate cancer, AIDS and other incurable diseases. I cannot imagine the loneliness of such a battle in a world such as ours where being a man means suffering in silence. Admitting to an incurable disease is considered a sign of weakness. Embarrassing even. Hence the unnecessary stigma that’s still killing so many people in our country. We could have so many Angelina Jolie’s in our midst if only we understood what drove Mrs Pitt to share her private battle with the world. Leading by example.
Ive made a pact with myself. Because of her selfless act that has inspired so many people around the world, I will move heaven and earth to watch her next movie. Not because she needs my money, but as a way of saying thanking you for her leadership. No longer will I consider her an anomaly for adopting so many children, I will always consider her a hero, a leader above many. She’s such an inspiration.
I have a confession to make. A very damning one. In April this year I knew more than 50 kids would die this month alone, and I did nothing about it. Nothing. Before you start judging, I suspect that you too knew but also did nothing. This makes us accessories to murder. The reason we did nothing is simple, in the past, when we raised questions about the issue, we got the age-old South African response “it’s my culture”. In the current South African Political and social climate those three words are uttered whenever one questions any morally-suspicious behaviour. For instance, if I were to ask some of our leader(s) why when they married a second, third or fourth wife, the wife tended to be a couple of decades younger than them, the retort is most likely to be “don’t question things of which you have no knowledge, IT’S MY CULTURE”. In other words, shut up, and stop insulting me with your perfectly sensible questions.
Back to my damning confession. In our country we have a myriad of cultural practices that are common amongst several groups. One of those is the coming-of-age rite, which generally includes circumcision for males. The primary aim of the practice is to prepare young men to assume their intended role in their communities, that of being primarily successful heads of households, knowing that the “training” received “on the mountain” has prepared them for any curveballs LIFE will throw at them. The word LIFE is capitalized here because that’s the primary focus of my argument here. Unfortunately, in recent years, across all groups that practice this rite of passage, horrible deaths and mutilations occur. So much so that we know before the start of any winter that boys are going to lose their LIFE in a process that purports to prepare them for it. Really, prepare them for a life that they may not turn out to have because the preparation took them away. Put another way, would you take an exam to become a better father or mother if there was a chance it might leave you unable to have children? I think not. So, why oh why, do we let the carnage go on? Well it’s simple, It’s my culture.
In the past week, listening to the current MEC for social services in Mpumalanga was a very painful experience. When asked why the provincial government could not intervene in a case where up to 30 boys had lost their lives she retorted, as a woman, I have no right to question certain cultural practices. Well, I’ll be damned, in certain cultural practices she shouldn’t preside over men because, wait for it, it’s my culture. I refuse to be part of a culture that refuses any parent the right to question why their child died, unnecessarily even.
There is this mistaken notion in our current climate that says anyone who challenges or questions aspects of culture is a lost soul. This notion exists because we are made to believe that culture is unchangeable and that’s that. Attempting to modify aspects of it is regarded as rejecting it. In his book, Outliers: The story of success, Malcolm Gladwell tells one particular story of the South Korean national air carrier. Where most countries were having 0,27 fatal crashes per million flights, they had 4,27 fatal crashes per million flights. In other words, boarding a South Korean flight in 1989 meant you were a 17 times more likely to die in a crash than boarding say, a British Airways flight. The investigation into why this was the case revealed that because South Koreans have a very deferential attitude to authority, subordinates in the flight crew found it almost impossible to question their captains’ actions. In other words,the South Koreans cultural make-up if you like, made their national carrier more dangerous than any other in the world. Do you know what the South Koreans did when they found out their culture was killing them? I’ll tell you what they didn’t do, they did not become offended because the experts conducting the investigations were white people from Britain and America, they did not feel insulted because South Koreans were found to have an unhealthy respect for authority. They changed that aspect of their culture when it came to training pilots. To save lives. They certainly did not say “it’s my culture”. Korean Pilots are now trained to question and challenge authority. To go against their culture. By 1999, ten years later, their airline was as safe as British Airways. Because they dared to question and modify their culture.(In less than 10 years one might add).
Why are we so caught up in this “it’s my culture” defense when kids are dying. People whom culture is supposed to protect. I have a few suggestions as to why, and many will not go down well with most people . Firstly, we do not value our own lives as much as we’d like others to think. We value being regarded as “culturally sound” more than life itself, leading many parents to sacrifice their beloved children on the altar of culture. And then they are not even allowed to question the circumstances sorrounding the death. Well, you and I cannot sit back any longer. Because we know that culture must serve people and not the opposite, lets engage in a learned way with culture. Jealously protecting those aspects that serve us, like lobola, modernizing those that don’t. Going to the mountain must preserve life, not destroy it. I’m tired of being an accessory to murder, aren’t you? Secondly, South African society has this tendency to require a person to “qualify” before challenging certain things. For instance, if this was written by a white person, we would be mightily offended, asking, what “qualifies” him/her. Or if I question why a leader who has no obvious wealth of his own continues to marry like it’s going out of fashion, I’d be told to mind “you own culture”. And then we wonder why the Guptas own our country. Or why some leaders continue to be MPs when they clearly are not interested or incapable of doing the job, the qualifying question will be, do you have any idea what she did in the struggle?
Every time somebody says to you it’s my culture or insuates that you do not “qualify” to ask a certain question, tell them “It’s my country too, and I respect the gift of life”. That’s the only way we are going to save the lives of those boys going to the mountain next year and beyond. Question and challenge, even if they claim you dont qualify.
There are moments in history when great individuals, organizations and governments are faced with really tough decisions. At that moment in time, deciding one way or another would appear to be giving in to popular sentiment. Failure to take decisive action ultimately leads to embarrassment. History is littered with such examples. I’ll explore some of them below, but the main thrust of my piece here is that our government is facing such a time with e-tolling and the National Prosecuting Authority(NPA).
Students of history will recall that the US were embarrassed by having to pull out of a war in which they went in ill-prepared, ill-advised and a bit cocky if you ask me( Vietnam in around 1963). One online commentator put it this way: US forces fail to be effective in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and others because they lack respect for local culture and people,they rely too much on military might, they lack a clear strategy or political will. The US forces fought a guerrilla force using the only tactics they know, conventional warfare. Schools of thought still differ today on whether they pulled out voluntarily, or were forced to pull out, or were simply defeated. What is clear though is the US went into Vietnam to help protect French interests(and help stop the spread of communism) but left with their tails between their legs: humiliated and embarrassed by a guerrilla force, internationally and on the home front.
Our government is going ahead with the launch of the unpopular e-tolls despite opposition on all fronts. The main proponents of the system argue that the user-pay principle has to be enforced no matter what. Some ministers, like Blade Ndzimande, have gone as far as saying that people who are opposed to e-tolls are those individuals who can afford to pay but don’t want to pay. They further argue that OUTA, the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance, is a front of the Democratic Alliance. What they choose to ignore is that, COSATU, an ally of the ruling party has been the voice of the poor in all of this. When the party that should be ‘pushing back the frontiers of poverty’ is helping advance them, another organization will step in and do their job. The truth is, you would have to be living on Mars to fail to realize that e-tolling is the most unpopular government policy since, well, apartheid. Never has a system garnered so much negativity from so many sections of our society since the advent of democracy in 1994. Even the self-emasculated churches have been stirred to life by the prospect of this system. Which begs the question: who is advising the government on its ill-fated attempts to go ahead with this? The most amazing aspect of this whole debacle is, most of us, the citizenry, are willing to pay, just not to a company that’s going to take 70% of the revenue generated out of South Africa. No one in government has put papers on the table and refuted this. Show us that no money from e-tolling is going to foreign companies and I for one, would gladly pay! Any continued efforts towards implementation would be the same as the American government claiming victory in an un-winnable war in Vietnam: embarrassment.
There are very few things as disconcerting and painful as listening to an intelligent individual defending mediocrity. The past few months have seen the Minister of Justice Jeff Radebe defending the indefensible: Comrade President in Guptagate, and then following that up by defending the recents going-ons in the National Prosecuting Authority. Truth be told, Gupagate would never have happened if the Guptas did not have our First Citizen as a buddy. The less said about the Guptas buying our country the better. Of more or equal concern is the gradual erosion of our trust in the organs that administer Justice in our country. Jeff Radebe says it doesn’t matter that the killers of Andries Tatane, captured on camera, are still roaming free. He says it doesn’t matter Anene Booysen’s killers case seems to be going the same route. He says don’t worry that we are spending so much time and money pursuing one of our own, Glynnis Breytenbach when all evidence points to her being a hard-working, corruption-hating, innocent prosecutor. Yes, there are still such individuals in our midst you know. Another one goes by the name Thuli Madonsela. Corruption-hating. Yep. Best appointment Zuma made. Minister Radebe says our jails are full because the NPA is effective. Puleeezee Mr Radebe, convicting a house-breaker can hardly be compared to convicting Glen Agliotti or the killers of Andries Tatane. Convicting offenders in high-profile cases builds confidence in the whole system Minister Radebe! The concerned and informed amongst us know that what causes overcrowding in SA jails are awaiting-trial prisoners, not the convicted prisoners as the minister would have us believe. As the NPA wobbles from one embarrassment to another, I’m left wondering, isn’t our government trying to hard to garner embarrassment?
As an unknown student of history once observed: “History teaches, but it has no pupils”. Those familiar with the embarrassing defeat of an elite American Helicopter Unit in Mogadishu in 1993 will tell you that however mighty you are, lack of respect and understanding of local conditions will leave you open to a sucker-punch. The movie Black Hawk Down tells the story of how Somalian Militia, armed only with hand-held weapons of war shot down, not one but two state-of-the-art US Black Hawk helicopters. History taught the US in Vietnam to do their research to avoid such embarrassments but obviously, the lesson was not learned. History teaches, but it has no pupils.
Our government continues to go to court in opposition to OUTA, clearly disregarding popular sentiment. Mediocre appointments in the NPA continue to be the order of the day. There is a looming threat of a KZN magistrate being appointed to head the NPA, clearly forgetting the embarrassment brought on by the Menzi Simelane saga. Simelane, a man who was proven to have lied under oath at the Ginwala commission was appointed to head the NPA. Really, Mr Radebe, what lengths will our government go to to ensure our legal structures are emasculated, disempowered and left embarrassed? Clearly someone is afraid of a strong independent NPA. The question is who? Only the guilty are afraid.
It’s so sad that every appointment made by the President, Minister of Justice and the Judicial Services Commission will now be viewed through the opaque prism of previous embarrassing appointments. If there’s anyone out there who can help, when was the last our President made a clearly well-thought-out, confidence-building appointment? Any guesses, anyone? Our leaders just continue to beg for embarrassment! And we’ve got another five years of this coming!?!
Hi and Welcome to my blog again. Remember when Kenny Kunene and company burst onto the scene? When three-day wedding parties in Durban and nuptials in Mauritius somehow became acceptable? I have to confess, there was something uncomfortable about the whole thing to me but I struggled to put a finger on what was troubling me about it. Like it was with Zwelinzima Vavi,the General Secretary of COSATU, the whole consumerist setup didn’t go down well with me. Vavi tried then to say something and was labelled jealous, because he doesn’t have their kind of money he wasn’t supposed to say anything. And I guess that made a lot of people shut up, because they also don’t have the money to argue with such obvious displays of wealth.
This past week I had the pleasure of reading a piece on Achille Mbembe in the Mail and Guardian(June 14,2013). He is a research professor at the Wits Institute for Social and economic Research(Wiser), a thought leader to you and me. In this piece Mbembe says ” our lives have been colonized by the logic of entertainment…..we sing, we dance, but we don’t think critically. We build cities but they are not cities of the imagination, they are cities of hedonism and consumption …” I’m totally convinced he’s hit the nail on the head. One of the most precious things that was lost when we became free was the ability to question trends without the need to qualify ourselves. In the example above, Zwelinzima Vavi would have been totally free to criticize this consumerism that has arisen,giving rise to other social ills, without having to be called “jealous”. He would have been free to argue his point of view and share his thoughts on why it’s foreign to our discourse to spend as though money has no significance to us as a people. In other words, critical thinking led the way pre-94 and people’s views were respected not for what they arrived driving but for their ideas, not for where they lived, but for their role in the “production of ideas”.
Mbembe further argues that whilst the world has forged ahead in intellectual development and dissemination of ideas, South Africa has witnessed a surge of a different kind. He says post-94, we have have seen the government and other funding agencies focusing on problem-focused research, the so called “real world” challenges. Personally I think has extended into public life where corruption is now measured only in terms of “how many RDP houses” the stolen money could have built. What happened to us to become so one-dimensional? Does freedom for us only translate into what we can consume, hold, buy or sell? What about the freedom to pursue independent thought, the freedom to appreciate art, the freedom to develop our Cities into thought cities. Recently, when the State Security Bill was being debated in parliament there was such a deafening silence from most of us because for us freedom has turned into RDP houses, commodities, wages and money.
Before screaming that a starving people cannot produce ideas, let me remind you that intellectual development pre-freedom was led by people who had less than they have now. Back then we frowned on the lavish spending of American Rap and Movie stars not based on whether we had a house or not but because intellectual development and the exchange of ideas was not based on how much money one had or not. We knew that we had the moral high-ground compared to those that had so much money and wealth but were morally challenged. Mbembe says we “need to rediscover something in social life that cannot be privatized; that is immeasurable, that is priceless and cannot, and as a consequence, be bought or sold”.
That kind of thinking will ensure that political principles like equality, the rule of law, civil liberty and individual autonomy are not eroded in the pursuit of profit or power, Mbembe’s words. I miss those days when ideas and the logic of one’s words were what mattered. Where if one asked why a University still hasn’t been built in Mpumalanga you wouldn’t be told of the housing backlog. There would be an appreciation that in building a university, a centre for new and original ideas would be built, and we would be developing a place where someday, the new ideas that emanate from those centres of learning would help in alleviating poverty and thus getting rid of the said housing backlog.
A society that is based on the production of new ideas would respect Kenny and his ilk not for how much money they have, but for their intellectual role in acquiring that wealth, obviously not through hand-outs and tenders. The way people respect Mark Shuttleworth for example, because his wealth comes from “original ideas”. I would love a society where kids aren’t screaming “I gotta get paid” but striving to enjoy the fruits of this freedom that so many fought for. Believe me, being a skhotane, kids who destroy expensive clothing and gadgets to prove how wealthy they are, in that society that would be so un-appealing to other kids they would not even wish to emulate them. The kind of consumerist democracy that we have has spawned a society in which people speak in hushed tones of those who have acquired their wealth through heists and bank robberies. Whilst it’s cute to hear a kid rapping “I gotta get paid”, it’s sickening to see so many people today respecting criminals “who got paid” through heists and the like.
Critical thinking should not be the preserve of University Professors and intellectuals, it should start with each one of us, appreciating that freedom is so much more than just consumption, parties and bling. It’s the ability to think of social issues in a way that promotes South Africa’s place in the global intellectual map.
If you follow news in general, and celebrity news in particular you’ve probably heard about the public throttling and assault of Nigella Lawson, the beautiful British celebrity chef. She was assaulted by her advertising mogul cum arts collector Charles Saatchi as they settled in for a meal at a relatively packed restaurant. I was not going to write about this because almost everything that can be written about the incident has been written. That was until this past Monday when I heard a statistic that changed my mind for me: 50% of all women in Africa have experienced or will experience physical abuse in their lifetime. Scary! In simple non-statistical language: if you’re a woman and you have five friends, three of you have suffered physical abuse, or will be beaten up by their intimate partner in the course of their lives. If you’re a man, and like me have three close friends, two you have assaulted their wives or will do so at some point in their lives. Of course that’s very simplistic, but it serves to drive the point home, it’s not them doing the assaulting, it’s us, me and you.
That very human thing inside of you, the one that always says, “no, not me, never!” , the one that says “I can use the phone whilst driving, I’ll never cause an accident”, right now it’s telling you “I’ve never hit a woman, so this doesn’t concern me”. If not me, or you, then who’s doing the assaulting or getting physically abused for that matter.
Well, consider, Mr Saatchi, all of 70 years old, filthy rich(at least to me), he throttles Nigella, who’s far from poor herself. Socially, upper class, if you will,He does this in a relatively packed restaurant, doesn’t wait till he gets home to sort out the domestic matter.
I hope you noticed that I said he doesn’t wait till he gets home, as if domestic abuse is ok if it happens behind closed doors. We’ve been brought up to think domestic disagreements belong in the house, which makes a lot of people loathe to raise cases of abuse with people or structures that are supposed to help them. The second thing I hope you noticed is that not a single person in the restaurant dared to come to Nigella’s defence. Not one.This I believe is a result of that upbringing that says Mr Saatchi should have waited till he got home, so who am I to intervene?
Do you know why people do drugs in private? Well it’s illegal for one, but more importantly it’s socially embarrassing to be known to have a weakness for illegal substances so much so that people will go to great lengths to hide anything that might cause people to suspect them of using. Now, before I lose you, here’s my point: why was Mr Saatchi only “interviewed” by the police about the assault? I put it to you that Mr Saatchi should feel the same amount of shame over his actions as any criminal caught in the act should feel. He should have left that restaurant covering his greying head with that expensive jacket he was wearing, so ashamed to have been caught in the process of committing a shameful crime. He should never have been given a media platform to play down his horrendous action as a “playful tiff”.
Strangely, the media behaved as though Nigella was the one in the wrong here. Paparazzi waited outside an apartment she was in to see what “state she’d be in” when she reappeared in public again. And sure enough they noticed she was minus her wedding ring when she did come out. Where was the wealthy Mr Saatchi in all of this? Shouldn’t he be the one under scrutiny here? Shouldn’t he be the one to appear in public wearing a track suit top with a hoodie to hide his face? We should be asking if he was “brave” enough to show his face at the office. But no, we are scrutinizing the victim here. Somehow life has taught us its ok to assault a woman, it’s ok not to intervene because she’s not screaming and there’s no blood visible. Why didn’t anybody check on Mr Saatchi to see if he still had his wedding band on? Does he look worried? Is he pitching for work? If the focus can move away from the victim to the abuser then the accompanying shame will follow. We can tell our friends that we didn’t allow James to join us to watch the game because he hit his wife, that we are ashamed of such acts.
There are those who are questioning Nigella’s silence in all of this. She has said nothing at all concerning the assault. A word of caution here, Nigella Lawson is a celebrity chef, not a social change activist so it’s understandable if she hasn’t said anything, for now at least. Lets wait till she’s strong enough to do so.
That said, I strongly believe that if your career success depends entirely on being liked by a lot of ordinary people, you automatically carry an unwritten responsibility to those who like you for you. The same responsibility that allowed Tina Turner to authorize a movie about her abuse in the hands of her then husband Ike Turner. I hope at some point, Nigella Lawson will be strong enough, courageous enough to speak out. To tell those ordinary men and women who look up to her that what her husband did was wrong, and he is or should be ashamed of it.
I’m part of a Stokvel, that very South African phenomenon. There’s twenty-five of us. In our last meeting two weeks ago, a lady member could not make it and it was said in very hushes tones that her partner had beaten her up. Out of the 16 who were there that day, no one expressed shock at the incident. In fact, the general view was the lady shows no respect to her partner. Shockingly, half of the women there agreed that because she showed no respect to her partner she had it coming. Really? Uyadelela, so beat her up? I am disgusted to think that those mothers and fathers are bringing up their boys to think it’s ok to beat up a woman if you have a reason. It’s never ok.
The only way the shame and stigma around physical abuse can be defeated is if we speak out. Never making the victims feel ashamed and never being silent because everyone else is silent.See, we can have a “16 days of activism against woman and child abuse” every year but until we as a society, especially men, change our thinking about the monsters who live amongst us, our sisters, daughters and mothers will always be victims. It doesn’t matter if he’s your friend, dad, doctor or CEO, if he’s assaulting his wife or partner he’s a monster. Like Mr Saatchi he should be very ashamed of his actions. It’s always said that domestic abuse knows no race, class or status. That statement always rings hollow because what the media always shows us is abuse amongst ordinary men and women. This shameful incident, if it can be used as a learning act, should serve to remind us that these monsters are in every family, mine and yours, and should not be allowed to continue unchallenged. They move in the same social circles as us, they are our friends and neighbours – let’s stop them.
“Genuine friends are rare treasures. However, the Lord created us for meaningful relationships; it’s difficult to flourish if we live in isolation. By design, we are made to share life with others, as well as to give and receive love”.
Sounds like one of those cheesy Hallmark cards doesn’t it? The kind that you find on those cards that make you wonder: “who buys these?”. Well, I’m glad to tell you it isn’t one of those. The above passage comes from a devotional by Dr Charles Stanley, Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Atlanta. He’s in his eighties now so even if you don’t really like his sermons, believe them because he has lived them.
He goes on to say: “Surface friendships don’t satisfy this need. But unfortunately, many people never experience anything deeper. This is why so many individuals are lonely–even if they’re always surrounded by others.”
We live in a world that values the fleeting friendship, where I can “friend” you just as easily as I can “unfriend” you. A concept I have found so difficult to come to terms with. I spent many years avoiding social media like Facebook because I felt they encourage those kind of relationships, the fleeting kind. Unfortunately we are surrounded by technological gadgets that improve are lives in so many ways but can also lead to a deep and devastating anti-social kind of life that hampers our development and restricts the joy that we are meant to derive from our walk here on earth.
“Self-sufficiency is prized in the world, but it isn’t God’s design for His children”, that man, Dr Stanley again. Let me take you on a bit of a personal journey. Until recently, up until a year and a half ago, I consciously and unconsciously withdrew myself from all forms of friendships. Just to give you a clue, through my walk in life I have not kept in touch with any of the people I met through my school years, primary school, high school and even university. I can hear those of you that know me saying hold on a minute here, we know you have friends, where do they come from? I’ll come back to that a little later. Here’s my point, I have interacted with a lot of amazing people in my life. Men and women who, when I look back, would have contributed richly to my journey in life. But I have managed to work them all out of my life. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s doable. In medical circles it’s called social withdrawal. When I first read that term I had pictures of someone refusing to attend a “social function”, like a school reunion or something. But having lived it I know it goes deeper than that.
Without realizing it you “avoid” people you know in situations where you shouldn’t. Where people club together because they know each other, you unconsciously choose to associate with “new” people. The associations you form with the new people are not deep, they are fleeting, and you form more of these kinds of friendships as you go along, and by the end of your high school or varsity you realize that you have no compelling reason to get in touch with any of those people, because no lasting bonds were formed. You move into a work situation and form new “friendships”. Again, you form fleeting ones. You hang out together having fun activities but that’s just it. You know when the going gets tough, there’s no one amongst those “friends” you can call on. But life goes on and you appear to be having a normal life. You think to yourself, I’m a self-sufficient man, why do I really need all these people for?
It then extends to family to. You have family around you, parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, the lot. But you don’t really have intimate relationships with any of them. You keep a world of your own, one which allows you to make up your own rules, you take offense without letting it show, you keep grudges without appearing bitter. Soon you are convinced there’s a conspiracy against you(by people you love), and before you know it, you conclude everyone has it in for you. Family and all. In my case I was convinced my dad had it in for me. Why? I don’t know. Your boss too, or even your partner. So inside, you keep wishing you could “escape it all”. Either get a job so far away from everyone or live so far away from “them” all. All this whilst appearing to interact normally with each one of them. I didn’t succeed in getting the job in Durban or Cape Town, I came pretty close. But I succeeded in keeping everyone at more than an arm’s length.
Life being life doesn’t really give you the the chance to be successful at being self-sufficient. It throws you the curve balls that it throws at everybody. Only, you don’t have the luxury of turning to genuine friends for help and comfort. You cannot turn to family because you think they don’t understand you or your world. So you feel so alone in the world, yet you are surrounded by people. Lonely, but not alone. And you hit a brick wall. What you decide to do is anyone’s guess.
So, back to why I’m taking you down this depressing road. I’m living with clinical depression. I’ve lived with it all my life without knowing it. Last year, it was finally diagnosed and I’m on treatment for it. It hasn’t cost me only in terms of friendships but a whole lot more, a rich and fulfilling life. The reason I’m telling you this is because I feel if I had known about it much earlier in my life I could have had it treated earlier. So, I have this insatiable need to tell others about it. Like a life mission. To let others know that it’s not normal to think life is a solo venture. You need friends in your life, genuine friends. (So, as I blog, I will keep coming back to the theme of clinical depression because it’s one very close to my heart).
So in the past year and a half I have consciously started cultivating genuine friendships in addition to the e few people whom I could not get rid of during the dark years. Genuine friends who don’t care that I shut them out, lied to them and misled them. I don’t have to mention them, they know themselves and for them I’m eternally grateful.Thank you. I now consciously interact with people, befriend people and am slowly going back where I can, reconnecting with those that once played a meaningful role in my life but had become casualties of my condition.
Dr Charles Stanley asks the question: “Do you have someone with whom to share your joys and sadnesses, strengths and weaknesses, fears and pain? Thankfully, Jesus is the best friend we can have. But He also desires that we have close relationships with others. What can you do today to build this type of friendship?”
My question to you is a bit extreme and this is deliberate. People don’t readily agree that something like this could happen to them but if you read this far you might as well answer the question: If life was to throw you a curveball today, and it hit you so bad that you thought life was not worth living, do you have a person that you know you can call, and they would not judge you, or ridicule you or call you faithless? If you don’t, start working on it today, life is a team sport.
There are a few things in South Africa as emotive as the subject of racism. It’s one of those topics that you want to be very careful about where and how you bring it up because it has the potential to degenerate into one of those below the belt exchanges, with insults traded freely. That said, I believe the only way forward for our country is to talk these sort of issues out in a very mature way, playing the ball at all times, and not the man(or woman).
A couple of weeks ago I went to a jewelry shop to have an old watch seen to, it had what they call a lifetime guarantee, silly if you believe that lifetime stuff like I did. I got to the door of this shop in a bustling mall and was confronted by a locked security gate, with the glass doors open. I waited by the gate to be noticed until a middle aged black lady shouted from behind the counter, “how can we help you, our gate doesn’t open?” Stunned, I tried best as I could to explain the reason I was there without attracting the attention of fellow shoppers who were going past behind me. It was difficult to do this without appearing to shout. She said something about “lifetime no longer applies, you’ll have to try next door” but made no effort to come closer to the security gate or opening it. I was getting indignant by then and on realizing this she simply moved out of view. It’s very difficult to stay mad at an empty shop so I went on my way.
It was in talking to the shop assistant in the next jewelry shop that I discovered that this particular shop had been hit by robbers several times this year already. I happened to fit the ‘profile’ of the robbers: African/black, male, young(ok, I’m not so young anymore), and neatly dressed( I try, sometimes). So the staff had been instructed not to open for those that meet the profile. Would you call that profiling racist? At first look it is, and I was suitably indignant and would have blown my fuse had I not chosen to put myself in their shoes. Looking at things from their perspective, and having been a victim of violent robberies before, I realized that given a chance I would have implemented a similar policy myself, until I could come up with a better one. South Africa’s demographics mean that the profile of its criminals will remain largely black and male, until the conditions that necessitate that change.
The second example is one I’m sure some of you have encountered. My wife and I arrived our medical specialist, who for the purposes of this piece I’ll label as white, we were flashed one of those elastic smiles by the white secretary behind the desk and we went about explaining the reason for our visit. Polite enough. Later on, when we needed assistance with a letter, the secretary explained that the doctor has “put everything in that letter”. I politely disagreed and this seemed to anger the poor secretary. She “threatened”: “would you like me to call the doctor?”, with a look that said “surely you don’t want that”. I indicated that I would appreciate it if she did that. She left her chair in a huff and came back with the doctor conversing in Afrikaans, which I have nothing against except education wise I’m post ’76 like that, and my Afrikaans is almost nonexistent. I don’t mind anybody using any language except if it involves me, but I let that slide. The doctor asked abruptly “What’s your problem?”. Now, I could have sunk to a level that responds on instincts or maintained a level of politeness that would save us all from an ugly exchange. I responded that there was no problem except for a little change that we required to be made to the letter he had given us. He made the change in two seconds and and handed the letter back. The secretary stayed mad and looked betrayed. See, given where we come from as a country, there are so many points in the conversation that I could have played that “card”: Are you being like that because I’m like this? But an second thought, I had already achieved what I wanted tbecause whilst I can’t be sure that someone else of a different race would have been treated differently, I knew that what the secretary had wanted to achieve had failed so again I let it slide.
Given our history as a country it’s very easy to take offense at the smallest things, screaming racism. I always take solace from the words of Bantu Steve Biko who maintained that a person without power cannot be a racist because, save for attitude, what can they do with their prejudice? Nothing.
The last scenario I’ll present is one I’m sure all of you have come across at one point or another. My family certainly has. You are at the till paying for your groceries and are getting nothing but attitude from the cashier. I’m from an era where we consciously went out of our way to give respect to a person based not on what they do but simply because they are, they exist. Add onto that the fact that most menial jobs are done by black people because of our history and demographics, it became doubly important for me not to make people doing those jobs feel more inferior than their job already makes them feel. So, when you get this cashier who goes on like they are doing you a favour, the temptation is there to want to tell them off. Especially given the fact that the attitude you are receiving is not displayed to all customers, but it’s black-on-black, for lack of a better description. Again, this can typically descend into one of those distasteful exchanges if you, the recipient of the attitude are not careful.
In all the examples I chose above, the potential was always there for me to play the victim, claiming “I’m treated like this because I’m black”, which would most certainly be true in most cases. But my point here is, those are small battles. I say reserve your energy and respect for the bigger larger battles. Battles where people use your skin colour, black or white, to keep you in a subservient role. What I find amazing is that South Africans of all races use social networks to trade insults. Go to any website that allows for comments and at some point , the discussion will degenerate into an ugly exchange about race, nothing related to the topic at hand. One of the greatest tributes we can pay to the father of our nation, Nelson Mandela, as he lies in hospital is to think before becoming involved in a pointless exchange about race and reserving our energies to “fight against black domination and white domination”, a cause he chose to dedicate his life to. If it’s not worth it, let it slide…..