If you were to stop anybody on the streets today and asked their thoughts on South Africa’s transformation you’ll most probably get a response that has to do with how many people of color are in the national rugby or cricket team. Transformation has been reduced to numbers on a sports field.
“I will not preside over a tweaked apartheid education system”. These telling words were uttered two weeks ago by the Gauteng Provincial Minister of Education, Panyaza Lesufi. It was in response to a report that confirmed that a Curro Private school had been caught out using race as a determinant in the separation of kids in their school. Lesufi has decided that the government would finally do what they should have started doing 20 years ago and overhaul the way our education system is structured.
That there is a private school that will accept money from black parents and yet find it acceptable to humiliate them by declaring their kids not “culturally” in sync with the norms of the school is testament to the fact that the custodins oftransformation have outsourced their fundamental responsibility for the true transformation of our society. What exactly must this transformation look like? At what point can we declare society transformed.
The most tragic thing about transformation in our society is that the victims of the artificially constructed race-based “crime against humanity” have turned around and trusted the beneficiaries of that system to voluntarily give up their unjust benefits and invite their former victims for a share in the spoils of their ill-gotten gains. That’s like a deer expecting a lion to suddenly give up his naturally endowed position in the food chain because it has been declared unfair. It’s not not going to happen, moreover the lion will fight to hang on to his position.
The victims of the unjust system made the grave mistake of believing that because they have repealed the laws that put the system in place, the benefits of that system will suddenly flow in the “right” direction. With a little help from affirmative action, society will be put right and everyone will be happy they thought. Twenty one years into democracy it’s suddenly dawning on them that they should not only have repealed the laws that kept them captive but also actively defined what they see as a transformed society and also clearly put in place the means to achieve this transformed society.
One of the most beautiful examples of transformation in nature is that of a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. Right at the beginning of the process, nature saw fit to ensure that every single caterpillar possesses the means(genes) that will ensure that the process happens, but also, it ensures that a cocoon is in place to safeguard the process. No caterpillar ever finds itself halfway through the process and wondering “is this going to happen for me? Am I stuck here? Will I ever become a butterfly?” But we have identified that we want to transform into butterflies without putting in the safeguards in place to ensure that the process happens, and happens for the benefit of everyone concerned.
I was was unfortunate enough to find myself in a University class as one of 5 black students in a class of more than 30 students in the early 90s, this in a country that’s 80% black. And I remember clearly the dead quiet that engulfed the class each time I raised my hand to ask something, like there was an expectation that I would ask something “wrong” or “not clever”. But also the “congratulations” that came with the “surprising” eventuality of me actually asking a ‘very good question, keep it up’.
Two weeks ago a black author, Thando Mgqolozana, issued a statement on why he would be attending the Franschoek Literary festival for the last time this year, detailing how tired he was of being viewed as a “specimen”(my word) at this festival. This took me right back to my Microbiology class more than twenty years ago. Yes, maybe my alma matter “transformed” their campus, but there are still many situations in this country where South African citizens are still treated as curious visitors, there for a while, but without much expectation of them making an impact because the agenda was set ages ago, and these visitors better shape up or ship out. And by shaping up, the expectation is that they will willfully go along with the tone and agenda of the festival.
In Thando’s own words: “I feel that I’m here to perform for an audience that does not treat me as literary talent, but as an anthropological subject – as though those people are here to confirm suspicions that somehow I’m inferior to them”. Mqolozana went on further to explain that the current literary setup in our country “systematically excludes black people….setups like this one, the Franschoek literary festival”
Here’s the deal, tears of anger and outrage flowed from some members of the white literary community because they wanted the public to receive “what they paid for, not this”. “They were tired of being made to feel guilty”, they said.
Remember the example above, about the lion, he will not voluntarily give up protecting a system that benefits him, because after all, it’s his natural position.
But we, the victims of the current setup have it within ourselves to transform that setup. But we need to stop asking the lion to change voluntarily in the first place and define the path to that transformation ourselves. We must stop “defining” transformation and start demolishing the current system. Mgqolozana sums it up best when he says ” I don’t want this literary festival to change anymore….the kids at the University of Cape Town are not asking the university to change, because that would mean tweaking a few things…what we want is the demolition of the whole system…starting something new”.
Many people will readily agree that something new altogether must be the result of the process of transformation but what matters is not good intentions but actions taken to bring it about. Most beneficiaries of the current setup want transformation, as long as they are comfortable with the process. When uncomfortable, you will hear them utter such deep reflections as ” transformation must not result in the lowering of standards”. Really? Is that what they think of the “other side”? That we want things watered so we can feel capable of fitting in? It is not surprising then that “the other side” is now saying, keep your exclusive clubs and festivals, we will create our own.
The loss of meaning of the word transformation is not limited to universities, national sports teams and the literary sectors only. These are simply the ones that fall onto the media radar every now and then. Agendas set in the apartheid era continue to bedevil transformation efforts in the economic sector. The emergence of radical groups like the Economic Freedom Fighters are a direct result of the window dressing that is labelled as transformation. The Marikana massacre, the deadliest of the post-apartheid era is a result of this watered down version of transformation.
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of accepting tweaks to the current setup as acceptable ‘reforms’, but we have a responsibility to future generations of overcoming our unfounded fears of dropping standards and demolishing what seems to be working now, for what will be inclusive and working in the future.
We need to accept that the majority of the citizens of this country are located where apartheid put them, but they are not out of sight. They are there and conscious effort by us, those that recognize the abnormalities of the current setup to construct new and inclusive ones, must be aimed at making them ‘mainstream’.
Reforming the current setup will not work because as demonstrated by Literary festivals like the Fraschhoek one, the current beneficiaries will continue to set the agenda with the excluded groups doing just the listening, to paraphrase Steve Biko. What else can you do if you are only there by invitation? You do not reform abnormal, you get rid of it.
The pain or uncomfortable feeling that comes with us breaking out of the current system to form a new one is one of the necessary ingredients in transformation. Breaking down and demolishing a system cannot come easily and we must be prepared to witnesse some ‘gnashing of teeth’ and ‘violent’ protests from those that are tired of ‘being made to feel guilty’.