Category Archives: South Africa

The space within

I am struggling more and more with the South African story. With the current sentiment  that to be a conscious white, you must be a silent white. That unless you are a representative for the views of black people and acting as an ambassadors for “their” pain, you are a racist, or at least, deeply mistaken. I am feeling stymied and stifled and I feel my consciousness shrinking rather than expanding.

After a weekend of sitting with an anguished mind, I asked the universe to send me a wise man, and yesterday it, in did in the form of L, a fellow dialogue facilitator and a black man. We sat under a tree in the oldest garden in South Africa and he told me about his recent diagnosis of diabetes, and with his struggle with being labelled “ill” and feeling ill. He did not want either to be true, but both were, so in his wise, way, he leant forward towards those feelings,  while at the same time asking himself what he could do to get better. Both accepting and seeking a solution at the same time.

He then talked of other people he had recently met who had been sitting with diabetes for 15+years and how he was dismayed by their resignation to their fate. He then shook his head and wondered if it was a cultural thing, and went on to talk about a “victim mentality” which he feels is ingrained in the majority of black people’s consciousness.

“It’s hardwired into us,” he said.

He gave a metaphor. “If someone has R30 of airtime on their phone, they will spend R25 complaining about the problem, and only R5 trying to find a solution. But by the time they get to that R5, they are so exhausted by all the complaining, they have run out of energy and give up. The laws of attraction say that you get what you give, and black people frequently operate within a negative consciousness.”

I recognised what he was talking about. Someone has to fill in a form but they would rather spend 10 minutes complaining about having to do it, instead of just doing it. Why not just do it quick and celebrate that it is over? I do not see it as exclusive to Africa though. I have seen it plenty in Scotland. But L felt it was more prominent in the black consciousness.

“Our celebration comes before. Complaining is our way of making ourselves feel better about the fact that we have to do it at all,” says L.

I told him he should write about this, but he joked that he would be castrated for saying it. He added that whenever he suggested to black people that they lean into their pain, ask themselves what really lies under the pain around filling in that form, they go crazy. They reply that black people are always in pain and it’s stupid and wrong of him to suggest that they feel their pain even more deeply. Also, they will say, they know what causes the pain. The white man. The lack of opportunity. The poor living conditions. Things that others have caused and others have not fixed. The pain comes from outside. The problems are not in me. They are out there.

I realised something else as we sat under the tree.

L and I were talking about the structural challenges of co-running an organisation like Consciousness Café, and L asked me why I did this work. Didn’t I need to admit to myself that I was in it for profit?

“No,” I said. “It might be hard to believe but it’s not profit that motivates me, it’s belonging. I want to belong here. I want us to be able to see each other. It’s another form of selfishness yes, but that’s what is driving me.”

My Consciousness Café colleague and I had talked about this the previous weekend and she had told me that I had to accept that this would never happen: “If you expect the black movers and shakers of Joburg to accept you and not see you as privileged, you need to know now that this will never happen. Never. You need to accept that. And then you need to ask yourself again why you do this work.”

Speaking to L, I realised that my own desperation to belong was blocking my compassion. Not in the dialogue space, there my compassion flows with ease (perhaps from years of being a journalist who is naturally interested in the stories of others), but when it comes to the structural positioning of this work in society, and the relationship with others who do this work, some of whom have got out their guns and criticised me for trying. When it comes to those encounters, I realise my compassion is thin. My compassion dries up because it feels like they are screaming “YOU DO NOT BELONG!” while I am begging to belong.

It becomes all about me.

I thought I had learnt this lesson already. At my 40th birthday I told a crowded room that I had made peace with belonging. That I accepted that I had to find belonging in writing, in creativity, in my craft and in nature. That since I was not a nationalist, I had to stop looking for belonging under the South African sky.

I thought I was there, but I was just flirting with this new consciousness, it had not bedded in yet, and this fledgling consciousness had buckled and bent under the level of anger currently being directed at white people.

Yesterday, as I sat under the tree in the oldest garden in South Africa with L, he helped me lean into it, name it, see it, and as I did, I felt it lift off my chest.

I may wish to belong here, but the fact is, in the eyes of the majority of the people of this country, I do not truly belong. Not a day goes by when someone doesn’t ask me: “Where are you from?”

So once again I commit to letting go – or at least, lightening my hold – of my need to belong.

And as we create a little bit of space between ourselves and our deepest desire, our compassion grows and we can breathe again.

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Let it go, Let it go…

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Last week I turned 40. To celebrate, I blew a month’s salary on a Bollywood party in a hotel in Scottish Highlands for my closest friends. We draped ourselves in sequins and saris, glitter and velvet, and danced to bhangra while the snow outside turned to ice. As I held her hand, my three-year-old goddaughter whispered to her mum that I looked like Elsa from Frozen, and in that moment, I felt like a queen in my own Narnia, surrounded by magic, laughter and love.

Two days later, on my actual birthday, I sat alone, on the shores of Loch Carron. It was a day of complete stillness. No clouds. The sun blinding but without warmth. All around the mountains were topped with snow, and for hour upon hour, I sat on a bench in absolute silence, my legs wrapped in a soft, grey blanket, my head tucked into a Harris tweed hat, my eyes intermittently open and closed, until the sun finally dipped behind the mountain and it became too cold to be outside.

The stillness was tangible. Audible. At times throughout the day it felt like I disappeared inside of it, and today I am still craving it, so much so that I postponed my flight to South Africa. I was supposed to leave this afternoon, but I can’t bear the thought of moving across the planet, which is ironic, because for 40 years, that’s all I did.

Run away. Run towards. I ran from a childhood sense that I was tolerated but not wanted, desperately seeking a place where I would belong without question, where I would be loved with certainty. My running began as a way to survive, but it became a habit.

Last year, I ran back to my childhood city, Johannesburg. In its energy, I felt my own. A city of craving, a city unfixed. I wrapped its skyline around me and said here, this is where I belong. I am home.

But South Africa is a contested place, and as I walked her streets and rode her buses, I realised that at this moment in history, for a person with a white skin to claim belonging on this soil, is at best impertinence, at worst a subtle declaration of war. My running had led me back to a place similar to the one I had forever being running from – where I felt tolerated, but not wanted.

And maybe that’s nothing to do with South Africa, and everything to do with me. Maybe whenever we run away from something, we drag it with us. And maybe that means we continually end up in the same place, just in different guises.

As I sat on that bench in total stillness, I asked myself what home and belonging would look like, if it wasn’t tied to a place. It felt like an important question. A crucial question. We live at a time when nationalism is on the march. When angry men and women leaders around the world are taking to podiums to declare that some people are not wanted and should not be tolerated, that they must get off this land and go back to their land, despite the fact that the history of humanity is a history of migrations.

If home and belonging are just linked to place then the world becomes narrow and confined, and there will be more places where we don’t belong, than where we do.

But unhook home and belonging from one place, and it becomes an immense, interior landscape.

I’m home when I knit and when I sew.

I’m home when I daydream and gather stories.

I’m home when my best friends agree to wear saris in the snow, and when a 3-year-old sings “Let it go” on my 40th birthday, and I discover an unlikely new hero in a Disney princess…

[Make sure you play it and sing-a-long]

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We are not the same, are we?

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A koan is a statement that is both true and not true. The Buddhists contemplate koans as a way to reach enlightenment. Put simply, koans are head fucks.

For the past month, I have been getting uncomfortable with this koan:
“We are all the same in so much as we are all shaped by our history, but because all our histories are different, we are not the same.”

Another koan you can make out of this is:
“We are all the same in that we are all unique.”

Why does this make me uncomfortable? Because as a child of the Rainbow Nation which has non-racialism enshrined in its constitution, I have spent the last 22 years trying to undo the apartheid conditioning that drummed into our conscious and unconscious minds – through stealth, subliminal messages, structural inequalities and spatial positioning – that white people were different to black people. In fact, according to the message, we were so different, it was imperative that we were kept apart, and that we only inhabit the same spaces when we needed something from each other – mostly a labour-cash exchange. The only permitted relationship was transactional. For everything else – friendship, love, sex, laughter, worship, contemplation, education – you must stick to those who look like you.

Nelson Mandela’s vision changed that. We were catapulted into a new age where we were encouraged to not give any meaning to the colour of someone’s skin. We were encouraged not to make assumptions about someone based on their skin colour. Our new goal was to become a colour-blind nation. A goal long-since adopted by countries like the UK.

A month ago I interviewed a Fallist – the South African students leading the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protests – for a piece I was writing about the shifting South African narrative. She agreed to speak to me as a favour, because, as she bluntly put it: “We are done with white people telling our story.”

She then went on to tell me how she hates non-racialism. That non-racialism is just a license for the privileged classes to enjoy a clear conscience while turning a blind eye to the continued suffering and economic struggle of black South Africans who have ended up there because of historic racism.

As a wealthy, successful black woman I know in her 50s, puts it: “Everytime someone says ‘I don’t even think of you as black’, I want to scream. I had to crawl on my hands and knees to get where I am today. When someone says they don’t see my skin colour, it makes me feel unseen all over again.”

I thought about this a lot over the past week while in Bulgaria on a travel-writing assignment, travelling around by steam train in the carriages that once belonged to King Boris III, the monarch/dictator who was murdered by Hitler’s acolytes in 1943 because he refused to send the 50,000 Bulgarian Jews to concentration camps. He was posthumously awarded the Jewish National Fund’s Medal of the Legion of Honor.

Bulgaria might be the ugliest country on earth. Not in terms of its natural beauty – it has its share of mountains, trees and a lovely spot on the Black Sea – but in terms of post-Soviet urban decay. Everything that was once believed to be grand, is cracked and crumbling. Apartment blocks with windows like eyes in mourning, mascara streaming down their face. It is not kind to make fun of another’s poverty, but being in Bulgaria is an aesthetic onslaught, your eyes constantly darting around, desperate to find a shred of beauty. You take pictures of flowers to ease the panic.

The Bulgarians have had a tough half a millennia. For 400 years they were oppressed by the Ottomans.

“We were slaves in our own country,” said the tour guide who showed us around the old town of Plovdiv, one of the few pretty enclaves in the whole country.

The word slave actually comes from Slavic, which describes the languages spoken in this part of the world.

In Sofia, the tour guide showed us a stone church built into the ground.

“The roofs of our churches could be no higher than a Turk on horseback,” explained the guide. Mindless, humiliating oppression. Your god must be lower than our people.

When the Bulgarians finally got rid of the shackles in 1878 they adopted an advanced democratic constitution though had to ask the Russians to help run the administration because they were without the skills and systems.

Later, during the first and second world wars, the Bulgarians made the mistake of siding with the Germans and after the second war, found themselves under the control of a new leader – the Soviets. And so entered a new period of repression under Communism. When the USSR began to collapse in 1989, 2.5 million Bulgarians – the so-called intelligentsia – left for Canada, USA, Europe and Australia, doubting that this country would thrive under democracy.

“Romania and Bulgaria were the only European countries who didn’t try and rebel against the Soviet state. That tells you something about the mindset,” says a Bulgarian physicist who I meet later on a plane. He fled to Canada in 1989 with the implosion of the USSR. “This is a nihilistic nation. Negative thinking runs deep.”

Which brings me back to my koan.

“We are all the same in so much as we are all shaped by our history, but because all of our histories are different, we are not the same.”

In the past year, at Consciousness Café – the pop-up dialogue café I co-run in South Africa to encourage frank conversation about racism and other ongoing injustices – black South Africans speak often about internalised oppression and the burdens of self-doubt and inferiority that people carry, often unconsciously, because of the legacy of apartheid.

Epigenetics – the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself – has even started to find that it is true, that we carry the anxiety and emotional strife of our parents in our DNA, just as much as we carry their facial features.

So where does this leave us, as we try to push forward and build a world where we treat each other with equal respect? How can we be both conscious of the long-term effects of the historical oppression on the psychology of members of our society, while at the same time, not always judging them on their history?

How can we be non-judgemental while also being conscious of the story that may lie behind someone’s race or gender, class or culture?

Koans are not meant to have answers. They are meant to be sandpaper for our minds. To make us continually aware of the complexity of existence and of how there are no absolute truths.

So I leave this here. I have no prescription. Except to always question authority.

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I feel liberated – thanks to the ANC

WP_20160807_003Dear ANC

What an election! Best TV in ages. Hope you gave some of that R1bn to the SABC for its local content procurement.

Now, I know you are wondering what happened, so I thought I’d save you spending even more money on hiring consultants and write you a letter.

And let me start off by saying, I am still grateful to you for the liberation struggle. Benoni in the 1980s? What a shithole. You could hardly breathe for the stifled air. Downtown Joburg of 2016 is a place of creativity, dynamism, humour, amazing fashion. Right now, Joburg is one of the most amazing cities on earth. Your man, Parks Tau has done a pretty decent job – especially for a middle-class lass like me.

Which is why I was really confused about who to vote for. For much of the past 22 years, I quietly offered you my respect, patience and hope. I would defend you to the racists of this country. I was on your side, even though you never noticed. But recently, with every Number One cackle and corruption scandal, every attempt to dismiss us, silence us, play us off against each other, you have dulled those shiny emotions.

Thing is, I am angry with you. Really angry. I am angry with your love-affair with foreign capital – western, Guptan, Russian and Chinese. I am angry with your inability to create jobs and lift people out of poverty, perpetuating inequality, resentment and crime.

Why are we not promoting a decentralised solar power industry? We have so much sunshine. Why have you not pushed through with land restitution so that people can have dignity again and we can really begin to put the past behind us? Why are the majority of schools in the township and rural areas offering sub-standard education? Why are you not doing everything you can to prove the racists wrong and show just how brilliantly a black man can run a country?

To me, it’s like you have morphed into another elite in a country which already values elitism over humanity.

So, as you can imagine, I felt it was time that I did not offer you yet another vote of thanks for freeing the country from the claustrophobic oppression of the apartheid state. That instead, I stood together with my fellow South Africans and offered you a lesson, which is this:

We are not your people, as you so often like to say. You are our government. And like you, we too love this country. It’s our home, and we want to make it better – together.

So I am thrilled that our metropolitans are going to have to be run by coalitions, where politicians will actually have to work together. I feel energized, enlivened and… well, liberated. So thanks again. And best of luck with the coalition talks.

Claire

PS. I heard Mantashe say that low voter turnout had worked against you. You do realise that not pitching up, is kind of the same thing as pitching up and drawing a picture of a showerhead on the ballot paper?

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Shattered pasts

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(South African war relics, Marie Rawdon Museum, Matjiesfontein, Karoo)

A few years ago, while tapping away on my laptop during a flight to Cape Town, the woman sitting next to me asked me if I was writing a book.

I was. She asked me what it was about. At the time, my answer changed, depending on who was asking. I decided to give this 60-year-old white South African woman the long answer.

I had been an Open Society Foundation fellow. I had spent three months in the old Transkei investigating what democracy had – and hadn’t – brought to rural South Africa. During that journey I had run headlong into my own fears, prejudice and ignorance. I was writing a book confronting the racist shadows in me, a 38-year-old English-speaking South African.

“Would you read it?” I asked her.

She sighed.

“It’s very difficult for me to pick up one of those books and read,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Tangled emotions of guilt and regret and deep, deep sorrow.”

I waited quietly, waiting for her to say more.

“We’re in a bit of haze, perhaps we’ve had to develop that to survive. I’m sorry that we are so dulled, that there is a dullness of interest, it’s just as though…” she thought for a while, “I think we had to fall asleep. For survival. To live with guilt and regret is too painful.”

Her words echoed something I had read in Jonathan Jansen’s book Knowledge in the Blood. In it he discusses Shattered Past, research that examined the behaviour of post-war German communities. The research found that even after communities had come to have direct knowledge of the killings and torture of Jews, “the majority of the population rather preferred to cover its own complicity with merciful silence”.

For close on twenty years many whites South Africans acted similarly. Silence was the norm and when you did address “it”, it was often reduce to two words: “white guilt”. Go out of your way for a black person and a colleague might mockingly chide: “white guilt!” Turn away from a beggar, pretending that neither of you are there, and your conscience would taunt the same. Try raise the topic of apartheid and its link to poverty, poor education or crime at a braai, and the reply would be: “Enough of the white guilt already.” White guilt didn’t like to chat.

Recently, I found myself reflecting on how the conversation has shifted, how 21 years later, silence and white guilt are no longer in charge. Since late last year, “whiteness” and “privilege” have become the new buzz words, and the uncomfortable thing about these new labels are that they are being put upon us. People who are not us are describing our behaviour, defining our ordinary, every day, sometimes shitty, sometimes amazing lives as a stolen good.

“How dare they?” come the retaliations. “How dare they judge us? After all, we all know how the thieves are around here, don’t we?”

Oh yes, the dialogue is shifting. Our culpable silence is being broken, and white South Africans are feeling exposed, defenceless, uncomfortable.

What are we supposed to do now?

Well, if the Shattered Past research is anything to go by, what is happening now is very similar to what happened in post-war Germany. Just over twenty years after the end of the Second War, as the old Germans begin to die, a space opened up for a new generation of thinkers and writers who were able to observe the past with a new critical consciousness.

Cue – in South Africa – the Frantz Fanon, RhodesMustFall, EFF generation.

And if we keep drawing the parallel, what the Shattered Past research found was that “the capacity for perpetrators to change arose only after the political elites recognized more than one pain and ‘the link between the suffering of the victims and the perpetrators’ was established.”

In other words, for society to heal, it had to start setting aside some compassion for the bad guys.

In post-war Germany, the blanket of silence had meant Germans had been stopped from processing their own war wounds: the rape they had suffered at the hands of the Russians, the death of their solider sons, the intimidation and fear culture that had been Nazi Germany. Yes, the Nuremberg trials (Truth and Reconcilliation Commission) had held those with actual blood on their hands to account, but the rest of the Germans had been left alone to deal with their losses.

In 1960s Germany, the new youth consciousness heralded a phase where the personal losses and griefs of the past were permitted to be aired and dissected.

And I find myself wondering: is that what South Africa needs too? Do those white South Africans with their fortress houses and 4x4s who don’t seem to give a fuck about anyone but themselves, need to be given an opportunity to express their unresolved pain?

Admittedly, it’s often hard to feel anything but contempt for some white South Africans. On Valentine’s weekend I was at the Vaal River and felt like washing my hands of any further attempt at inter-racial healing as I witnessed the selfishness of those white South Africans, with their jet skis and speed boats who drive drunk and reckless on the river without a care for anyone but themselves. How does one even begin to have compassion for people who seem to treat the world as just a giant playground, hoarding all the toys? Who are these people?

But later, as the sun set over the river, and I connected once again with the deep peace of the land, I also found myself wondering what lurks beneath all that bravado and shiny toys and heavy drinking?

In his book Jansen remembers how destitute the white Afrikaners were at the end of the South African War. They had been chased from Europe because of their religious faith, and then they had been defeated again on this new soil as they had tried to build a new home. Out of this defeat they rose again, this time determined to create a nation that no one could destroy, and they lost control of that too.

What lies inside people who have lost and lost and lost?

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The noise of the world is made of our silences

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Why do I write about race issues? Sometimes I think I am crazy. Sometimes I am sure of it. Why admit to and reflect on dirty prejudices that haunt the shadows of the mind? It’s probably safer to poke a snake with a stick.

I found myself reflecting on this, this weekend, while reading All Quiet on the Western Front, a book that documents the horror of war and that was banned in Germany in the lead-up to World War 2 on the grounds that it painted Germans in a bad light.

For twenty years, South Africans subconsciously banned talking about racism. There was a collective belief that it didn’t support our Rainbow Nation’s war effort, namely the fight inside ourselves to forget the past and move on as quickly as we could.

That’s not to say people weren’t branded racists. “Racist!” became the punctuation mark to end any unwanted conversation. It was the silencer of choice used to quieten any unsolicited criticism, often of the government. But there it got stuck, at the level of insult, never probing, never advancing any deeper understanding.

That is, until March 2015, when the Born Frees woke up and called us on it, adding whiteness and privilege to the concepts to chew on.

The other day, a white woman from Kempton Park asked me to explain #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall.

“What do they want?” she asked.

I explained that because of income and education disparity, begun by institutional inequalities in the past and perpetuated by inequalities in the present, many black people continue to feel second-class citizens in their own country. Locked out.

“But it was hard for me too,” she said, going on to document the years of strife as she worked two jobs to pay her way through university, clawed her way into male-dominated work spaces, struggled to get promoted, be recognised, be seen.

“Then you understand,” I said.

One of the greatest crimes of apartheid was that it taught us not to have compassion for people who do not look like us. Compassion was for the person who sat next to you in church. Pity was for the maid.

We are still stuck here. We may shake hands, call each other bra and dance with petrol attendants, but we are still clawing our way to the place where we see each other as people.

That’s why I write about race relations. Because if I stand naked, and lay myself bare, you’ll start to see me. And we may start to see each other.

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Why the old Transkei?

Lost Where I Belong is my non-fiction book that explores the legacy of apartheid and the difficulty of transformation of the human soul, written between 2010-2015. I have been reading excerpts from the book on the streets of Joburg. After a reading in a small park overlooked by the Nelson Mandela Bridge, Bismark Matsheza shared his thoughts.
If you want to hear the reading, keep scrolling. Please share in your networks.

Transcript of interview

Me: What does it make you feel when you hear me read this?

Bismark: I love that you are trying to bring out the South African history, what used to happen.

Me: Does it make you want to read more?

Bismark: Yes. Actually, I wanted to ask you, did you write this?

Me: Ja, but I can’t get it published.

Bismark: Why?

Me: They say there is no market for a book written by a white person that confronts racism.

Bismark: That’s not good. Why would they say such a thing?

Me: They say the topic makes people too uncomfortable and that white people won’t read it.

Bismark: Why?

Me: Because it’s too uncomfortable and upsetting and it makes people feel bad. And so people won’t spend money on something that makes them feel bad.

Bismark: But you are saying what happened, so… right? You are talking about what happened. I’d love to read the book. I wonder why they say that?

Anthony (cameraman): Are they afraid of the truth?

Me: I don’t know. I was told my one of the South African publishing houses that there is no market for this. Penguin Random House says there is no market for this.

Bismark: But did they read this too?

Me: No, they read the first three chapters and said there was no market.

Bismark: Who else has looked at it?

Me: Two South African publishers and about fifteen international publishers says there is no market.

Bismark: So what are you going to do?

Me: This is it. If the establishment doesn’t want to listen, let’s take the story to the streets.

Bismark: That’s a good idea. There’s some people who doesn’t know what happened. I think what you are doing is good.

Me: Thanks, it’s great to hear. This is the first moment I’m doing it and I was wondering if it was boring you.

Bismark: Like I said, was supposed to go and buy something but when you started reading I was like, okay… so that’s why I remained sitting here.

“I am discontent with the second-hand diet of fear that I am being fed from afar…”

“Why the old Transkei? I thought it would be a safer place to probe at my scars…”

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Thoughts Must Fall – a rethink

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The great thing about writing a blog is that it makes you really think about your thoughts. Not just before you write – that, you’d hope, would go without saying – but once they are out there for the world to see. Writing a blog is a bit like walking around with your pants down – everyone gets to see what you’re made of – and you find yourself wondering what so-and-so would think if they read it. It makes you start a dialogue in your own head and with that comes the possibility for further shifts of the mind and heart.

Recently I wrote a blog titled “Thoughts Must Fall”. It was a critique of a critique, and a few weeks later I doubted myself and took it down to reflect on what I had written.

So what had I written?

When the #ZumaMustFall protests gained momentum in December 2015 – with marches in Joburg and Cape Town scheduled for the Day of Reconciliation, a national public holiday – a UCT professor called Adam Haupt had written a Thought Leader piece titled – “Whose Hashtag is it anyway?” – arguing that #ZumaMustFall was cultural appropriation. Haupt’s argument was that the hashtag #MustFall was the property of those within the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements, a voice of the youth that was riling against a status quo which benefitted so few at the expense of so many.

Although by the time of the marches, everyone in the country, regardless of race and age, was pretty much sick to the back teeth of President Zuma and the allegations of state capture and misappropriation of state funds, the #ZumaMustFall protests, at least in Cape Town where Haupt lives and works, was seen as being led by moneyed white South Africans. (Later in January, someone even paid for a gigantic #ZumaMustFall banner to be printed at an estimated cost of R200,000 and hung – without municipal permission – on the side of a Cape Town building.)

Up until then, the #MustFall protests had been directed at people like them – people with what Haupt describes as unearned privilege – and for them to use the hashtag as their own legitimate voice of protest was deemed a form of cultural appropriation.

So what is cultural appropriation? It’s quite a highbrow insult that gets a lot of airing in wood-panelled lecture halls and contains in it a belief that it is wrong to take the icons of someone else’s culture, either for profit, or even, for fun or aesthetic value. So it’s wrong for young women at music festivals to wear feathered Indian headwear since they don’t understand its deeper spiritual, significance and it’s wrong for a fashion designer from Europe to make fashion items using blankets from Basotho culture. They are not yours. Leave them alone.

Woven within the subtext of cultural appropriation is a narrative about power, especially economic power. If I am from a culture or group of people that at some time in history has ridden roughshod over your people, and/or if I am from a group of people who is seen as more financially dominant in world economy scales, then I most definitely must not profit from your stuff. To do that just perpetuates the inequality and stops you being seen.

Haupt’s argument about #ZumaMustFall really irked me, and not just because I find cultural appropriation the most joyless concept on earth – what, no more fancy dress parties? no more pretending to be someone you’re not? – but because it struck me as a subtle form of prejudice that was trying to silence those with what he terms unearned privilege – ie. white people – from exercising their democratic right to protest. It seemed to suggest that the only legitimate and justified form of protest could come from those who feel marginalised by the current system. And it also pre-determines who is marginalised by that system, and on what grounds they are permitted to feel marginalised.

According to his analysis, the authentic marginalised voice is one that is, or sees itself, as outside the fruits of the economic system, fruits that were unfairly grown from an unjust past. If you have fruit but still feel angry, you should think again. You can’t be legitimately angry until you’ve properly understood how your fruity life is built on the fruitless lives of others, and until you’ve started to take their cause as your own.

And yes, it might sound rich coming from me, sitting at my MacBookAir, tapping away in my nice Melville garden cottage, but is that really all we are? Economic beings? The means of production? Is it not possible to feel marginalised if you don’t see yourself represented in, and even locked out of, the political establishment – as many white South Africans feel? Is it not justified to feel cheated and angry if the tax money you pay into the state every year is being corruptly misappropriated by your president? If we accept that in a democracy there is a multiplicity of beliefs, desires and needs, is it not possible to protest on the grounds that your particular needs are not being met?

To his credit, at the nub of Haupt’s argument was a call for #ZumaMustFall protestors to more deeply engage with the “black burdens” (his words) that are fuelling the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protests. If we are ever to truly create the groundswell of power needed to topple the political fat cats, the haves need to understand and get behind the have-nots. They can’t just cry their own tears.

But really, using cultural appropriation as a means of encouraging dialogue? It’s like knocking someone on the back of the head with a copy of The Communist Manifesto, and shouting “Think again!”

Why then did I take down the piece I had written? Well, because I kept on writing to a place where white people so often go when they feel that their points of view are not being understood – I went on to a place of fear.

It’s a habit in us. Whenever we feel that we are being taken to task or held to account by black South Afrians, we don’t just argue back, we get angry back, and quickly on its tail comes fear. So my argument went that Haupt’s economic reductive analysis is a limited version of humanity (still agree with myself), and that it’s a subtle form of prejudice and we must remember that prejudice can be as deadly as racism (and although I agree with myself here, I’m not sure it was necessary to go here). Look what happened to the Jews I argued. They did not have structural power in Germany, but they had economic power. So does this mean that the Holocaust was racist, or was it prejudiced?

Stop.

How did I get from university students calling for change to the Holocaust? This is what we – white South Africans – do. First we disagree, then we become fearful and start warning people.

It is time that we began to reflect on this habit, because it is a habit, an old one, engineered in us by our apartheid past when we were fed on a diet of ‘swart gevaar’. Little has been done to undo that conditioning, and if anything, the violent crime that the country has experienced post-apartheid has actually deepened many of those fears.

And yet there is a big difference between a criminal and a protestor. Between someone with a different viewpoint to ours, and someone who actually wants to harm us. If we want to live a truly fruitful life in South Africa – a life that is not just economically fruitful – we need to start interrogating these old fears.

After all, as one black writer I know once said to me: “When has a black man ever invaded a white man’s country?”

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Fear and self-loathing in Hillbrow

Last week I took to the streets of Hillbrow to read from my book, Lost Where I Belong. In this video I’m sitting on a pillar, reading a chapter about white fear to a guy from Nkandla (not Jacob Zuma) who was standing on the street corner chatting with a friend.

Afterward the reading I asked him what it was like to hear a white woman speak honestly and openly about her fear of black male strangers.

“Did it make you feel angry or hurt or sad?” I asked.

“All of those things,” he said, clutching his arms across his chest

“I’m sorry, I didn’t want to upset you. I wrote this book so we can talk about what is there.  We all know these things are there, but we don’t want to talk about them out loud. We’ve been so busy focusing on the Rainbow Nation, it feels like we’ve been sweeping the truth under the carpet. I feel that if we can start being more honest with each other, the past will have less of a hold over us.”

“It’s good,” he says. “Difficult to hear, but good you are doing this.”

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The cold white shoulder

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On Youth Day weekend, thirteen South Africans gathered at a retreat centre in the Underberg to experiment with Insight Dialogue as a way of dealing with the pain and anger caused by the racism and prejudice that is thick in our country.

We were one Indian woman, 6 black people (all women), 6 white people (including two men), and a cat. People had travelled from all over the country. Everyone had come of their own free will.

Insight dialogue is a technique that draws on the skills of meditation – concentration, breathwork and mindfulness – to guide deeper conversations about difficult issues. Working in pairs, every dialogue has a pre-set topic. Every time you notice a “me too” narrative or you starting thinking up a reply, the instruction is to notice, pause, breathe, relax, and come back to what the other person is saying. The belief is that the more deeply we listen, the more we are able to connect with the truth of others – and our own truth.

In the first race dialogue of the retreat I found myself paired with a white man. I could sense his disappointment. Often at Consciousness Café we notice white people aren’t interested in connecting with other white people. Their urge is to bridge the divide and hear something new. Sometimes there is an added desire to distance themselves from the other ‘guilty ones’ – a wish to not be sullied by association.

In this moment, I found myself relieved. Some of the black women had already shared how hurtful and offensive white people’s views can be, and I wondered if, so early in the weekend, it was better that a white woman be a buffer for a white man’s views. Little did I realise that what was about to happen would bring me to tears – and impact the whole room.

The topic for the first dialogue was: describe your culture to the other person. We are both English-speaking white South Africans. Same culture. The person closest to the door was instructed to speak first. In our pairing that was the white man. He shook his head and admitted that he had drawn a blank. He had three minutes to speak. He ran out of words. “White English-speaking people don’t have a culture,” he concluded.

My turn.

“We do have a culture. Ours is a culture that equates your worth as a person with whatever it is you do for a living, and what you have achieved. It’s a culture that values good schools, nice houses, productivity. It’s a culture that ranks rationality and logic over emotions. It likes order, which it calls fairness, and it regards justice as when things are ‘just so’, everything in its right place. It is a culture that believes its way of doing things is the right way – and that everyone could take a leaf from our tree. Our culture might seem invisible to you, but that is because our culture is also patriarchal and as a white man, it gives you preference, and because it’s the dominant culture in this country. The reason you can’t see our culture is because you are it. We can’t see the woods for the trees.”

As I spoke, I saw his eyes widen in recognition and realisation. But he was not permitted to speak.

In the second round of dialogue we were instructed to speak about what it was like to listen to the other. We were to repeat some of the key things they said, not paraphrasing, nor interpreting. I repeated to my partner what he had said, about how he had drawn a blank, how he didn’t think we had a culture, and he used my language to describe white, English patriarchal culture to me.

As he spoke, I felt my body soften, a sense of deep relief in my gut, like the door had opened and soft light had fallen into the room.

In the third round of dialogue we were instructed to speak about what it was like to speak about this topic – effectively to talk about our emotions. My partner spoke about he had been so certain of his view about our lack of culture, and how he now felt embarrassed at his ignorance, and felt an enormous desire to reflect further.

At my turn to speak, my voice cracked, and tears I did not expect, came to my eyes:
“It was so strange because this never happens. You never listen. Whenever I try to speak to white men about how I feel about this country, you either get defensive or angry, or shut me down. Ag man, just light the braai. Leave it alone.
I am supposedly one of your women, part of your tribe. You are these big, strong, caring guys, you see yourselves as our protectors, but because I question and probe and think deeply about what we did, how our behaviour and attitudes continue to affect our fellow South Africans, you mock me, you isolate me and you push me out.  Do you know how lonely I feel? It’s like I have no people. Like I don’t belong.”

He told me after that, while listening to me speak, he wanted to reach out, squeeze my hand, make it better, but he couldn’t, all he could do was sit there, in silence, breathing, relaxing, listening deeply.

A few minutes later we were asked to share what happened with the whole group. I told them honestly about how unfamiliar it felt to be properly listened to by a white South African man. I had long thought that my sense of feeling lost in post-apartheid South Africa was because of my sometimes successful, sometimes failed attempts to connect with other cultures. Now I realised that the deeper loss was from feeling rejected by my own so-called people.

My words landed heavily in the room. Especially among the black women.

One black woman put the feeling into words:
“When I saw two white people put together to dialogue, I thought, what’s the point of that? They’re all the same. I always saw you as one white mass. But now I’m thinking… there is so much we just don’t get.”

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