Where were the white people?

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Yesterday we held our 21st Consciousness Café of 2016. Our venue was the Penthouse at Joburg Theatre. We chose this space not only for its floor-to-ceiling views of the city – an inspiring backdrop for a Day of Reconciliation dialogue – but because it has safe parking and a bus stop outside. It’s accessible to pretty much everybody. When we arrived the lifts were full of little blonde children clutching their parents hands, on their way to watch the pantomime, Robin Hood.

As the classic tale of the hero who takes from the rich and redistributes to the poor took to the stage, upstairs 50 South African citizens gathered in a circle to have a 4-hour group dialogue about what real reconciliation would look like, and what’s stopping it from happening.

Among them were 46 black people and 4 white people. Four.

Where were you?

We joked that you had already gone to your holiday home. We reassured the room that white people had come in bigger numbers before – for example, when we held a Consciousness Café in the ’burbs. And yes, in fairness, by ratio there should have been less white people there. We are in the minority. We make up only 19.1% of the population of Gauteng* (out of a total population of 13.2m at 2015 census). Stick to the maths, and only 9.5 out of 50 should have been white.

But the room was not content with our explanation because this was the Day of Reconciliation. This was the day it mattered. This was the day that has been set aside for us to rip the plasters of apartheid’s still suppurating wounds, and instead, what most South Africans – of all races – prefer to do is have a lekker time.

Let’s reconcile ourselves to another six pack of beers. Let’s reconcile ourselves to loud music and a braai. Let’s reconcile ourselves to another year of being divided so political elites can trample all over us. Let’s reconcile ourselves to the status quo because my life is fine and how do you expect me to care about your life – after all, I don’t really know all that much about it?

Earlier in the week, the Department of Arts and Culture had tweeted: “”How do you reconcile with other races when there is only one race at these dialogues, national days, imbizos, etc?”

And for once, the government is right.

I’ve never wanted to be the finger-wagging white because I know it’s pointless: white South Africans don’t like being told what to do. It’s the colonialists’ complex (and the real reason why Brexit happened). The former top dog doesn’t like taking orders or suggestions from anyone. No one must call us on our behaviour. No one must tell us to reflect on the past. We already pay our taxes, what more do you want?

Well, after co-facilitating Consciousness Café dialogues all through this year, I can tell you what some black South Africans want.

They want you to listen to them.

They want you to come into a safe-enough space so they can tell you how apartheid and the myth of white supremacy fucked with their minds. And how it’s still a daily struggle to tell themselves that they are good enough.

They want to tell you how hurtful it is when people say that “they must just get over it”, but how nobody ever says that to a Jew about the Holocaust.

They want to tell you how shit it feels every time a white woman clutches her handbag when she walks past a black guy. How offensive it is that you can’t tell the difference between an engineer and a thief.

That racism is real. It’s still happening. Every day. In a black majority, black-ruled country.

They want to ask you why you are so scared of all black people (not just the criminals) – after all, what nation of black people has ever invaded a white nation?

They want to tell you that retribution does not mean war. But the effects of the 1913 Land Act (that banned black people from owning land) and forced removals are a giant stinking hangover – worse than the one you have today.

They want to tell you how infuriating it is when you are studying philosophy at Wits and the subject of the African philosophy of Ubuntu comes up, and 4 of the 5 set readings are written by white men, even though there are at least another 20 recommended papers written by black writers.

They want to tell you that they are sick of feeling like unwanted guests on the land of their ancestors. They want to tell you that you are the settler.

And they want to tell you that you do belong here. But you’re not African. And your system of doing things is not necessarily the right or the best system for the health, wealth and wellbeing for the majority of the people of this country.

And you may have a lot of things you want to say back. But you only get to say them, if you actually come along.

Stop hiding behind the Internet.

PS. The two young Jewish mothers who hired babysitters and came from suburbia, got to say something back. The dialogue was fierce. Black anger and white fear squared up to each other. Together we stood in a raging fire, and everyone left with their consciousness altered.

Our next Consciousness Café will be on Saturday, 28 January 2017. Venue TBC.

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Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

 

 

“How many white liberals are in South Africa?”

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So there I was propping up a barn in Sweet Auburn, Atlanta. I was in town for a conference about racial justice (or the lack thereof) with my Consciousness Café colleague Keke. Two days before, Donald Trump had been elected president of the US, and the conference was a churned-up sea of angry, bewildered activists. After yet another day of high-intensity discussions, we’d gone out in search of beer.

Our taxi dropped us off on the corner of Edgewood and Boulevard, where a helicopter was whirring overhead, and police cars were parked up. In the distance we could hear drums and see flags waving, and as they got closer, we saw it was one of the many #NotMyPresident marches that were taking place across the US that day. There were probably about 300 white people, with a smattering of “people of colour”, being followed by a CBS news van, which was broadcasting this march live. The police stood back with their arms folded, watching bored, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the black faces had outnumbered the white faces, would the police have been so relaxed, and would the media have described it as peaceful? But I digress.

Within moments of entering the bar we immediately befriended two guys, one black, one white, who by some weird cast of fate, both had spent a lot of time in South Africa.

The white guy’s grandfather was Morris Nestadt, the former mayor of Benoni, the East Rand mining town where I had grown up, and he spent all his childhood summers there.

The black guy, LeJuano, was a mover and shaker who had spent six months living in Joburg’s trendy suburbs of Parkhurst and Maboneng, checking out the scene.

It was LeJuano, who, a few beers later, posed me the question: “How many white liberals do you think they are in South Africa?”

I hesitated. Contemplated. Took another sip of beer.

“That a difficult question,” I said.

Keke rolled her eyes. “Why is it difficult? Just answer the question,” she said.

“It’s difficult because it depends what you mean by liberal? Is it someone who believes in giving back the land? Or are you a liberal if you never say ‘I hate kaffirs’?”

“Mara,” says Keke. “Why are you complicating this?”

“Because it is complicated,” I said. “During apartheid, a white liberal was someone who didn’t support racial segregation. Back then, the DP – who are now the DA – were the liberals. But nowadays if you’re white and you vote for the DA, you are not seen as a liberal. In fact, liberal has become a dirty word, and those who would consider themselves the true liberals nowadays are what others would call the radicals. Those who fully support the EFF and “give back the land”. And if that’s the definition we are reaching for, then I’d say there are probably zero white liberals in South Africa. Or maybe ten a push.”

At which point LeJuano threw back his head and started laughing.

“You South Africans!” he said. “You’d never hear people in America talk like this.”

To which Keke rolled her eyes and demanded we stop talking about politics and order some more beers.

And so we did.

But ever since I’ve been promising that I would write about this because it has been on my mind a lot over the last six years. I initially wrote a whole chapter on liberalism for my book, Lost Where We Belong, and then took it out because I felt like I was posturing. Who the hell was I to stroke my beard and pontificate on liberalism? I didn’t even know what it really meant.

Which is perhaps, in essence, the problem.

Liberalism is a broad brushstroke. If you believe in tolerance, respect, freedom, dignity of the individual, multi-party democracy, the rule of law, accountability and the separation of powers, then you can probably call yourself a political liberal.

And by virtue of our Constitution, South Africa is, in essence, a liberal country. Most of these values are the founding values of the new South Africa, and surprising as it may seem, this nation of crotchety, recovering racists is actually collectively signed up to a liberal agenda.

But just like God gets a bad rap from the awful humans that sometimes do heinous acts in the name of God, so liberalism has got something of a bad rap from its association with a nation of recovering racists.

That said, often the real grind with liberalism in South Africa is more concerned with attitudes towards economic liberalism. Critics would argue – and I would agree – that a laissez faire approach to the economy only serves to benefit those who already have established networks, education and access to resources. And because of our unjust past, there is no equal playing field in South Africa, and so if we want to see a just and fair state – and not just a liberal state – then some level of state intervention is required.

This, of course, this brings us to the difficult conversation of what kind of state intervention is just and fair. And this is where it gets uncomfortable, and brings up the other “L” word: Land.

The 1913 Land Act forbade black people from owning land in South Africa. Throughout apartheid black people were forcibly removed from land close to the city centre, and forced to live away from desirable resources, networks and infrastructure.

For restitution to take place, for justice to be attained, it is believed that actions are going to have to be taken regarding reappropriation of land which are mostly uncomfortable, threatening, terrifying and unpalatable to the white people who live on that land.

And if the topic of “land” makes your mouth dry, your heart beat faster, and your eyes shut, does it mean you can no longer call yourself a liberal?

And if you continue to call yourself a liberal, but get sweaty palms at the mention of “land”, is it liberalism that is at issue? Or is it something else?

My favourite definition of liberalism comes from the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who wrote in his book, Unpopular Essays (after which this blog is named): “The essence of the liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment.”

No one ever says to a Jewish person, “get over the Holocaust already”. They know the facts and the facts continue to stun, shock and horrify. But again and again, we hear white people say that black people should “just get over apartheid”. But if we were really prepared to engage with the facts about how unfair, cruel and destructive apartheid was – and how its legacy continues to be – would people really say that?

Which is why, right now, it doesn’t matter how many liberals there are. What really matters is how many listeners there are.

*Our next Consciousness Café dialogue is at the Joburg Theatre on Friday, 16 December, from 2-6pm. Free event. Full details here

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

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]

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

The next pot of gold

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I am heading towards depression again. I can feel it hounding at my ankles. Self doubt. That feeling of overwhelm. Panic in my chest. The future stretches ahead of me, blank and uncertain. I want to switch the world off.

This last year has been an attempt to be in the world. Actively, passionately. I am struggling now with the things that I have found.

Realisations that my kind, the white kind, have done horrid things to themselves, to each other, to those who do not look like them, and that standing here in my white skin, I am often thrown in the heap with them. I am white. I am them.

Realisations that in the name of progress, of a better life, people have done horrendous acts. That the worst atrocities – the Holocaust, the Soviet gulags, Pol Pot’s mass murders – were all done in the name of goodness, because the perpetrators believed that this was the way to make the world a better, safer, fairer place. And now Brexit. Trump. The burning of books at Wits. The self-righteous insistence that the end justifies the means.

Realisations that people pretend to kill others for amusement, for fun, to relax.

What is this world where people believe that one person’s wellbeing will be improved by the destruction of another’s?

I am wearied by this. Wearied by this world.

Last week I went to the Biodata World Congress at the Wellcome Campus in Cambridge.  Genomics is the study of the variations and mutations in our human DNA in a bid to understand ‘the language of God’. I am writing an overview of the world’s largest genomic projects.

I was struck by these things:

  1. The reference human genome – the first dictionary that we made for this new field of research – is 96% made up of the genes of a Caucasian man.
  2. Nature abhors racism. It abhors sticking to your own kind. The more you breed with those who are close to you, the more it makes you into a mutant. Nature prefers diversity.
  3. Genomics is the next arms race. Fuelled by a belief that if we can figure out which genetic mutation causes which disease we can make drugs that will stop /fix/block that genetic mutation.
  4. We are so afraid of death, we are in danger of replacing it with a fear of life. Come here Human 4579kB, it seems that you are at risk of these diseases. We recommend this pill.
  5. We are mining ourselves as a way to make money. We are the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Weary, so weary.

 

 

 

 

“I hate white South Africans”

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There’s a bar in Glasgow called The Old Hairdressers. It’s down an unlit back lane, the plaster and paint are peeling off the walls, and it’s a favourite of art school graduates and their brethren who huddle around circular tables to have beard-stroking conversations. It’s the kind of place where I look around me and think: “hello my people.”

Last Saturday I met up with my art-school graduate pal to drink copious amounts of red wine and listen to two singer-song writers. The first was a neo-grunge, tuneless wailer, who poured his lyrics into the microphone without ever looking up. The drone was so intentional and unbearable, free earplugs were handed out at the bar.

The second was a punk version of Cat Stevens called The Rebel. His satirical lyrics contain the kind of banal and yet poignant thoughts that you sometimes think to yourself, but rarely say out loud: “Why won’t Thatcher let everything be free? Why must I play for a fucking cup of tea?”
I thought he was brilliant.

After the gig, I got into conversation with a young white Scottish woman who had been fan of The Rebel for over 20 years. She told me that she was an anarchist, and while watching the gig she had looked around at the audience with despair wondering: “Am I the only one who really understands The Rebel?”

It was the cry more commonly heard from teenagers who feel they’ve overtaken their peers and their parents, and discovered eye-rolling new truths that everyone else has missed.

Not to be a bitch, I tried to empathise and said that this was the first week that I had ever looked at the government and thought: “Oh fuck, I might be smarter than the people running this country.”

(This was the week that Theresa May and Amber Rudd had announced they wanted British companies to draw up lists of their foreign employees, implying that hiring hearts, minds and hands from another country, was a shameful act.)

I then went onto say that I came from South Africa. That I am part of a collective that hosts dialogues confronting racism and injustice, and my wish is that people would start to value diversity, rather than condemn it.

Her response: “I hate white South Africans.”

And then she walked away.

I stood there in silence, slurped my wine, shook my head, stifled a laugh.

A few moments later, she came back, and introduced me to her black, Scottish, one-armed boyfriend (talk about being a minority) who was so drunk he could barely stand up. He then proceeded to engage in a slurred monologue about how he doesn’t get hangovers, and that maybe it’s because he is an African, while she watched me out of the corner of her eye. It felt like a bizarre test of “prove you’re not a racist”, and as the moments passed, I felt my disbelief growing.

Why is that people – especially so-called radicals – believe that it’s perfectly legitimate to say out loud: “I hate white South Africans”?

Think about it. This is a woman who clearly believes it’s wrong to judge people on the colour of their skins and their disabilities. She would never say: “I hate blacks”.

This is a woman whose who does not see herself represented in the values of mainstream British society and the current Tory government, and firmly believes that the individual is separate from the state. So how can she justify hating me based on the fact that I grew up in a racist state?

Yes, it is entirely possible that I could still share the views of that racist state. But it is also entirely possible that I could not.

We live in confronting times.

This week Mcebo Dlamini, a student from the University of the Witwatersrand who has been very visible in the #FeesMustFall protests – protests that I have a lot of empathy with because I too struggled my way through the financial pressures of an expensive university education – reiterated that he loved Adolf Hilter because: “Hitler took white people [and] starved them to death, the same way they did to black people. That’s why they hate him. I love Adolf Hitler for that.”

Also, this week Donald Trump continued to insult Mexicans and women.

The world seems to be a place where the self-righteous believe that they are entirely justified in forcing someone else’s identity upon them. Where the radicals and would-be heroes feel that they are entitled to reduce someone else’s identity to one they can pinpoint, hate and dismiss.

But we all know that our personal identities are much more complex than that.

When we will begin to extend that same awareness to the dreaded other?

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

 

The problem with ideals

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This past week I’ve been reading Svetlana Alexievich’s book Second-Hand Time for which she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. Alexievich is a Belarussian investigative journalist who spent more than a decade interviewing the citizens of the former USSR –  most of whom were previously card-carrying members of the Communist Party – about how they feel about post-Soviet freedom.

Every night, since beginning to read the book, I have gone to bed in a pique, caught somewhere between shock, horror and a deep, deep despair.

Why?

Because their ideal was beautiful.

“Houses made of crystal and aluminium… Crystal Palaces! Lemons and orange groves in cities. There are almost no elderly, people get old very late in life because life is so wonderful. Machines do all the work, people just drive and control them. The machines sow seeds and knit… The fields are thick with verdure and bounty. Flowers as tall as trees. Everyone is happy. Joyful. Everyone goes around in fine clothes, men and women alike, leading free lives of labour and pleasure. There’s enough space and work for everyone…”

And what they did to achieve it was grotesque.

“I met my old comrade in prison… Nikolai Verkhovets, a [Communist] Party member since 1924. He taught at a worker’s school. He’d been among friends, in a tight circle… someone was reading Pravda [the newspaper] aloud, and it said that the Bureau of the Central Committee had held a hearing on the fertilisation of mares. Then he went and made a joke about how the Central Committee had nothing better to do that worry about mare fertilization. They came for him that same night. Slammed his fingers in a door and broke them like they were pencils. They’d keep him in a gas mask for days at a time. I don’t know how to talk about these things today… All in all it was barbarism. Humiliating. You’re nothing but a piece of meat lying in a pool of urine.”

The book documents more and more horrors of indivduals sacrified for the ideal.

A Ukrainian woman who ate her own child after the Ukrainians were sieged into famine for refusing collectivisation of the farms.

The account of an old Jewish man who, as a child, had escaped from a mass grave where his fellows were being buried alive. Moscow saw the Jews as traitors. They were to be annihilated.

And betrayal after betrayal of family, neighbours, friends who believed in the dream of a future, better, wonderful society, more than they believed in family ties, loyalty and neighbourliness.

Most disturbing of all, is how many of those, whose lives were destroyed in the name of the ideal, continued to believe in it. And still do.

“I spent almost a year in prison… And then they released me, dismissing all the charges… They called me into the district Party committee. ‘Unfortunately we will not be able to return your wife to you. She’s died [She had also been imprisoned as a so-called counter-revolutionary]. But you can have your honour back.’ And they handed me back my Party membership card. And I was happy. I was so happy…”

[Here the writer comments that she can never understand him – never.]

“You can’t judge us according to logic. You accountants! You have to understand. You can only judge us according to the laws of religion. Faith! Our faith will make you jealous. What greatness do you have in your life? You have nothing. Just comfort. Anything for a full belly…”

Alexievich’s book has made me reflect deeply on the ideals that I hold.

In South Africa, we have been working towards the ideal of non-racialism, and this book has forced me to contemplate:  who is being sacrificed for this ideal? Is there someone whose life is worse off, because of this ideal?

Recently I interviewed a young woman active in the #FeesMustFall student protests.
“I hate non-racialism,” she said, explaining how she views any attempt to turn a blind eye to race in South Africa as an attempt to ignore the injustices that have created a legacy of economic inequality.

Her hatred of this ideal disturbed me, but as I reflect on the Soviet dream, and what was done in its name, I am forcing myself to ask: what is being done and perpetuated in the name of non-racialism?

Mandela drew a line in the sand and said we could start afresh from here. We wouldn’t look back. And this past week I have found myself wondering:  who is sacrified when we push away the past and ask that everyone forgets about it and moves on?

The ideal of apartheid was swiftly followed by the ideal of non-racialism. But the past is a poltergeist. It is there and not there. It continues to hurt the living every day.

What ideal do we serve when we look away when another child is born into poverty in the township? What ideal do we serve when we dismiss the fact that another young man, without a decent education or decent prospects, has joined a gang and committed rape?

What are our ideals worth if they are more valuable to us than the present lives of our fellow man?

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

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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The perils of the older man

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When I was 27 I met a man twice my age and fell in love. Four years later he proposed and I said yes.

“I always knew you would marry an older man,” my mum said.

She might have known, but I didn’t. In fact, I had never planned to get married.

“The biggest love affair was the one you can have with the world,” I would often scribble in my journal.

But in Gavin Paterson Bell, Scottish, former war correspondent, travel journalist, rarely shaken nor stirred, I met my match.

This past week, on a plane to Sofia, I asked him why he asked me to marry him.

“I sensed a kindred spirit, someone adventurous, thoughtful. I also thought you were honest and had good values.”

But why did you want to marry me? I probed.

He thought for a while.

“I wanted a companion to share my life with, and I wanted to share your life. For all your bravado, I sensed a sensitivity and a vulnerability and I wanted to be there as a protector. And I got a sense that you wouldn’t make too many demands on me. You were an independent spirit and wouldn’t follow me around.”

So there you have our union. A marriage of dreamers and travellers, of protectors and independents. Comfortably together, comfortably apart.

Why do I tell you this?

Because although our version of marriage is one that has ample space for dreams, I was recently reminded how society has a less expansive version of the wedded union.

I have long wanted to buy a nest in my childhood home of South Africa. A soul home where I can retreat from the hurly burly of the northlands, and spend more and more time.

A few weeks ago I found a beautiful property in my hometown of Joburg, and applied for a mortgage, planning to put down a deposit using equity from a Scottish flat that I had invested in before we got married. My money, my mission, but the South African banks shook their collective heads and pushed away my application form.

Not only were they ill at ease by my self-employed status (why do banks penalise the entrepreneurs and reward the job-worths?) but because I was married in community of property, and because my husband was beyond “mortgage age”, it meant that I was also not eligible for a mortgage. It did not matter that we operate separate bank accounts and mine contain sufficient funds to bankroll the mortgage. What mattered in the eyes of the bank was that my husband was an older man, and I a married woman.

It’s not the first time that my dreams, desires and needs have been outranked.

Five years ago, when I was 34, my husband was diagnosed with throat cancer and prostate cancer. Before his treatment regime began, we froze some of his sperm so the chemotherapy wouldn’t damage all of his swimmers.

As we filled in the consent forms at Glasgow’s Royal Infirmary, the consultant informed us that, should we one day decide on IVF, we would have to pay for it ourselves because state-funded fertility treatment is not permitted for men of a certain age. It was not regarded as an acceptable use of state funds.

The fact that I was in my mid-30s and about to lose my husband’s virility to a killer disease was irrelevant. My bid for matriarchy was outranked by a patriarchy that saved no rank for the older stags.

“You could probably appeal,” said the consultant.

I shrugged. We were squaring up to a bigger challenge and my energy was needed elsewhere. I signed the forms and walked away.

We have since considered adoption, and until recently, that too was off the table because the mean age of the parents had to be below 45. Since the day we got married, we did not qualify. Fortunately in Scotland, this has now changed and today the rule is that the younger parent be below 45.

Still, I find it perplexing that we live in a world where single women can get mortgages, adopt children and are eligble for state-funded IVF (in some NHS boroughs at least), whereas her over there with the Silver Fox on her arm, all she’s eligible for is an upgrade.

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Fuck white people?

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How do you react when you attend a public lecture in which an intellectual, journalist and influencer argues that the slogan ‘Fuck White People’ is an artistically beautiful form of protest? Do you clap? Offer a standing ovation? Roll your eyes? Mutter ‘fuck black intellectuals’ under your breath?

It is something I’ve contemplated over the past week, since attending the Ruth First Memorial Lecture at Wits University, where Lwandile Fikeni, freelance arts journalist and Ruth First fellow, presented his case for why the slogan ‘Fuck White People’ is a “highly aestheticized form of critiquing South Africa’s social ordering”.

Fikeni looks back over the year and a half since the student protests began in March 2015 with the flinging of human shit at the statue of Cecil John Rhodes in Cape Town. Rhodes was the arch British imperialist, who in the late 1800s, turned much of the land of South Africa into a Company to be exploited for profit. His statue has become a symbol of white supremacy.

Fikeni argues that because the majority of black South Africans still live outside the political, social and economic life of the country to which they are supposed to belong and because the Rainbow Nation is a myth that benefits only a privileged minority; grotesque acts of rage are an inevitable, justified and necessary means to attack the symbols of white supremacy.

Hear hear, I say. Throw the shit.

Fikeni then goes on to argue that there is something else worth lobbing – the phrase ‘Fuck White People’.

He quotes the African-American writer, dramatist, filmmaker and critic, Frank Wilderson, who says: “There’s no vocabulary, no language to articulate black suffering. That means white people have screwed us to a point that is beyond discourse, that’s beyond political language, that’s beyond respectful, understandable, engagement; so fuck you.”

Over the past year, ‘Fuck White People’ has appeared on walls and T-shirts. According to Fikeni’s reading, these words are not an incitement to harm nor an attempt to start a race war, but rather a grotesque necessity deployed to capture the discourse. So ‘Fuck white people’ is an expression of fury, an incitement to introspection, and a poetic lob of shit at the status quo.

And again I get his point.

If everyone is asleep, you need to make a loud bang to wake them up. And to date, no white people have been physically – or materially – harmed in the making of these protests.

But will ‘Fuck White People’ make white people “woke”? Or is it just another layer of oppression?

The analysis used by Fikeni and The Fallists (the self-appointed label of the student protesters) to critique the post-apartheid state is rooted in economics. They argue, correctly, that the shift to democracy did not do enough to transfer economic power and opportunity to the majority black population and thus has done little to redress the inequalities established by the apartheid state. I wrote about this in my book, Lost Where We Belong, in which I report on frustration (mine and others) with the continued disregard of the black majority by the elites – an elite which includes many within the ANC government.

But there is another value system that matters to humans, and which is overlooked by these critics: moral goodness. As humans, we don’t only value ourselves according to how financially secure we are, but also on who we think is the good guy and who we think is the shitbag. You can be poor and still be respected for being good. And to many of us, being thought to be the good guy matters more than being wealthy.

So where do white people fit into the South African moral hierarchy? For the past 20+ years, we’ve woken up daily on the wrong side of goodness. We pour shame on our cornflakes, and sprinkle it with guilt, and try not to choke on it. We are the archetypal shitbags of the world. White South Africans have been tolerated for their economic contribution to the country, while being morally looked down upon for our part, be it active or passive, in the apartheid state.

A black friend told me about a black guy she briefly met who steals phones from revellers at nightclubs popular with white South Africans in Pretoria.

“How can you do that?” she asked.

“It’s no big deal. It’s not like I steal them from people,” he replied.

In his view, white people are not people.

Recently, online forums have been thick with debates about who can and cannot be racist. According to the current consensus, black people cannot be racist. Why? Because racism is not just prejudice, it is a form of oppression, and only those with economic power can oppress.

But where this argument trips up is that it uses only one value system to measure our power and our worth: money. The same value system that many black South Africans (including The Fallists) say is an abomination and not truly African.

So what happens if we acknowledge the importance of moral goodness in our human hierarchies? If moral goodness matters, and black South Africans have the moral upper hand, then it is possible for black people to use their moral power to oppress whites. Which is kind of how “Fuck White People’ feels.

It might sounds aesthetically pleasing to Fikeni and people who look like him. But from where I am sitting in my white skin, tanned by the African sun, it feels like racism and hate speech, which flouts any recognition of the efforts of redress – however big or small – that white South Africans have made during the 22 years of ANC rule, often with our hands tied because, as individuals (I’ll leave the corporations out of this), we have had very little political power.

So yes.

Fuck white supremacy.

Fuck white elitism.

Fuck white patriarchy.

Fuck white corporations.

Fuck the ANC.

But Fuck white people? No. Go fuck yourself*

(*All in the spirit of debate, Lwandile Fikeni)

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The human race is on. Don’t come last

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In the middle of last week I hit the wall. I know the wall well because I’ve been here before. A lot. There were a few obvious reasons why I went splat. I was exhausted after co-facilitating an intense Women’s Day Consciousness Café. I was sad because I had just waved my mum off at the airport after spending a few days together. And I was lonely because my husband was all the way over on the other side of the world.

“Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness,” my husband says gently, whenever I go splat – a line from the Desiderata – but it wasn’t fear that was gurning around inside my head, but rather an abyss-like what’s-the-point-of-it-all emptiness, accompanied by that old voice: “You are a failure”.

Ugh. Back here. Again. That evening, after dragging my sack-like body to a yoga class, I came home and instead of listening to the chiding and goading, I decided to research why I was here again. What was the link between depression and that pointless feeling?

As I read through psychology articles, I came across a paragraph on PsychCentral.com that hit me in the belly.

“How can you increase your sense of ‘worth’? You cannot earn it through what you do. Happiness is not obtained solely by your achievements. Self-worth based on accomplishments is ‘pseudo-esteem’; it’s simply not the real thing”.

I put down my phone and stared at the wall.

Since I left home at 17, I have associated my value as a person with what I do. And those who know me, know I do a lot. Always a project on the go, always building networks, always connecting with friends, always doing. Somewhere in my mind – pretty close to the surface, in fact – is the belief that if I do good things, then I will matter to the world. And that if I don’t, I won’t.

The article went on to explain that those who measure their self-esteem against achievements are constantly having to do more to try and have any self value at all. This constant chasing of self-worth linked to praise and achievement leads to a never-ending cycle of excitement and disappointment. And burn out.

Which is where I was now. On the couch. Barely able to lift an arm.

Over the past five years, I have been drawn to meditation and Buddhist teachings as a way of coping. A sentiment often offered up for reflection is: “We are human beings, not human doings”.

It’s a teaching that I thought I had understood, and applied. But in that moment I realised  that I had been applying it through my own particular pair of lenses.  In order to embrace more being, I had decided that I had to do more relaxing things – more meditation, more yoga, more playing in the sun. But, of course, to interpret it like that just adds more ‘doings’ to the value equation, growing the list of things to value yourself by. Meditation. Tick. Juice. Tick. Sunshine. Tick. God, I rock!

So what does the teaching actually mean?

According to the psychology article, for the good of our mental health, we need to look inside ourselves for our self-worth, valuing ourselves not on what we do, but who we are. Are we kind, loyal, creative, strong, patient, graceful, funny, thoughtful? Choose your good (we’ve all got a few of them) and value yourself on yourself, not on constantly shifting goal posts outside of yourself. That’s not to say we shouldn’t do challenging and exciting things with our lives, but we shouldn’t ascribe all our value as a person to those things.

It was a light-bulb moment for me. I’m still contemplating it – how my wonky sense of self-worth links to my upbringing, my culture, and our world. I grew up in a Yorkshire family in apartheid South Africa. In the 18th century Yorkshire was the heartland of the industrial revolution, and I am a descendent of workers. In my family, having a job, being a provider, is fundamental. I was weaned on the idea that you cannot have pride or dignity if you cannot provide for yourself. “You need to stand on your own two feet, lass.”

And I’m not unique there. We live within an economic system which has competition at its core. The human race is on. Don’t come last. Capitalism firmly equates our value as people with what we do. But it’s killing us. It’s the reason I keep falling on my face with exhaustion and disappointment.

For too long I – and so, so many others – have relied on applause for our self-worth, when what we really need is a wee pat on the back from ourselves. Mine, for being a kind and honest soul.

That is good enough.

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb