When right feels so wrong

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I have never been the kind of journalist who rushes to the scene of the car crash. I have always been the one to hang back, observing from a distance, more interested in what happens long after the moment of impact, than the mangled metal.

Which is probably why I haven’t put fingers to my keyboard in the past month. Right now the American presidency feels like a multi-car pile-up, and I am standing on the verge, watching while the first-responders – the lawyers, human rights activists, protestors and opposition politicians – are trying to help the victims.

Although I take heart that somebody seems to know what to do, I also find myself feeling as wary of the jaws of life, as the wreckage itself. It feels like we are veering from one knee-jerk reaction to another. No time to stop and think.

The other reason I haven’t been writing UnpopularEssays is because I am on a deadline. Together with a fellow journalist, I am writing the Secret Joburg book for Jonglez’ “local guides for local people” series, which involves hours and hours of digging around in obscure corners of the city, meeting the city’s champions and guardians, documenting the forgotten and quirky treasures.

Johannesburg has always been a contested place. With its near-perfect climate, its fertile soil and its dense underbelly of gold, it’s a city that has lured every kind of fortune hunter, from every religion, nation and race group, and it’s all of their treasures that I am attempting to capture.

Not wanting to leave anyone out, today I headed out far west, or rather, far right, to the towns of Roodepoort and Krugersdorp – the old bastions of the Boers. My guide was a lovely old amateur historian who showed me the first shop ever built on the Witwatersrand – it sold liquor – and took me, in the pouring rain, to a cemetery where women and children who died in a British concentration camp of the second Anglo Boer war lie in unmarked graves.

As our morning progressed, it became clear that my guide was a man with right-leaning politics, and we gently and politely disagreed with each other until he said: “I was going to say something, but I probably shouldn’t”.

“Go on, please say it,” I said.

“I was going to say you probably wouldn’t have voted for Trump,” he said.

“You’re right,” I said. “Would you have?”

“Definitely. Something has got to be done,” he said.

“About what?”

“Well for a start, America is a Christian country, and they can’t even teach God in their schools anymore,” he said.

I looked at him baffled out of the corner of my eye. This is a country where some schools teach Creationism. Since when has there been a blanket ban on religious education in America? I didn’t choose to debate the facts with him though, instead I asked him why this mattered. If you want your child to learn about the Lord, can you not teach them at home? Why is it up to the school and not the parents? And if you want it to be up to the school, then should you not opt to send them to a religious school?

He conceded that it was a point worth considering, but continued to say that teaching about Jesus in schools is what teaches morality and discipline. And the problem with the Muslims is that their religion doesn’t teach morality. In fact, it doesn’t teach them how to treat anyone but themselves.

I was trying to find the right way to ask how Trump’s Christianity was any different, but his conversation had already moved on to the Muslim refugees in Europe.

“What are they doing there?” he asked.

“They are running away from war,” I replied.

“Which war?” he asked.

“The war in Syria,” I replied.

“If they were running from war, there would be women and children among them. Where are the women in children?” he asked.

Eighteen months ago I wrote about the refugee crisis on the Greek island of Kos for the British newspaper, the Independent. Women and children, whole families, crowded the shoreline.

“I saw them with my own eyes,” I told him.

“But then why are we not being told the truth?” he asked.

“Maybe the more important question is why do we believe, without question, everything we are told? Why are we so keen to soak up facts that support our prejudice?” I probed.

I dropped the West Rand historian back at his house and drove away, feeling sad. He was a nice fellow. A kind fellow. A fellow who says he became an amateur historian in his retirement because he loves sorting the lies from the truth. And yet, he is also a man who openly harbours a blanket mistrust of black people and Muslims based on alternative facts.

It doesn’t add up.

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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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“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]

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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