South Africa

Op-Ed: How to lend a helping hand that is more than about charity

By Incorrect Author 26 February 2018

The Zuma years have ended with an accompanying and deserved sense of hope. But this time has forced us to see how divided and contradictory our understandings of “post”-apartheid South Africa may be. Radical inequality and continued division mean we live in a country that holds many worlds. By KYLA HAZELL and JEREMY BRADFORD.

Suggestions of rising spirits and radical changes, about-turns and second chances have slipped into South Africa’s national dialogue once more since new president Cyril Ramaphosa’s call to service in the 2018 State of the Nation Address. Absorbing so many expressions of enthusiasm after such a long period of doubt, one might fall for the image of a nation recommitted and ready to rebuild our young country: send me, we all seem to have echoed, I wanna lend a hand.

Listening to those words from the late Hugh Masekela, we picture a people poised for action, eager to set off on a journey to the future. But we must pause even as we imagine the rainbow renaissance walking out onto the streets and off into the sunset together: where is it we are being sent, Mr President, and where are we leaving from?

Particularly after learning of a VAT increase that hurt the poor most, we must also ask who gets to come and to contribute, and how they will do that?

While reflecting on an ongoing project first piloted through the Restitution Foundation last year, these questions come to mind. During a series of youth dialogues in late 2017, we at the Restitution Foundation started exploring the idea of restitution in our lifetime with students from two very privileged schools in Cape Town.

We feel that the transition to democracy dealt with the issue inadequately, which remains essential to addressing both the present and the future. It is also key to interrogating the promise of SONA, giving content to ideas about radical economic transformation and dealing with the original sin – ideas that might otherwise remain only rhetoric. Our hope has been to open a conversation that we believe is deeply necessary and drastically overdue among those whose legacy is the rainbow renaissance.

We are at a time when complex and accurate interventions are needed to create change at multiple points simultaneously. If we are serious about contributing, we must honestly consider our individual and collective responsibilities. The Zuma years have ended with an accompanying and deserved sense of hope. But this time has forced us to see how divided and contradictory our understandings of “post”-apartheid South Africa may be. Radical inequality and continued division mean we live in a country that holds many worlds. Bringing these together in liberatory projects that genuinely benefit the marginalised requires that we confront restitution. We must do this as a country, but, especially as young, white, privileged beneficiaries of injustice, we must also do it as individuals.

How does restitution relate to lending a hand? Ask a student what restitution means and you receive a fairly detailed definition. They may tell you it suggests making right some kind of wrong, coming forward to apologise (even for actions of others), and perhaps healing broken trust. Sometimes, it suggests revolution, and always it requires both action and reflection. We were struck in our initial dialogues by the young people who sense the justice distorting our national situation and acknowledge the need for action, even in privileged spaces that appear sheltered. Our own feeling of urgency was continuously met by the students at both schools asking “What do we do?”. There was a strong desire to “do something positive” and “make a difference”; in essence, to say “I wanna lend a hand. Send me.”

Recent shifts in our political landscape might offer their moment to lend a hand, but they demand that we think deeply as they unfold. The present atmosphere of optimism is particularly future-orientated; the idea of being sent is loaded with going somewhere but can neglect where we are being sent from. Questioning this latter point is key to asking who is sent and why they go, as well as what it is they hope to do. Restitution makes us confront that lending a hand implies giving, which in turn means having. And in a society of haves and have-nots, this poses a problem for equal participation.

A short exercise from our workshops clarifies our point. Twenty years ago, John stole Jabu’s bicycle. Before it was taken, Jabu used his bicycle to get to work as well as to run errands and help out in his community. Now, John wishes to be friends with Jabu. We asked learners to think about how the theft affected Jabu over the 20 years and what must happen now.

A nudge for the more hesitant among us: that bicycle is the land, and John may well have been my great grandfather.

The point of this exercise is obviously to think through the rippling impact of past injustice on present circumstances. However, it reveals something more: by taking that bike, John stole not only a possession, but also the ability to give. He usurped the resource that helped Jabu contribute to a collective beyond just himself. Now, he may want to “lend a hand” in righting past wrongs, but we need to know more about the feeling behind that action: does John view it as charity, being helpful, or restituting? The shift in orientation is subtle yet significant in a story that confirms what decolonial theorist Nelson Maldonado-Torres calls the pathology of giving and receiving in settings affected by colonialism.

In South Africa we have people positioned in ways that allow for different forms of giving and different degrees of participation in national projects, with unequal rewards and recognition. A volunteer who gives of their time to education (or a business that puts up a monetary reward to battle State Capture) is able to do so due to a certain prior concentration of time and resources. The action, while perhaps good, is supported by access to all forms of capital – social, cultural and economic – that have been amassed and arranged in ways that are less commendable. Who one is and what one has is often what allows for an individual to offer a hand and so benefit from the moral and psychological feeling of doing good work.

Contrast this with the essential and intensive service of miners or domestic workers who routinely give in ways that go unseen. As many step forward to lend a hand in this moment of hope, let’s not forget those sent into service with little ceremony, their direction determined more by years of exploitation, forced migration and the ideology of racial capitalism than by choice.

The tools we used in our dialogues were designed to help learners think about these matters at multiple levels, considering themselves, their families, schools and communities in relation to both abstract and material ideas about restitution. More than anything, our aim was simply to provide a platform for dialogue that learners said they needed, one where they could situate themselves personally in the landscape of South Africa and honestly reflect on their roles, helping to answer the kinds of questions we must ask about President Ramaphosa’s speech.

Where will we be sent to? It must be a place where all can give, where giving is grounded in more radical notions than charity or paternalism and recognised in more multiple forms than we currently see.

To be there when the people start to turn it around suggests paradigmatic shift. It does need people to step up. Yet, as much as good questions can yield better answers, the cultivation of clearer tools for reflection can yield better action. If we are unwilling to ask tough questions, we may send ourselves off in contradictory directions. Some will reverse from their driveways and turn right, back seats brimming with bottled water and paternalist good intention. Others may argue in the middle of the street, aiming to go left but in total disagreement about how they should walk. And a few will still be at home: SONA wasn’t screened in their neighbourhood; the electricity’s been out for weeks. DM

Jeremy Bradford is a Masters candidate in the Sociology Department at UCT and Kyla Hazell is a recent graduate of the Masters in Justice and Transformation programme at the same university. This article is based on reflections together with Youth Dialogues co-facilitator Marlyn Faure and representatives of the Restitution Foundation.

Photo by Craig Philbrick on Unsplash

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