I recently took part in a discussion at the University of Pretoria organised by the faculty of humanities called Capital City Conversations: The Uncompleted Capital. The purpose of the event was to begin a process where Pretorians/Tshwanians could discuss the question of the identity of the capital city with the hope that we can begin a process of envisioning a city underpinned by a common identity to foster a sense of social cohesion in these difficult times of division and strife.
Led Tshwane Executive Mayor Kgosientso Ramokgopa, the participants gave their various perspectives on the subject, speaking eloquently and even passionately by drawing on the city’s motto, “Rea Tshwana”, a Setswana expression meaning “We are the same”. They extolled the virtues of our sameness, our shared human destiny and how we need to embrace one another as we deal with the uncertainties of life in our city and our country.
These are indeed moving and valid sentiments, but they are deceptively cohesive and frankly dangerous in their wish to instil a notion spawned in reaction to a past characterised by racist segregation. So deep are the scars created by our divisive past that we desperately cling onto ideas that will, we hope, galvanise us into an undefined sameness. But this is impossible to achieve until we acknowledge and embrace our differences. Our cultural, linguistic, political and other differences should not make us suspicious of each other, because when we are intimidated by our differences we betray a hidden agenda. An agenda for dominance under the deceptive auspices of sameness.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I am the greatest proponent of the idea of our shared humanity and the need for us to embrace, but it must happen authentically and not merely cosmetically and sentimentally. The authenticity of which I speak is located in the sober appreciation of the beauty of variety and difference. An idea which seems to be under siege in recent times as we are bombarded by the rising tide of cultural chauvinism and conservative nationalism. Another bogus attempt at trying to make us the same by human devices. It is in the understanding of this dichotomy of apparent opposites that will allow us to break into the mystery of true sameness, humanness.
When I was younger and more innocent, I appreciated differences in human beings in a less prejudiced way than now. I was fascinated by that which was not usual in my sphere of experiences in a way that was full of wonder and intrigue. Otherness or difference was not a source of suspicion or disdain, it was beautiful and simply enhanced my sense of self among others and made me feel like I was a part of something infinitely greater than myself. Differences filled me with a sense of awe and faith in a wisdom and intelligence far greater than my ability to intellectually comprehend and this made me feel an inexplicable confidence about life. This is the essence of “Ubuntu” – I am because you are.
As a youth, I appreciated in a strange way the wrinkles on the face of an aged man or woman; as a man, the sensual curves of a voluptuous woman; as a black person, the white skin of a Caucasian with their multi-coloured eyes: as an uneducated person, the erudite ways of the learned. This was all before I learned to look through the eyes of prejudice and fear. This was before I learned about religion, politics and morality. This was before I was schooled in the philosophies of good and bad, right and wrong, black and white. All seemed so much more amplified, richer and more real, before.
One of the things in the great menu of life’s experiences that I have managed to remain deeply fascinated by is the differences in people’s ethnicity, colours and cultures. This is a fascination I seem to share with many South Africans of various walks of life, whether they admit to this fascination or not. I think it has to do with the fact that the various groups were kept away from each other for so long and a natural curiosity arises as the process of integration sets in. It is a fascination akin to that of an adolescent’s voyeuristic urges in the height of puberty. It is a fascination that has survived the continuous onslaught of the many unfortunate interpretations of daily experience that make for contemporary politics. It is a fascination that has stood the test of political-correctness and a denial of the very existence of these differences in deference to the pressure for sameness. It is a fascination that has survived my own prejudices and proclivities that would have suggested otherwise.
The reason for this fascination, I contend, is the very ubiquity of its subject. The relentless, rebellious presence of difference. The differences in ethnicity, culture and colour of our peoples will not go away no matter how much we fantasize about how much easier it would be to manage “things” if we were all the same. It will not disappear, despite our sincere attempts at sameness through social engineering and geopolitical agitation.
Many have cited China’s recent world economic dominance and attributed its success to its cultural and ethnic homogeneity in an attempt to advocate for sameness here. They have pointed at the USA and Europe’s economic woes and warned of the weakness of multiculturalism and ethnic plurality, hence their waning financial prosperity in recent years.
But the economic success of China has come precisely because it has embraced difference (capitalism) in a culture that had previously worshipped sameness by attempting to force a particular political philosophy on its population (communism). A creative balance of these differences has been the reason for China’s economic success, not a fixation with sameness. By the same token, America’s star is waning precisely because it attempted to force its way of life, the “American Dream”, on the rest of the world. Trying to make the rest of the world the same as the West has proved that sameness can be treacherous and tragically deceptive.
Perhaps if we genuinely acknowledged our differences and our different circumstances, we would develop the policies and administrative processes required for the appropriate implementation of relevant socio-economic interventions in our various communities, instead of trying to advance a “one-size-fits-all” approach
It is the arrogance of prejudice that wishes to turn divine difference into mundane sameness. It is the lust for dominance that makes us suppress the beautiful difference of the Zulu and the Afrikaner. It is foolishness that forces English elocution onto Xhosa pronunciation. The beauty of life and its mysteries are locked in our humble appreciation for difference and are released by our engaging respect for one another. Perhaps we need another age of innocence. DM