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24 June 2017 12:32 (South Africa)
Opinionista Justin McCarthy

A heritage of prejudice

  • Justin McCarthy
    Justin-McCarthy.jpg
    Justin McCarthy

    Recovering Mad Man, occasional writer, wine enthusiast, coffee addict and unpredictable wildling, Justin is a lifelong student of behavioural economics, politics and the irrational human psyche. Commercially he focuses on the intersecting stacks of media, marketing and technology, particularly in the telecoms, consumer technology, retailing and media sectors. His opinions represent no organisations or interest groups and he receives no recompense save for namedropping. He also likes nuts. Follower discretion @justininza is advised. 

Many South Africans are confused about what Heritage Day is meant to be. Some Zulus celebrate it as Shaka’s Day and thousands gather in KwaDukuza in traditional regalia as they have done for a hundred and eighty years. The politically active may celebrate more recent forms of heritage identity, such as struggle heroes like Oliver Tambo and Steve Biko. Segments of the Afrikaans community gather to celebrate their volk by various means, and sections of the Cape Malay community cook up a storm and tell colourful stories of District Six. But how about those of us who have no such exciting heritage? For us, there’s National Braai Day.

There are no doubt many other cultural influences that pockets of South African identity groups will have turned to on Heritage Day, some of which we may never have heard of. That’s the point of the holiday – for everyone, regardless of background, to celebrate their contribution to this country. Yet that’s precisely where so many South Africans get confused. They’re either uncertain of their forefathers’ contribution or are afraid to celebrate it because it’s not politically correct. I imagine that’s where Jan Scannell (aka Jan Braai) http://braai.com/who-is-jan-braai/ spotted the opportunity to initiate National Braai Day – as a sort of metaphor for the millions who don’t have a clue what to make of the holiday. Of course his intentions are nobler than that -- Mr. Scannell hopes to use the commonality of braaing as the denominator for uniting South Africans. He may just be onto something there, but what is it that prevents so many efforts to unite South Africans from succeeding?

Before we get to answering that, let’s examine for a minute the notion of unity. It’s too simplistic a term to be applied to a country as culturally, politically and racially diverse as ours. The notion flirts dangerously close to homogeneity while largely precluding the possibility of benefit from diversity. Besides, it is so glibly used in the nation-building sense in South Africa that it’s been debased. I suspect that there is value in encouraging people to celebrate their heritage, but it would be far more valuable were we to actually celebrate someone else’s heritage rather than merely reinforce our own. Here lies my problem with this holiday: it’s a farce. Nobody encourages the Xhosa or the Portuguese descendant to go to KwaDukuza, do they? Nobody encourages the Afrikaner to go to Bo Kaap, the Indian to a Voortrekker Monument celebration, the Soutie to a Shisha Nyama? No, we mostly stay within the confines of our comfort zones and repeat what we do on most other holidays – which frequently includes burning some steak on the braai anyway. So how exactly does this create any unity?

The short answer is it doesn’t. So let’s lower the bar and throw unity out as an unrealistic or even undesirable goal. Personally I think it’s a dangerous ambition – anything that encourages homogeneity should be treated with deep suspicion. Not that unity should be equated with homogeneity, but it all too commonly is. I propose we settle for greater tolerance instead. Without tolerance we have no hope for common ground, and without understanding tolerance is improbable. That’s why going to someone else’s Heritage Day celebrations would be far more productive than attending our own – it might just deepen our understanding of our divergent backgrounds and how these shape our current views.
We’re intolerant because we’re innately prejudiced. By “we” I mean the human race, the apex predator in the known universe. South Africans are especially intolerant and prejudiced, primarily because the history of this country is littered with a particular form of prejudice through race classification and stratification. The legacy of apartheid and the economic segregation created by British rule have left irreparably deep scar tissue that needs a very long time to be assimilated. It will take a great deal more than time too, as the means of wealth creation are divided along roughly the same lines as colour. We know this, even if some of us refuse to accept it.

Prejudice comes naturally to us. It is born of the universal and fundamental need to categorise our experiences and create concepts in order to make sense of the endless complexity we encounter in our environment. It is a necessary part of human cognition, allowing us to process information efficiently and quickly. In social categorisation we reflexively distinguish members of in-groups (groups of which the subject is a member) from members of out-groups. Furthermore, we tend to evaluate out-groups more negatively than in-groups. In this way, social categories easily lend themselves to stereotypes in general and to negative stereotypes in particular.

I’m no psychologist, but I know this innately. These are not my words in the paragraph above - they’re paraphrased from Psychology Today, a credible U.S. source on mainstream psychology. Prejudice is commonly understood this way in the realm of psychology, and you’ll find few dissenters. It would be misguided to deny that South Africa has a greater proportion of prejudice than say, the Netherlands, where tolerance and inclusiveness have been hallmarks of the last half century at least. Prejudice is so deeply ingrained in South Africa that it may never be eradicated from the social mainstream at all. The real difficulty is that our prejudice is nationalised along racial lines. 

There are many degree of prejudice. When I was a kid I was prejudiced against green vegetables. I don’t recall why, but if it was green I would sit all night in front of a cold plate rather than consume the evil stuff. Some years on and my prejudice shifted to organised religion, Catholicism in particular, as the hypocrisy became apparent to me. Later still it was the Afrikaner in uniform, whose self-proclaimed superiority riled me deeply. I overcame all of them and today I reserve my prejudice for arrogant, hypocritical, duplicitous individuals of any colour, language or persuasion. I don’t deny my prejudice, I’m most certainly not above it. The difference now is that I apply my prejudice with greater precision and I try to avoid generalisations and stereotyping.

The continued application of stereotypical classification that South Africans have been raised on is the single biggest barrier to greater understanding and tolerance. Stereotyping remains a national pastime, fed by the more sensationalist media and fattened around the braai in clusters of homogeneity. Instead of reinforcing it by stepping and repeating it on Heritage Day, it would perhaps be more helpful if every South African stepped out of his or her circle of homogeneity and spent a little time in someone else’s. The thing is, when you examine someone else’s heritage you learn more about yourself than you do about their perspective. Observing your feelings about and reactions to them is more telling and more instructive than what they actually do or say.

To move on at all, we (all South Africans) should celebrate our diversity by experiencing more of it at every opportunity. Diversity is the richest of riches. Diversity is the essence of creativity, the kernel of the unconventional, and the colour in our rainbow. We are beset with complex problems that require imaginative and creative solutions. We have all the resources to fix them, if we could just get past the heritage of prejudice. DM

  • Justin McCarthy
    Justin-McCarthy.jpg
    Justin McCarthy

    Recovering Mad Man, occasional writer, wine enthusiast, coffee addict and unpredictable wildling, Justin is a lifelong student of behavioural economics, politics and the irrational human psyche. Commercially he focuses on the intersecting stacks of media, marketing and technology, particularly in the telecoms, consumer technology, retailing and media sectors. His opinions represent no organisations or interest groups and he receives no recompense save for namedropping. He also likes nuts. Follower discretion @justininza is advised. 

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