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Eyes in the back of our heads: Moving forward while looking back – Diversity, Division and a World of Difference


Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

It seems two decades later, there is little holding us together aside from our shared history. We are still on one side the oppressor and on the other, the oppressed. President Jacob Zuma knows and exploits this at every turn and so we find ourselves stuck – prisoners of our history even as we want desperately to be liberated from it. But perhaps President Zuma has been sent to provide us with an opportunity to remember what we promised ourselves we would be.

The very idea that people ought to be able to live side by side and in peace, bound by a respect for their civil, cultural and political differences is dying a not-so-slow death. A laager mentality has set in, and some days it seems we are living in apocalyptic times. In Europe and America, there are raging debates about building walls and arresting people on the streets.

Here in South Africa this sort of conduct is standard fare: Immigrants are routinely stopped and searched and neighbourhoods where people from African countries other than South Africa live are patrolled and monitored by the cops – for both bribes and deportations. This has been happening for years. A few lefty activists protest, but generally, we maintain a shameful silence until the next flare up of violence.

Middle-class South Africans who are appalled at the crass xenophobia now being exhibited in the West ought to be careful about their righteousness: Trump is now proposing actions our government has long implemented. We don’t have a wall but we have arbitrary and unfair detentions, we have a stop and search system and we have regular deportations. Our immigration system is designed so that only the established get in; manipulated so that the industrious and the hopeful, those who want to come with their songs and their languages and textiles and foods and their “Africanicity” are treated with suspicion. Those with black skins are all too often turned back, denied entry.

While we bemoan Brexit and the small-mindedness of Britons who have now cut off their nose to spite their face by leaving Europe, in South Africa we have seen across the party lines, attitudes that seem to suggest you can shut down the borders and that you can spur economic growth by looking inwards and not outwards. Most recently in February there was an anti-immigrant march in Pretoria, and the mayor of this city suggested “(Illegal immigrants) are holding our country to ransom and I am going to be the last South African to allow it”.

While the resentments of poor people who are locked into an aparthied economy are crucial to engage, the problem of xenophobia, and the ways in which it is particularly directed at African migrants, is a function not so much of economic pressure, as it is of political failure.

South Africa’s xenophobia problem represents this country’s inability to face up to and address complex social problems with humane practicality.

The reality is that in 1996 the census reported 958,188 “foreign-born” people in South Africa. By 2001 this figure had grown to 1,03-million. A decade later, Census 2011 showed the number of foreign-born migrants had more than doubled, to just over 2,1-million people. While official figures from Stats SA show a decline to 1.6 million in the last Community Survey, UNHCR considers the figure closer to 3.1-million based on a range of national data including the numbers of refugees and asylum seekers. And of course the counting model doesn’t take into account the children of people who were born here in South Africa to “foreign-born” people, since citizenship is not conferred on the basis of birth in South Africa.

At a global level, in the last few years many of us have been shocked by images of people drowning at sea, attempting to cross the Mediterranean. The responses of many European countries has been chilling. Who can forget the image of camera woman Petra Laszlo who tripped a Syrian refugee as he tried to enter Hungary – and who kept her camera rolling throughout the incident? That image was symbolic of so much of the problem of migration. Everywhere around the world, distilled into pictures we see the weak and the vulnerable seeking shelter because of political conditions not of their own making; being assaulted by the strong and the protected.

Migrants come to South Africa for all the same reasons as they go to Europe. Yet this country has made it clear that we do not even want refugees. People for whom fleeing is a life or death matter. Still they come, because as poet Warsan Shire tells us in the only way she can, “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark”.

In the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump and the triumph of the Brexit campaign, it seems that some Europeans and Americans are beginning to understand that populism and resistance to diversity and immigration may not be sustainable options. Americans are in the throes of a robust resistance campaign against Trump, and as the Google search analytics showed after Brexit, many in the UK had voter’s remorse — something with which perhaps South Africans are familiar! Similarly, the Dutch electoral outcome last month demonstrates that there is a pushback from the progressive side of politics. We wait to see what will happen in France in the next two weeks.

Still, recent events demonstrate that while the political situation is bleak, and while the very ideas of genuine diversity and equality are under threat in the Global North, the road to hell wealthy countries are marching towards may have some detours.

All of this points to the fact that we are living through a moment in which everywhere in the world – people are looking for hope – for models of places where multiculturalism works, and for societies in which populism and nationalism are actively being resisted; where polarisation has been defeated and a sense of nationhood based on shared values has been built instead.

Once upon a time, South Africa would have been the place people looked towards to prove that multiculturalism can work. On first appearances it seems those days are well and truly over.

So why is it that a place that held so much possibility for change, a place with all the in-built mechanisms for political and social dynamism, has fallen into social and political disarray? There has been much focus in recent years on the fact that the Truth and Reconciliation process was a meaningful but in some ways deeply problematic response to the injustices of apartheid. It revealed all the ways in which post-apartheid South Africa would continue to reflect apartheid’s divides.

There is a show on at the apartheid museum at the moment, called “Can’t remember. Can’t forget”. It is a solo exhibition by visual artist Sue Williamson. Here title accurately sums up the pathos of last few decades. The perpetrators of crimes approached the Commission and could not remember their crimes. They presented themselves for amnesty but were unprepared to implicate themselves in the crimes of which they wanted to be absolved. The victims and the survivors appeared before the commission in good faith, they could not forget.

This is not new information. We know that to a large extent the Rainbow has been a hologram. The question we must now answer is how do we come up with a new framework, a new discourse that helps us to become a better country – a country that is capable of insisting on better leadership, on having a functional democracy that is not held to ransom by racial division.

I will come back to this later but let me suggest that the Zuma problem is not simply a problem of having an undemocratic and deeply compromised person at the helm. The Zuma problem is not simply a problem of an ANC that is stubbornly stuck in the past and incapable of creating a functional education system and steering a working economy. The Zuma problem is evidenced in our collective responses to him: We are deeply unhappy about the man but we do not yet trust one another enough to unite to demand his resignation. It seems to matter very little that Zuma and his henchmen have presided over Marikana, have announced terrible matric results year on year, and have now messed with white monopoly capital. We have until recently, been paralysed by our history to such an extent that no matter his errors, our past seems too large for us to genuinely overcome. It is one thing to profess to get along; it is another entirely to plan political and social action together across class and racial lines.

It seems two decades later, there is little holding us together aside from our shared history. We are still one side the oppressor and the other the oppressed. Zuma knows and exploits this at every turn and so we find ourselves stuck – prisoners of our history even as we want desperately to be liberated from it.

Whereas “diversity” in other countries is used to describe a range of social, religious and cultural differences, at the moment, in SA we are almost always talking about race when we say diversity. In this country, there is little scope to talk about culture beyond race. Indeed there is little scope to talk about ourselves as a country beyond the scope of politics and race.

So even between and amongst people who used to be called coloured and African and Indian, who once all called themselves politically black, our discussions about how we relate live under the large shadow of whiteness. We were all black in the face of white racism but in the post-apartheid society we are building, we have largely failed to explore our connections to one another. We rarely examine our own unwritten and under-explored histories – and when we do it is often based on conflict – on the hierarchy of oppression.

I am not suggesting that we ignore tensions between different communities of colour in this country, but I am proposing that we also have to begin to imagine more interesting ways of relating to one another, ways that are about expanding the archive of stories this country tells about itself. I am not suggesting we stop talking about race and racism. To the contrary – we live in a violent and racialised economy – that should correctly be a focus of many of our fears and concerns.

Still, we also have to create a South Africa that isn’t always turning towards whites and whiteness as a point of reference. I want to live in a South Africa in which multiculturalism and diversity are real and strong words, words that denote belonging. In our contemporary political history, our national discourse has been centred on ensuring that white South Africans still feel welcome here. For many reasons that are easily understood, black South Africans have been seduced by white fragility – by the nervousness and anxieties of whites.

So diversity – such as it is presently articulated – has come to serve as a way to reassure whites of their place in an otherwise black country. I want to break this up; to suggest that we must move away from this superficial and unnecessary fragility. The South Africa in which I want live is one in which the literary work of Cape Town writer Nadia Davids is elevated because of the way it explores the tapestry of Muslim women’s lives; I want to immerse myself as Vashna Jagernath does, the history and politics of food in South Africa – to know more about not just the Indian food she clearly relishes so much, but about pagan feasts and the diverse. I want the country to celebrate artist Laura Windvogel AKA Lady Skollie who in a recent interview spoke about an exhibition in London, saying, “I wanted to place my own identity as a coloured woman – a bushwoman – into the setting of London. So making marks on a wall that would stay behind even after I leave felt Khoisan-like, in a contemporary context.”

What a powerful way of thinking and of marking the past in the act of creating and speaking and being one’s full and human self. Her ability to acknowledge the silenced history of our collective ancestors, and to draw on it to make her mark on the world today – this is diversity in action, diversity that needs no label.

In many ways what Lady Skollie’s statement does is to recognise that we are a society that in its very essence is a melange – a mash up of Arab and Malay and African and European. We are not a country where multiculturalism is not signalled by what we say – with signs at the airport that welcome people from distant lands. Instead, we are a country in which the gene pool has been influenced by the rape of African women by settlers and their sons, just as it has been built by the love between slaves and equals, between Zulu and Sotho speaking people.

Our history is one of dispossession and exploitation yes, and it is also a history of invention, of music and song, of art. So multiculturalism in South Africa is a historical fact. Yet we have been so caught up in the drama of race that we have not fully explored what it means to take our cultural diversity seriously.

As in other settler colonial societies, in South Africa multiculturalism is built into our bodies. Unlike other settler colonies like Australia, Canada and America however, we are a majority black country. This matters greatly. If we had the leadership we deserved, then as a country we could do what those societies refuse to. South Africa has an opportunity to de-colonise citizenship and belonging.

While Europe and North America are abandoning multiculturalism in a wave of xenophobic and racist sentiment, we can walk towards it, leaning into the aspects of ourselves we haven’t fully explored beyond the superficial – the billboards with multi-toned beautiful people, the tourism brochures.

Whereas in 1994 we stepped into a political moment in which racial diversity came to signify a hopeful and optimistic future, today we must accept that we did not pay sufficient attention to a fuller idea of ourselves – to the cultural, religious and ethnic diversity that has always lived beyond the reach of whiteness.

As a consequence, South Africa is – counter-intuitively – a place where multiculturalism is gloriously present in many communities around the country and yet is significantly under-theorised. It is a country with many cultures and relatively little conflict around ethnicity and religion (with some important caveats related to KwaZulu-Natal) and at the same time it is a country in which outsiders are not tolerated and there are regular outbreaks of violence.

South Africa is a country in which women who wear trousers can be attacked, in which lesbians are killed simply for being who they are. We live in a country in which at a church, it can be declared that homosexuals are unnatural, even as the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is enshrined in our beautifully African Constitution. If we do not explore who we are in addition to being racialised subjects, what hope do we have for addressing these contradictions? What hope do we have of making South Africa a country that as the Constitution and Freedom Charter say, “belongs to all who live in it”?

So we find ourselves in this strange situation, in which an inherently multicultural nation is incapable of talking about itself in terms other than those defined by its political and economic history. Meanwhile our social and cultural histories have been relegated to the banal; to platitudes about living side by side and being “one people”. We are a billboard: Simunye – we are one.

Given the richness of our cultural heritage, given all that we have to celebrate and all we have to learn from our Khoikhoi and San forbears and their contemporary descendants, about human survival and botany and medicine, given everything the Ndebele, for example, have to teach us about geometry and design, given the fascinating but more recent history of South African and African American choral exchange, given the phenomenally fruitful intellectual relationships developed at Fort Hare – given all of this, a more serious and robust commitment to telling South Africa’s multiple stories and beginning this process 20 years ago, etching it through art and public discourse, into the consciousness of the nation, would have given us a better capacity to imagine South Africa both as a nation in which race always has and likely always will matter, as well as a nation in formation, one in which many other identities and ways of belonging are also possible. If we aren’t able to grapple with this then our mode of organising, the nation we are building will be a reflection of our fractures.

A few years ago, I explored this idea in an essay on belonging. I wrote then:

This idea that South Africans are so singular in our experience; that apartheid was such a unique experience that it makes us different from everyone else in the world, and especially from other Africans, is an important aspect of understanding the South African approach to immigration.

As long-time researcher Nahla Valji has noted, “the fostering of nationalism produces an equal and parallel phenomenon: that of an affiliation amongst citizens in contrast and opposition to what is ‘outside’ that national identity.”

In other words, South Africans may not always like each other across so-called racial lines, but they have a kinship that is based on their connection to the apartheid project. Outsiders – those who didn’t go through the torture of the regime – are juxtaposed against insiders. In other words foreigners are foreign precisely because they can not understand the pain of apartheid, because most South Africans now claim to have been victims of the system. Whether white or black, the trauma of living through apartheid is seen as such a defining experience that it becomes exclusionary; it has made a nation of us.

And yet, the paradox of course is that though we are a nation tied together by the horror of apartheid – even those who were not alive then are tied into the project by virtue of their race – we are tied together like enemies trapped in one house.

At a national level, the most recent SA Reconciliation Barometer indicates that “trust between the country’s historically defined racial groups remains low 67.3% of all respondents noted that they have little to no trust in their fellow citizens of other racial groups”. In addition, a majority of respondents (61.4%) feel that race relations since 1994 have either stayed the same or deteriorated.

Despite this, South Africans generally believe that the country has made progress on the road to national reconciliation since the end of apartheid (59.2%), and are convinced that the country has to continue to pursue it as a national objective (69.7%).

So what are we to make of this? So much dissatisfaction and yet still so much hope? So many ties that bind, and yet such rancorous division.

In many ways the paradox of South African-ness has been made magnificently clear in the racialised responses we have seen in response to the leadership of President Jacob Zuma. Polls show the President is deeply unpopular amongst all race and age groups, across gender and ethnicity. If there is one thing about which most South Africans can agree it is that Jacob Zuma is not a great president. An Afrobarometer poll from 2016 noted that “President Zuma’s approval ratings have plummeted to 34% — a sharp decline from the 62% trust level recorded in 2011, and the lowest trust in a president recorded since the start of the surveys in 2000.”

Perhaps though it is important to step back a little. A number of people have argued that Zuma is divisive. I’m not convinced. It is obvious that while he may be polarising within the ruling party, he is not polarising for South Africans. There is widespread dissatisfaction with him. If anything South Africans are unified in their disdain for him. Yet as many white South Africans opted to protest against Zuma last week, it was hard to ignore the fact that any project aimed at challenging Zuma’s rule will need to reckon with the fact that South Africans themselves are divided – even when they agree on something as important as the incompetence of their president.

We are so divided that we cannot support one another even when we have a shared goal. So we must understand that coalition-building for a real democracy is long-term work because Zuma didn’t divide us – history did. And as long as those divisions continue to deepen, so long as the trust deficit is not narrowing but is fluctuating depending on political events – we will never defeat tyrants. Because for many black people – crude as it may sound – a black tyrant will still be more of a brother or a sister than a white one. Just as for many whites, a black tyrant will always be far worse, far more corrupt than a white one.

And so as we look towards the future, towards creating a nation, rather than just a country – we need to consider how we will build trust, and solidarity. Even in the absence of jobs and economic equality, we need a new language to move us forward. A language that recognises not just black and white but the 3.7 million immigrants who are already here. We need to think about developing a language that is credal – one that seeks to build South African-ness on the basis of accepting the credo of SA, on the basis of accepting values rather than simply having been situated in a particular geographic space at a certain moment in time. History alone cannot be the basis of South African-ness.

The language the rest of the world uses for this sort of thing is “multiculturalism”. And yet everywhere else it is under assault: dying under the weight of Islamophobia, economic stagnation and good old-fashioned racism. So, the question is whether SA, with all its problems, will manage to find a story of multiculturalism that will save it from the Rainbow next time.

The old story was a good one – compelling and inspiring and it carried us far, even if it was part myth and part reality. The new one must do the same: it must create hope where there is none, and it must find ways of taking everything about us that is good and true and wonderful and reflecting it back to us and making us believe we are better than we have been so far. That was – for all his faults – the genius of Mandela. It is the genius of all true leaders – those whom we follow even when we are unsure of the course in front of us.

So let me end with a little story about my son, who is six years old. For it is he whom I should thank for the title of this talk: eyes in the backs of our heads: moving forward while looking back.

Two years ago I moved to Australia and I now divide my time between here and there – such are the compromises to be struck in a bi-continental life partnership. In Australia, my son is a black boy among white folks. Although he has many of the protections of middle-class privilege, he is still a black child. So one day after school while riding on his scooter, an older woman walked up behind him. She was doing so quietly, and he didn’t hear her so he continued zig-zagging on the path, talking with a friend and making commentary on everything. She didn’t say excuse me, or let him know she was there. She simply waited a while, walking awkwardly in front of me and a friend and my son who was just ahead of us. Finally, as she slipped past him, I spoke sharply, saying: “Watch out my boy, you have to be aware of what is going on around you. Move to the side when someone is passing you.”

I did it, more to signal to her that I was a vigilant mother than anything else. As a black mother in a foreign country, I am always on the look-out for stereotypes, always seeking to live outside their shadow. Still, my tone was stern – sterner than it ought to have been. He turned back and stopped. Then he said: “Mama, she didn’t say excuse me and I don’t have eyes in the back of my head now, do I?” It was a good-natured – but firm rebuke. How could I expect him to be paying attention to a quiet old lady who didn’t announce herself?

My friend laughed, and agreed with him — softening the moment. A fellow African mother, she understood why I wanted him to be careful, but she also marvelled at how he was claiming my words and using them in his own way – to suit his own purposes – as our children are wont to do.

I tell this story because it operates at many levels. One it tells us that one generation does not receive wisdom from the last in a straight line. It interprets and revises and critically assesses the value of said wisdom. He was saying to me what I have said to him countless times but inverting it — telling me at once that he is listening to me, but has a mind of his own. Where I typically say that I have eyes on the back of my head, he rejected this and said, no he refused to be accountable for things that were happening behind him. I am not super human he was saying. I am only responsible for what I can see.

On the other hand, the story is a lesson to those of us who have been raised as outsiders who have had to learn to conform in order to survive. Where my instinct – a protective one – is to be cautious because I have been an immigrant, and I have been a stranger in hostile lands, my son has no such worries. He refuses the burden of being policed and finds it impossible to imagine that he does not belong – on that path, on his scooter, in his skin. In fact, he has his own questions, and they are directed at me and at her. If she wanted to get past him, she should have spoken up. So I tell this story in some ways because it is about freedom. My son is free of many of my immigrant anxieties and of course because he is only six, he is still relatively free of the anxieties of race.

He is free in a way I never was and in ways my parents couldn’t be when they moved us to Canada many years ago. This gives him a certain kind of courage. As he matures he will be less free – more cognisant of how he is seen and that is part of the struggle of growing up – a struggle all children face no matter the background. His sense of himself will shrink slightly – as it should. He will come to estimate himself in relation to others.

Still, my biggest hope for him is not that he grows up to be free of burdens. To the contrary, my hope is that as he matures he begins to understand that if he wants to be part of a sustainable, peaceful and just world – and a contributing member of any number of societies – then he will need to feel burdened by his freedom.

He will need to learn how to seek out and question, to draw on stories other than those that already exist. In other words, I want him to know that the price he will have to pay for freedom – for riding on his scooter with the wind at his back and the sun on his face is to understand that his is not the only voice. I want him to be aware of those around him – even those who may talk quietly or who are often silent. I want him to grow a pair of eyes in the back of his head even as he keeps his face firmly set in the direction of the future.

Post-apartheid SA was supposed to be a safe haven for people seeking justice. It could have been a new nation built on the lessons of the past. Looking backwards it pledged that racism would never be tolerated, but looking forward it should also have sought to expand the definition of belonging. Think for a moment what it would mean if this country really was home to all who lived in it.

It would mean culture and art and music. It might mean the beginnings of a new language – a creole of Twi and Igbo and siPedi and isiZulu. It could mean a remembering of the KhoiKhoi and the San who were here long before us. A multicultural and diverse South Africa would both honour and memorialise the victims and survivors of colonialism, and create space for those who want to be here – not simply those who happen to have been born here.

Perhaps I was wrong earlier when I talked about our Zuma problem. As I think about it, it is obvious that President Zuma and the way he exploits our existing divisions, indeed the way the ruling party has played on our lack of unity and our racial divisions, are gifts. Perhaps President Zuma has been sent to provide us with an opportunity to remember what we promised ourselves we would be. When he opportunistically calls protests against him mainly by whites “racist”, even as he and his government have failed to act time and again in the face of real racism, he reminds us that we deserve better. He plays with the pain of the daily struggles of our mothers and fathers – those he left behind when he joined the leadership of the ANC.

He reminds us of those who remain trapped by the racism of the economy over which he has presided for close to a decade. When President Zuma talks about radical economic transformation, does he take us for fools? Perhaps, he is merely giving us a gift we don’t fully understand yet – giving us the impetus for unifying on the basis of a broader and more robust notion of ourselves than the Rainbow can describe.

He reminds us that South Africans are black and white and queer and Indian and coloured and white and now we are also Kenyan and Nigerian and Congolese and Zimbabwean and Somali South Africans and all of us stand on this soil burning with the burden of freedom. And what a magnificent burden it is. We stand with diversity etched in our bones and written in our blood. We stand and refuse to be trapped by the narratives of the past and the fragilities of the present. We talk and we call in to radio shows and we march and we gather in spaces people in power seldom pay attention to and we disrupt because we know we cannot rely on our leaders for the moment. We used to trust them but the ones who were worthy of our trust are dead. And this is not a tragedy because we are beginning to understand how to come unstuck from this situation without coming undone.

Like our mothers who came before us, many of us New South Africans have learned that in this country we are making, we have to have eyes in the back of our heads. We are learning to scan the wreckage of our history and mine it for gold, to look for the connections between us, even as we walk with our eyes firmly fixed on the horizon. We are moving ever more sure-footed, towards making a South Africa in which we all belong. DM

Sisonke Msimang is a writer. This lecture was part of a global series that will be broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s radio show Ideas with Paul Kennedy, in June 2017.


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