Opinionista Joanne Hichens 22 October 2019

#ImStaying, a witnessing of another’s humanity

Initiated on the basis of ‘good thoughts, good words, good deeds’, the Facebook group #ImStaying offers some relief from tension as I carve out purpose and meaning in a difficult situation. The group, to put it simply, lightens my mood.

Clearly, with the number of articles appearing about the Facebook group #ImStaying, it’s causing a stir. In the latest, “Dear South Africa, you don’t need to be misaligned with everything”, by Nomatter Ndebele, published recently in Daily Maverick, Ndebele commends the Facebook page as “a tiny little space of unity”. However, with a current following of over 760,000 and with over 18 million messages posted, it’s become more than a blip on the screen.

Jarette Petzer founded the group barely a month ago, aiming to foster a “positive vibe” among South Africans, and hoping to have a small impact as he called on people to stay in the country. He must surely be surprised at how it’s taken off. This last weekend alone, postings had to be temporarily interrupted in order for the 60 moderators to process 40,000 pending posts.

South Africans of all walks of life are now members of the rapidly growing community that has progressed far beyond the implication of the original name, posting stories about not only why they are committed to living in this country, but how they are connected to other people through acts of humanity and kindness.

I was first prompted to write about the group after Columnist Tymon Smith wrote in his article, Hiding in the hashtag: “Peel off the bandage though, and you have to acknowledge that however well-intentioned, there’s a cringeworthy insularity, nostalgia and lack of self-awareness that tinge this virtual community’s attempt to put the blinkers back on long after the realities of the trauma and pain we haven’t dealt with have been let out of the box.”

Smith is not the only critic of #ImStaying. As Ndebele wrote, her piece was preceded by that of Solly Moeng, Good for you #ImStaying, but why shout about it, who criticised the notion of denigrating those leaving South Africa. Indeed, many people I know have wondered about the relevance of the group; others have steered clear, citing infinite nights crooning kumbaya at a campfire with a cult of happy-clappys as less excruciating than joining such an overtly positive and gushing community.

One particular friend said, “I will feel positive when Zuma stands trial and is found guilty and is punished. Now that would be my #ImStaying. I will feel positive when I can walk into my garden without a panic button. I will feel positive when I can catch the local train with no fear of being burnt alive. I will be happy when my children find somewhere safe to live, free of constant surveillance and restrictions. I cannot walk on my own mountain any more. As a woman I am more at risk here than in most countries around the world. Clearly some people feel a need for these warm fuzzies but I am not one of them.”

As a realist, and perhaps a cynic, I couldn’t agree more, so I had to think hard about why I find the group, and trawling through the posts, in the most part affirming.

Certainly I’ve fantasised about hopping on that plane, getting to a safe place if only that safe place existed, escaping particularly the fears related to physical harm. Living here I worry constantly about the safety of my three children. I worry too that my son will not have opportunities to find work in a country with a failing economy. I’ve vacillated between feeling angry, trapped, resentful and hopeless. I’m stressed, as, I would imagine, is almost every other resident for some or other reason.

Perhaps, for me then, the group, initiated on the basis of “good thoughts, good words, good deeds”, offers some relief from tension as I carve out purpose and meaning in a difficult situation. The group, to put it simply, lightens my mood.

Talking more philosophically, it’s generally acknowledged that through the generous and inclusive words and deeds of those who have “more” – whether the more is spiritual, emotional or material – others are raised up. This applies to every walk of life. It applies to parenting, to marriage and partnership, to friendship and business. If one person believes in another, or goes out of their way to support another in some way, it’s easier for that person to tackle the inevitable challenges that life presents in all its manifestations.

The power of #ImStaying, then, lies in the sheer number of members expressing positive affect, who are at least attempting to maintain a positive frame of mind. As we go about shopping, cleaning, commuting, parenting, doing whatever ordinary things are required of ordinary South Africans making it through from day to day, the group provides a catalyst to share that positive feeling in broader communities.

The idea is to influence adversity and frustration with an attitude celebrating the good in life, emphasising that a shift of perspective can make a difference — as opposed to sinking deeper into a negative, blaming, reactive quagmire. The idea is to express gratitude, to pay forward the good feeling. The revered spiritual leaders of the world can’t be wrong when they collectively argue for universal empathy and compassion.

When Smith writes of “cringeworthy insularity”, although the term is most likely used in the valid context of a blinkered approach, hundreds of thousands of people are inadvertently diminished as they clearly stand proud for who they are and their experience as South Africans, sharing the joyful details of their lives, but equally not shying from their struggles. Insularity is specifically defined as “a lack of interest in cultures, ideas or people outside of one’s own experience”, but when scrolling through the thousands of posts it’s clear that every culture, every race and every age is represented, with the common link of the group ethos.

When it comes to nostalgia, the majority of posts are more than a sentimental longing for times past. Hundreds of thousands of selfies posted of police, defence force members, doctors, teachers, shelf packers, domestic workers, mothers and fathers, all of whom live, work and love in a contemporary South Africa, is evidence of change. Of course braaivleis, biltong and Mrs Ball’s chutney have featured too as #ImStaying is inclusive of anyone who joins in the spirit of mutual support.

As for “lacking self-awareness”, with the membership of over three quarters of a million and counting there have to be plenty who must be conscious of their own character and motivations.

Countless mixed-marriage couples have exposed the difficulties of union in insular communities, the hurdles jumped through to gain acceptance. They describe their caramel-children as the hope for the future. Talking children, an extraordinary number of couples have posted about adopting children – of every colour. As the commitment to do so will cost parents financially and emotionally for the remainder of their lives, as they feed, clothe, educate and nurture that child, few can doubt the deep introspection required before taking the step.

Many people have posted inspirational stories of their disabled or wheelchair-bound lives. Others have told of the considerable care family members, often those terminally ill, have received in hospitals. People with cancer, or debilitating depression, have stressed that whatever their disease, they wish to contribute to the swell of goodwill.

Residents of rural areas, some of whom have never been on a plane or a boat, who’ve never even visited another province, have written – with a fair sprinkling of emoticons – how contact with such a varied population is appreciated as is the opportunity to showcase their beautiful part of the country.

The posts that speak of friendship between employer and domestic worker are recognised. And in this space are honoured the policemen and women and soldiers in uniform who write “I would give my life for the people”. In this space the generosity of one who steps up and pays for the shopping of another less fortunate is acknowledged, as is the road user who changes his tune towards vexatious taxi drivers and responds with restraint.

Not all posts are sugarcoated. Hard-hitting stories posted by South Africans who’ve suffered physical attack form part of the collective narrative, yet these survivors share insights as to coping with and making sense of violence.

Of course the questions must be asked: Are these bite-sized, easily digestible stories a shallow response to a desperate national crisis? Is the site delusional? Does it indicate how bad things are here that people need to do this?

Perhaps, instead, the stories show that greater solidarity exists between people of diverse backgrounds than was previously believed, and underscores a strong desire for connection given that we live largely isolated from one another.

This group allows members “to be seen” and “to see” each other. “This is me. Here is my selfie. This is my family. This is what I do. This is what I have had to transcend in my life.” And those 1,000 likes-plus are others saying, “We hear your story.” It’s a “witnessing”, one could say, of another’s humanity.

As for the “trauma and the pain we haven’t dealt with”, perhaps exposing ourselves with vulnerability and honesty as we place our narrative – brief as it may be – in the public domain in this now more than tiny space in some way moves us forward to a more inclusive future as we tread the balance between healing the past and losing ourselves in it. DM

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