Defend Truth


Our frantic voices, which we cannot hear

Kalim Rajab is a director of the New National Assurance Company, SA's largest empowered insurance company. He previously worked in the diamond industry, and was educated at UCT and Oxford. He writes in his personal capacity about SA, current events, film appreciation and culture. Catch him on twitter at @kalimrajab

We cannot properly speak until there is someone else who can understand what we are saying. It’s not only a land of no statues and just statutes that we seek; we want a society where we hear each other’s frantic voices.

Black lives matter, the world over. Yet, just as the philosophers have said we do not really exist until there is someone to see us existing, so too can we not properly speak until there is someone who can understand what we are saying. What is true of love between two people is equally true of healing within the bonds of a nation. The act, though significant, is often not enough; as important is how it will be received. 

Statues will fall, knees will be bent, and hopefully much delayed legal reform will follow – in all countries where contestations around skin colour abound, including ours. These are significant first steps. But it may not be enough, as much here as it may prove to be in the US or Britain, where the first statue was toppled this week. When assertiveness is received with goodwill and understanding, then societies are able to build and progress. But when robust assertiveness is received with increasing levels of societal polarisation, then the result can often prove to be a stillborn victory.

South Africans have watched the events of the last two weeks unfold in the US and applied them – with very divergent attitudes – to our own situation. In many ways, these attitudes feel like a continuation of the visible rise of polarisation between black and white South Africans. 

This is not just about how the columnist David Bullard continues to wilfully cock a snook at black sensitivities in the name of freedom of speech, or of the litigious AfriForum’s latest ill-judged foray, this time against the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s statement in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Equally, it’s not only about the furore that surrounded the appointment of a well-qualified white man to the top post of Eskom last year. Or just about how so many recent issues – private schools’ transformation, BEE codes applied to emergency grants or Professor Nicoli Nattrass – bitterly divide us largely along racial lines. 

It is about the increasing contempt we seem to have for each other that plays out on social media platforms, or that continues to come across in our daily conversations within the safety of our own tribes. It is about the increasingly bitter language we use to respond to others’ opinions on the issues which involve some aspect of race, redress or transformation – in other words, given our history, to basically every contemporary issue that emerges in our country. Too many on both sides seem engulfed, slowly suffocating under the weight of their impotent frustrations. We do not hear each other. And so, we cannot speak.

The solution, however distant or unattainable it is now, is dialogue, and the art of active listening. Trevor Noah has spoken about how the social contract in the US has been broken, and so too is ours in danger of falling apart. For it to work, a space is needed where people who want to contest the future can engage. It’s probably a place where the words “racist”, “neo-liberal”, “centralist”, “demagogue” and “stooge” are deliberately not bandied about lazily. 

It’s there; we just need the will. 

Or else we will all be lovers doomed to wander the lands of Babel. A land of no statues, of just statutes, but where bitterness is wrought deep into our hearts. DM


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