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Removing the prong from the fork that caused the pain

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James Blignaut is Professor extraordinaire attached to the School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University and honorary research associate attached to the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON). The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any of the institutions he might be associated with.

We are living in a brutally mutilated society. There is always someone somewhere with a heart filled with bitterness, hate and pain who conceives an idea mixed with an iron will to rip another apart – be it verbal, emotional, financial, and/or physical. All of us have suffered such.

At least four collections of narratives – none of them simple and linear – emerge from each act of brutality. The result is a confusing and deeply polarising cacophony. First, there is the story of the perpetrator. What agony, indignation, injustice and/or perverse understanding of entitlement was suffered – perceived or actual – to disrespect life to inflict such brutalisation? It is a story mostly kept secret – a story of a tortured mind that strives with self and with society.

Second, the story of the victim before, during and after the act. What did he/she think, say, do or associate with – if any at all – that could unleash the fire of violence?

The third story is the story of those who must deal with the direct consequences of the act, be that family, friends, first responders, the media or those involved in the various spheres of law enforcement. Each responding to the same facts, but through different emotional, historic, perceptual and psychological lenses. Soon, a plethora of narratives emerge, spawning fertile ground for fake news and further divisive pain.

The fourth story is that of the uninvolved – the bystander, the reader, Joe Public. Joe’s response, or the story of his ignorance, depends on Joe’s past and the version of the events that reaches Joe.

Invariably, none of these narratives leads to healing, but instead to further division, polarisation and the labelling of each other and other groups of people in society into categories, thereby deepening the inherent scepticism and distrust. Needless to say, this results in further disengagement and self-imposed distancing – wiping the pain under the carpet of time while accumulating skeletons – brewing further resentment. When and where will it end? How long will this painful path last? At what cost? We must find an alternative.

In South Africa, a country divided for centuries on racial grounds, racial prejudice matters. The axe of potential racial hatred was snatched from my heart at the tender age of five and that by Frans, a young black man. Our story is as simple as the profound impact it had on me.

The pain of the past is real; the scars caused by various forms of mutilation a stark reminder of what was and, sadly, still is.

Frans was my friend and main source of inspiration at the time. Working together in the garden, I longed to be able to take the garden fork and throw it, with force and a sense of utter indomitability only a five-year-old could muster so that it would peg, joltingly, into the ground. Just like he had done many times. One day, with all my brute force, I hurled the fork. The memory of its grandiose flight, however, was but short-lived. What had to be a moment of triumph turned into a bloody mess while my sense of invincibility collapsed into excruciating pain. My imaginary world was rudely interrupted by the reality of a fork piercing through my big toe. While the physical pain was of a kind I had never experienced before, it was my heart – my sense of being – that suffered most.

With passionate kindness, Frans removed the fork and treated the wound. This was not the act that remained with me for five decades. What stood the test of time is that he had somehow cut the transgressing prong off the offending fork, consoling me with the promise that that prong would never cause me any pain again. Frans treated a toe well, but he spoke to the heart of a young boy – mending my soul.

Can we, as a society, reach out to each other and give rise to a fifth narrative? A narrative of healing – mending the soul of our nation? Instead of mutilating each other, can we find the inner strength and courage, and act with decisiveness to reconcile with ourselves and others by offering consolation, and to treat another’s wounds with care and dignity? Can we remove the offending, pain-causing fork prongs, irrespective the source and/or origin?

Now, during a time of extreme hardship, this is more needed than any other – and truly, we see evidence thereof happening all around: People across all walks of life reaching out to help. From the farmers, often vilified, who donate food, to those passionately distributing and preparing the same for another. Strangely, yet an unmasked vivid reality for all to see, we realise that we are in this together. Be it the car guard or the grand lady, there is something special that connects us, a unique experience that nobody has experienced before nor could have imagined.

The pain of the past is real; the scars caused by various forms of mutilation a stark reminder of what was and, sadly, still is. It need not be the future though, and the seed of the future lies in our present actions. There is much to hope for. We see people reaching out, consoling each other, removing the prong from the fork.

The image, and its story, of Frans’s fork with only three prongs left, is etched in my memory forever. Thank you, Frans, for treating my heart. DM

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