Defend Truth

Opinionista

We must work towards a future that transcends race

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Themba Dlamini is a chartered accountant, speaker, author and founder of Melanation Media, with a passion for dismantling toxic masculinity, systemic racism and fatherlessness through thought-provoking stories which challenge these narratives.

We may not have equality in our generation, and neither may our children, but if we work together now, our grandchildren or great-grandchildren may have it. Our problems will not end until we address, not window-dress, racial inequality which is central to reducing corruption, crime, and violence in the long run.

“Angcolile amanzi! (There is debris in the water!)” shouted the lady in the front of the line while filling her 20-litre bucket from the communal tap. I stood waiting my turn, my bare feet sunk in the muddy soil, listening as the villagers made conversation, the clean air sprinkled with the aroma of wet clay and murky complaints. 

“This tap is useless!” shouted Khumbo, annoyed at the debris as she waited her turn.

Water is the most valuable commodity in the world. No water, no life. No justice, no freedom. In many ways, water and freedom are the same — an absolute necessity, a joy, sometimes an irritation and, if contaminated, deadly.

The cleavages of the Mafunze Mountains in KwaZulu-Natal gave birth to streams supplying fresh drinking water to our village. The only problem was too often the water downstream would get contaminated with animal waste and dead carcasses caused by flooding. To solve this, Bongumusa, my brother and the first graduate of the village, galvanised the community to dig trenches and install pipes for what would be the first communal tap. The pipes ran for a couple of kilometres from the freshwater spring on the top of the hill.

There was rejoicing in the village when the tap was installed and rejoicing in the nation when democracy dawned.

When the water was contaminated, to fix the problem in the short term we would boil the water or treat it with teaspoons of bleach. A long-term solution, and one that required time, patience and energy, was climbing up the hill to clear the debris at the source.

Like my brother, before us, there was an avalanche of unsung heroic strangers who rolled up their sleeves to galvanise the masses against oppression, their convictions and bodies the picks and shovels digging the trenches for the fresh waters of freedom, currents crashing against the walls of racial oppression. Madiba was the face of our fight for freedom, but the force behind him was the million little acts of dissent and defiance, including those of my grandfather Petros whose life was destroyed by the traumas of exile, returning home once having lost his mind and disappearing altogether never to be seen again. He and others were the pipes, hidden from the surface, from which run the waters of our freedom.

I believe, on the other hand, that in relation to our freedom, we are, in comparison, a slothful generation, worshippers of comfort and state-sponsored ignorance tolerating contaminated freedom. Our debris continues to be racism (not black or white people) with its cousins, among others, of inequality, misogyny and corruption.   

With the advent of democracy, while in the village we still did not have flushing toilets, but only a tardy communal tap, it was a relief that nobody had to travel kilometres up a hill for water anymore. As black people, we must acknowledge that our generation is more privileged now than our ancestors (at least in the last 400 years) – let’s not be lazy by settling for selfish personal peace by being content with our own pool of somewhat decontaminated water when so many, whose hopes we carry, are dying in sloughs of toxic inequality.

Like Khumbo, we can complain (and do nothing else) about inequality (and consequently crime) or we have to gear up to climb up the hill and roll up our sleeves to work to remove the debris of “black is bad, white is right” at its source.

We are standing on the shoulders of a generation who gave up everything for the freedom we have, but there is more work to do. Let our children stand on the shoulders of our generation as we take up the plough of economically, mentally, and emotionally climbing uphill to fight for a lasting solution. How pitiful if we are the bog that sinks them and not the arms that lift them? We must work towards a future that transcends race, whether our efforts and sacrifices are acknowledged or not.

The refusal or half-hearted effort by the majority of white people to acknowledge, accept and teach their children that South African inequality (the highest in the world) is at its source the dead carcass of years of systemic racism that continues to contaminate the troughs of our institutions, national psyche and “freedom”, and is poisoned water selfishly sinking our future generation. Refusing to engage in open, robust, emotive, yet necessary, conversations about racism, all the while with fingers fastened to the bucket of a disproportionate share of land and privilege.

 “Just fix crime and corruption!” ignores countless studies showing that addressing economic inequality is more effective than propping up the police force.

“Forget the past!” is another reflexive response, unwilling to climb the hill of history to remove the carcass of racism — much like being bitter and angry towards a child who has fallen ill as a result of drinking contaminated water and urging her to move on instead of being involved in the healing process. The problem with this approach is that our future generation inherits the difficult conversations and wounds we refuse to address. And if we feel that we are unequipped to deal with these issues, they will not be equipped either. At some point, someone must be willing to venture out of comfort and false security and “rip off the Band-Aid”.

How selfish would it be if we leave that up to our children or their children? The most obvious consequence is that if we wait for the carcass to be removed three generations down the line, then we hinder healing and equality for three more generations. We may not have equality in our generation, and neither may our children, but if we work together now, our grandchildren or great-grandchildren may have it. The founders of the ANC and many other freedom movements around the world did not see change in their generation, but worked towards it. We should do the same.

Our problems will not end until we address, not window-dress, racial inequality which is central to reducing corruption, crime, and violence in the long run.

We are standing on the shoulders of a generation who gave up everything for the freedom we have, but there is more work to do. Let our children stand on the shoulders of our generation as we take up the plough of economically, mentally, and emotionally climbing uphill to fight for a lasting solution. How pitiful if we are the bog that sinks them and not the arms that lift them? We must work towards a future that transcends race, whether our efforts and sacrifices are acknowledged or not.

I am reminded of the following quote by Vikas Swarup, in his book Slumdog Millionaire:

“Unheralded we came into this world. Unheralded we will go out. But while we are in this world, we do such deeds that even if this generation does not remember, the next generation cannot forget.”

Do we want our kids to still be dropping teaspoons of bleach in the water or do we want them to drink fresh water? We can’t have it both ways. DM

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