Issues abound and of late, while race-based concerns have risen to global prominence, in South Africa, race has always – more than simmering below the surface – been centre stage of our social, economic and political interactions.
Many embrace this centrality, others lament the reduction of almost everything to race. Still, most current issues – be they racial, geopolitical, gender, discrete transgressions of human rights, public health, education, unemployment or inequality and more – are connected by a golden thread: Othering, the process of stigmatisation that defines another and sets them apart in a way that renders them an outsider.
To be clear, the opposite of Othering is not “saming”, it is belonging. And as John A Powell, director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley, says, “belonging does not insist that we are all the same. It means we recognise and celebrate our differences, in a society where ‘we the people’ includes all the people” and does not involve a presupposition that one’s own race or nationality is inherently superior to another. To treat those of other races and nationalities with unfairness or unequal justice, with dismissiveness or with active contempt, is pernicious.
The recent revelations of Makhaya Ntini, the first ethnically black South African to play for the national cricket team, about his experience of loneliness is a reflection of being Othered. A senior black woman in politics – who once confided in me her experience of being Othered and how many of her peers didn’t even know her name – provides another example.
Many will recount similar encounters, and these form a part of the basis of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. It is important, however, to acknowledge that class – regardless of race – also allows for the othering of people and that it is also not incumbent on others to embrace you – you must embrace yourself. As Steve Biko remarked, “as a prelude whites must be made to realise that they are only human, not superior. Same with blacks. They must be made to realise that they are also human, not inferior.” The subtext is that inferiority needs to be countered by self-improvement and self-confidence.
In this vein, I ask myself then, why have I not felt othered? I’m old enough, after all, to remember encountering, first hand, the engravings on benches and signs on buses and buildings that read “Europeans Only”. My parents were imprisoned, banned and placed under house arrest by the apartheid regime. Friends and close family members were hounded, some tortured. I was arrested. My marriage to a white woman was in contravention of the “Immorality Act”. My children suffered the stigma of racial classification, being neither fish nor fowl in the eyes of government. Yet, I never shared Ntini’s loneliness, nor my colleague’s sense of non-recognition. Why?
Credit, in the first instance, must go to my parents who had the foresight to send me to a pioneering non-racial school in Swaziland when apartheid was at its zenith, and then to an international college in Wales that championed international understanding and whose stated mission is “to make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future”. These formative experiences stood me in good stead. But more than this, I subsequently embraced, challenged and immersed myself in the dominant cultures I encountered. I sought to understand and compete on my own terms. I never felt less than I am.
I rejected oppression. I rejected being rescued. I rejected victimhood. And yes, the paradox of my experience under apartheid and other dominant polities and the impact of my formative education – courtesy of the schools I attended and the example of my parent’s resistance of, and refusal to, accept apartheid – emboldened this rejection.
The tragedy is that a black government in our country has failed, over more than a quarter of a century, to provide a sound education to the majority of its (black) people. It has failed to dignify their lives in the provision of housing and services to allow them to compete on an inclusive basis. Instead, it panders to a failed narrative and engages in tit-for-tat racism to justify its failures, which it lays at the door of others.
I recount this to illustrate both the reality of feeling Othered and the importance of not allowing yourself to be Othered. While I acknowledge my experience in this regard and understand that this may not be shared by many, I believe that this understanding needs to be internalised universally if we are to have any hope of celebrating our differences, in a society where “we the people” includes all people. Of necessity, this requires standing up against transgressions of fundamental human rights and not manufactured rights that serve no edifying purpose – everywhere. More, it necessitates, in that defence, an engagement of both the victim and the oppressor.
Within this context, an interrogation of the BLM organisation that seeks to champion aspects of this cause is necessary. BLM calls for, as a cornerstone of their demands, the curtailing of property rights, the cutting of military budgets in half, the defunding of the police, the disbanding of private schools, the abolition of private hospitals, the creation of government-funded sacred sites for black worship and extra tax rebates depending on how black you are.
The kernel of truth embedded in the original focus and reaction – that has in its genesis a case and a concern that is pertinent and merits attention – has come to be hijacked, aggressively funded and sloganised beyond its original purpose and intent.
It is necessary therefore to guard against those who use ostensibly noble causes for their own material gain at the expense of the very people they seek to champion and who are perversely incentivised to do so. Behind their angry masks there often lies a cold dismissal of the nobility of racial reconciliation and an agenda that seeks to milk a grievance for eternity for the benefit of an elite as grievances are moulded, part of an echo chamber of the past. Once racist, always racist and the institutions bear witness, is the false mantra.
Opposing this is not minimising racism. It involves maximising reconciliation and responsible redress. It means refusing to bend the knee in the service of an agenda that is patently in the service of certain puppet masters. It involves a commitment to build a just society regardless of race, religion, circumstance of birth, sexual orientation and more. It is necessary to “beware that when fighting monsters, you do not become a monster,” as Nietzsche famously said, “for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes at you.” DM