Defend Truth

Opinionista

Reflecting on a week of mayhem and the quality of our humanity

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Journalist, author, broadcaster

We have much work to do to rebuild after this past week’s violence and destruction. This sacred work we have to do involves us not only looking outside, guarding against material destruction and violence, but also inside, to the quality of our humanity. The events of this past week will leave more wounds of distrust, we must make sure they don’t set us back a generation.

I’ve been lying in my bed shaking. My teeth chatter loudly. The blood rushing in my eardrum bangs against the membrane so violently, it feels like it will soon flood out down my cheek and stain the pillowcase. I feel an ache I have not felt for a long time. It gets more intense with each news report and phone call to my family who live in two of the areas affected by uprising and looting. I am feeling so cold and it’s not because it is one of the iciest days in the country. It is because a chill of a different kind has wrapped its hands around my throat and is making me gasp for breath. I am in mourning for everybody who has fallen to the ground and for every weeping and wounded family. 

Parts of South Africa, my country, are burning and the guts of fury, lawlessness and desperation lie strewn across streets and towns, mingling with the debris of broken shop windows, burning tyres, rocks and damaged appliances. The smoke of economic devastation rises thickly and darkly against the sky. I convulse watching a baby thrown from a looted, burning building to safety and for a lost little boy, with sad eyes, standing in a sea of chaos, who only wanted underwear.

I’m feeling what I can only guess is a similar type of asphyxiation many of my countrywomen and men are already well acquainted with through the grinding routine of going to sleep and waking up in the bed of poverty. That insidious bed that offers no real sleep, no rest or warmth, or safety, no rejuvenating powers to deliver one fresh and hopeful at the threshold of a new day.

This violence is not just about the trigger pulled under the guise of loyalty and protest for a former president who watches from prison or about the poor who have been severely exposed by the pandemic and are tired, hungry and cold. It is also about orchestrated attacks and opportunistic forces who appear to have deeper motives to destabilise the government.

In my hometown of Phoenix*, burnt-out cars and barricaded streets replace the relative idyll I saw on a recent trip home. The streets have changed and so too have the residents. Community night patrols and guarding vigils dot various streets. My brother and his sons join groups of men to keep watch and to pray. Armed with coffee flasks they mingle with others armed with guns and the resolve to protect the neighbourhood from the risk of looting and property destruction. And then there are those with their hands on the trigger and a lack of wisdom as to how reckless actions could strike a match and inflame racial tensions that will burn for a long time and potentially destroy whole communities. The stops and searches that have emboldened unfair and illegal actions and the reported assaults of innocent passersby have been cause for concern.

This has worried me and my brother deeply. The chat rooms and WhatApp groups have exposed some disturbing language and racist utterances. It’s not like we did not know it was already there. Here’s a little story. When I was a teenager, my mum invited her friend over for a visit. “Vanessa,” she said, “please go make the tea.” I returned with a tray and three cups, a side plate of biscuits and set it down. My mum invited our Zulu housekeeper Irene to join them. As she reached out to take her cup, my mum’s friend yelled, “What?! The same cup?”. She was sickened that she was being made to drink out of crockery shared with the help. She left and we discussed what happened, while trying to soothe Irene’s hurt feelings. 

That memory has stuck with me. But this type of segregated eating (still practised in some households today) extends beyond china and silverware and exposes a hierarchy of value based on race. 

One of my closest friends (Indian) took her partner (black) to Durban for a family visit. To sum it up, the visit didn’t last beyond the opening plate of samoosas and she cut ties with those family members straight after, for not being able to accept him. Later, in a relationship with an Indian banker, the subject of her 10-year relationship with that partner, who is also the father of her youngest child, was one he couldn’t let go of. He was haunted by the fact that she had slept with a black man. That relationship ended in tears when my friend left him over his obsession with this. 

The way many black employees often testify how they are talked down to, abused and exploited are realities not often spoken about but well understood. It is each business owner’s responsibility to face up to this and to make it right. This is not instant work, but work that goes to the heart of why one believes they are more deserving of respect and dignity than another. 

There are pathologies of discrimination and exclusion in the relationship between the Indian and black communities, in my experience. It hurts to see it, it hurts to feel it and it hurts that we have not done credible work in this country to neutralise its toxins.

In conversations with people in the district, I’ve heard the arguments that, “Our forefathers came to this country with nothing. As indentured labour, slaves actually. They were uprooted and exploited! Many were illiterate and didn’t know what the English were up to. They were lied to and coerced into slave-like conditions! We worked hard and sacrificed to have what we have. Why do people think we were given anything? Why do they want to just take it from us? They cannot just take it from us!”

Against this backdrop, the risks for deepening tensions, a broader scope for misunderstanding amplifies the risk of race relations going to hell and many more bodies lying on the ground. We must not sit back and try to sugarcoat arsenic. This is real and it risks taking us to the brink. Idi Amin’s Uganda and Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany offer chilling sermons of understanding for how race and ethnic division can take a country down a path of death and devastation.

Of course, this is influenced by external and opportunistic forces whose purpose it serves to have our country divided and distracted by scapegoating people and stoking race wars. This sacred work we have to do involves us not only looking outside, guarding against material destruction and violence, but also inside, to the quality of our humanity. The events of this past week will leave more wounds of distrust; we must make sure they don’t set us back a generation.

The saddening thing is how much of a mixed story this is. My community values community values. Mosques, temples and churches are regularly at the forefront of caring for the poor, no matter who they are, and reaching out to exposed families. Where I lived all my teenage life there was a practice of giving and tolerance which I have felt every time I have gone back.

My brother’s church and network continues with outreach work to take care of those in need. Beyond this, the spirit in Phoenix has always seemed to me to be one of tolerance. Again this does not belie the fact that when it comes to race and genuine feelings of respect and even love, we have to do some deep introspection. We have to hold our breath, tear away the big, false rainbow plaster to reveal the festering sores of unresolved bitterness and face the damage systemic inequity has wrought.

And we also have to get involved, together. I have found my spirit dancing to the tune of charity and care for the affected areas expressed from all corners of our country in all sorts of big and small ways. This holds a special key to how we build trust between us, how we see our fates as intertwined. 

And so…

People in my old neighbourhood continue to patrol and keep watch, allowing their children to sleep safely and to dream. Others in makeshift dwellings nearby suppress rage and wonder when their turn will come for proper economic access and a future of prosperity and dignity. Those with sinister and criminal intentions plot their next moves. Our leaders autopsy the corpse of failure. While all this is happening — let us remember this country we live in.

Its soil is already saturated with the blood of sacrifice. Out of its belly grew a tall and strong tree with roots of possibility. The corrupt have hacked at its branches and selfishly plucked its fruit, the desperate have burnt its shell and in its shade, murder and theft have been discussed. Yet it stands. Thirsty for the water of united purpose and the nourishment of the hope that no matter how dark the night seems, if you climb high enough you will see the first light of dawn, and the chance to start again. 

This is where I’d like to end but to be real, and honest, I cannot. 

This vision can only exist if we take this chance once the dust settles to really look one another in the eye, admit that the hope freely given has been betrayed, that we hold the murderous — and those whose action and inaction fed this flame — to account and completely alter our course.

Our leaders must be met with more intense scrutiny than ever before and we must tear up the blank cheque they took to govern as they see fit. This time was only a stress test for the guardrails of our democracy and its response mechanisms. The next time? Well… DM

*Phoenix, just north of Durban, was established as an Indian township under the Group Areas Act in 1976.

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