Defend Truth


Goldfish memory: South Africans must stop running away from inconvenient truths


Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist and columnist at Daily Maverick and is part of the founding team of Maverick Citizen. Prior to Daily Maverick she worked as a communications and advocacy officer at Public Interest Law Centre SECTION27.

There is something that we have unfortunately become adept at doing as South Africans, and that is cultivating a goldfish and denialist state of mind, and it is damaging us. This applies across the many intersecting issues that we navigate as a country, whether it’s gender-based violence, racism, child abuse, “anti-vax” sentiment or the perpetuation of poverty and inequality.

We are good at raising the alarm and mobilising for a cause or commemorations for a day, especially those days marked boldly on our calendars every year, like Human Rights Day, Women’s Day, 16 Days of Activism, the Day of Reconciliation … the list goes on. We’re not so good at living and embodying the spirit of those causes and commemorations, though, because it’s too tough, too tiring, too unpopular, too much hard work, not much fun.

However, the reasons for those commemorations and causes are often quite grave and serious, and people literally died for the principles of those causes. Still doubtful? Let’s unpack them.

Human Rights Day was formerly known as Sharpeville Day where, on 21 March 1960, the PAC led a peaceful anti-dompas campaign to a police station in Sharpeville en masse, without passes, to hand themselves over. In response the police used live ammunition on the crowd, killing 69 people, whose bullet wounds were mostly in their backs. Now we use the day to reinforce that we are all entitled to human rights.

Women’s Day commemorates the 9th of August 1956, when an estimated 20,000 women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against apartheid legislation restricting and controlling the movement of black women in urban areas. Now the day is used to empower women with the knowledge that they have equal rights and the right to self-determination.

The 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children campaign is an international campaign that is pretty self-explanatory, as it aims to eradicate violence against women and children. Over the years, though, it seems the “children” part has been forgotten, which may explain the increasing childism (a deep prejudice and negative attitudes towards children) in our country. Every year, however, the gender-based violence stats increase at an alarming rate. We only have to cast our minds back to last month’s crime update by our minister of police.

The Day of Reconciliation, which is coming up on 16 December, was chosen as a commemorative day of significance to both Afrikaner and black African people. Afrikaners mark the day when the Voortrekkers triumphed over Zulu people at the Battle of Blood River in 1838. For black African people it is significant because it was the day Umkhonto weSizwe – the military wing of the ANC formed to launch an armed struggle against the apartheid government – was formed.

How many people know or care to remember the origin of these days? Sadly it seems people only seem to take note of them when they want to put in leave at work for a long weekend. However, as these are national days one can almost understand the apathy and disconnection displayed by citizens because our government itself seems unclear as to how best to mark the significance of such days, with an often underwhelming and out-of-touch array of commemorative events, while businesses come up with tepid and tone-deaf advertising that dilutes rather than affirms the significance of the days.

This plays out in the fact that the majority of the population face human rights violations almost daily, with Amnesty International reporting on the excessive use of force displayed by authorities such as the police that goes unsanctioned, people being denied access to public health services and a poor public education system. We still have gender inequality manifesting in the normalisation of women doing the majority of domestic work and still often working for less pay than men. Gender-based violence continues to enjoy the patronage of apologists and denialists, with statements like “He’s a nice guy; I have never known him to be violent – it must be a plot to bring him down” or “There are so many men whose lives have been destroyed by false rape accusations”. Of course, no one ever has actual stats to back up these statements, yet a cursory glance at the latest crime stats shows more than 9,000 cases of rape were reported.

Useful questions I think we need to ask ourselves are:

What obligations do these causes and commemorations place on us?

What are human rights and how do they relate to me?

Do I believe in the equality of men and women?

Why does gender-based violence get worse every year?

It cannot be gainsaid that we are all responsible for one another and we will continue to live with the horrors that these commemorative days are meant to eradicate until we stop running away from the weight of their responsibility. Choosing to forget or relegate to the unproductive realm of the hypothetical the inconvenient truths of our country makes us poorer and dishonest versions of ourselves. More importantly, though, it might quite literally kill us. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Nick Jacobs says:

    The wise words of George Santayana sadly continue to ring true for all of us. And John Donne before him and I am sure far too many to write here.

    Maybe we are truly doomed.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      Regarding your last statement … climate change will bring that about ! The dismal actions (not words or meaningless pledges) of the greatest contributors to it, will ensure it . And it will not take into account our colour, creed, gender, or religion !

  • Rob Wilson says:

    You make a good point. I believe that society has become far too wedded to the idea of ‘rights’, without appreciating that just existence requires us to accountable to accept responsibility. Every time the word rights is used we should see the matching accountability statement. Perhaps we may then create a nation of doers.

  • Lee den Heyer says:

    In the last three days, I have encountered several white people, who, in general conversation, have quite wrongly assumed that I, a complete stranger, would engage in cloaked racist chitchat, in front of their children mind you, simply because I am white.
    In the same way, men may share sexist views about women behind closed doors, on WhatsApp groups for example, assuming that their views are reciprocated simply because the other members on the group are men.
    The responsibility to end these cycles falls on us, the recipients of racist statements or sexist emails, who have gone along with it in the past but now know better and are prepared to say so.

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