Rev Dr Mvume Dandala takes a hard look at just how accepting our society is.
Once the polecat of the world, South Africa is now lauded as an example of a tolerant society. But twelve years into democracy – realistically – just how deep does our acceptance of one another go?
In SA we all still need to learn what unconditional acceptance is. Racism begins by rejecting the other person’s “humanness”. I accept you based on the fact that you are a human being. I do not reject you because your nose is a different shape to mine, or your colour, or your way of speaking or eating. This is what constitutes a healthy basis for societal relationships.
The moment this realisation becomes firmly entrenched in our psyches, acceptance will be easier in coming. A pre-requisite will be our willingness and desire to want to change. Then, when we have an issue to address, the way it is communicated will not be perceived as being based on colour, a response that says ‘you are taking this attitude because I am black’ or vice versa, but because we are committed to a future that we both want
This paradigm shift is particularly important for us as South Africans, because ours has been a history of alienation from each other. Specifically as black people we have to be re-educated to accept ourselves as being black and take pride in our “African-ness”. Remember Stephen Bantu Biko? We will get there. White South African have to accept themselves as being white and take pride in their “Africaness” – together we belong here. When opposition politicians start to affirm each other as has recently happened at the opening session of Parliament, this is a powerful signal to the nation!
Our education system has a key role to play. It starts with taking on the responsibility to help us accept each other’s different histories. This, for black South Africans means acceptance, not only of apartheid history, but going back more than three hundred years and finding a footing on which we can, with confidence, find restoration of our uniqueness and worth.
When people are taught a system of physics and maths – often in an unfamiliar language – and illustrations are used that are foreign to them and with which they are unable to identify, intellectual inferiority is instilled. The failure is in not associating the shapes in the new theory being taught i.e. cubes, circles, triangles etc. with objects they use in their everyday lives. This unwittingly conveys to all and sundry, but more damaging to themselves, that they do not have the mental capacity to understand the concepts being taught.
Why did we never learn about the pyramids of Egypt, which would have elicited a basic understanding of algebraic concepts? When it comes to trade we were taught about the Dutch East India Company but what about Mapungubwe and its trade with India dating back centuries? Such understanding is part of self-affirmation and acceptance that one is not intellectually inferior.
Hundreds of years ago the University of Timbuktu in Mali drew scholars from all over the world and yet the perception has been entrenched that Africans are intellectual parasites – internalising everything from others but having nothing to give.
Ancient history says otherwise. This needs to be accepted without the customary knee-jerk reaction to prove it otherwise. For many, the name Timbuktu is found in fables and to others is merely an imaginary term used to indicate a far-flung place.
Accepting and affirming another person has everything to do with one’s own sense of confidence and self-esteem. If I am confident in myself I have no need to be a bad neighbour, because I wish the best for you. Jesus says love your neighbour as yourself. T That’s hard to do, if you don’t accept yourself.
Perhaps we also all have to become less sensitive. The recent reaction to Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s reference to the “ingratitude” (his term) of white South Africans is one such incident. Not long before that he had lambasted black business people for the excessive salaries they earned. Coming from a man of his calibre and integrity, would it not have been wiser for us as South Africans, to swallow hard and see if there were any lessons to be learned instead of being angry and defensive?
One of the gratifying things about this country have been the many white South Africans who rejected apartheid because they saw exactly and were appalled at how it affected others. There were also those who were playing politics of pride because they didn’t want to be seen to be part of such an abhorrent system.
Black people on the other hand, cannot keep rejecting those who want to be part of South African society simply because of the colour of their skin. In some circles people have not accepted that whites are part of this society. We have to work through this, find one another and accept the fact that there are many who irrespective of their race are committed to the future. By the same token – some whites who refuse to – have to accept that they are now on an equal footing with their black compatriots. Let us find one another and work together for a common future for our children.
Let’s undo the tendency we have of seeing each other in terms of “them” and “us”. This does not mean losing our identities as Xhosas, Tswanas or those of English or Dutch or other European descent, but see the collective as being South Africans even if they choose to spend time in their “clubs”. However, we have to undo the habit of talking about an accident in which ten people were killed – “four black, three coloured and three white”.
An Ethiopian proverb says: “As long as I hold you to be inferior, I render myself to be inferior.” The measure is very clear, it is that to which we must aspire.
Rev Mvume H Dandala is the former General Secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches, former Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. He is the recipient of the Presidential Order of the Baobab (Silver) for his peace-making role in South Africa.