After traveling abroad for some months I have returned to South Africa. Having embroiled myself in the colour and beauty of the world – and much of it there is – I returned home more invigorated with patriotism and love for my country and those within it than ever before. The relationship between nation and state not entirely dissimilar from our more simple romances whereby one’s absence can make the heart grow fonder (despite the occasional heart ache). There are those of you who may elect to move onto another article at this stage, feeling that the romanticized drivel of the young, naïve and rose-tinted spectacle wearing optimist is not worth much more than an old lover’s letter. But I put it to you that this article is no account of any romantic or optimist, my world view is perhaps too cynical or practical for that. I would rather consider this a very real account of the way things look, with the benefit of a true loyalty and a considered distance, which arguably brings the benefit of a balanced perspective.
Since touch down at Cape Town International I have found myself surrounded and over-whelmed by what I consider to be counter-productive and simplistic responses to news-worthy subjects and play is almost always stopped at the drawing of the red card, which in South African terms is the race card. For the most part, it seems that critical and potentially prosperous discussions are reduced to a crass summary of the colour of the parties/people involved. To my mind, this is not only deeply saddening but fundamentally self-sabotaging. So where are my examples and what is this bold and admittedly generalized statement based on, I hear you say? Perhaps the most relevant place to start is the most recent example to mind. The proposed national schools pledge.
I was listening to the radio, just after the proposed national schools pledge was announced. Having known little about it, I listened intently and all I heard was the sound of ‘whinging whites’ (and I use this phrase with an ironic intent which is later explained) harping on about all sorts of crazy things, throwing about terms like ‘guilt trip’, ‘racist’, ‘like Apartheid’ and the like. The long and short of it was that a very vocal and seemingly very white opposition to the proposed national schools pledge. I decided that I ought to review the proposed wording of the text in order to establish whether there was any basis for the sentiment. As a reminder to myself or perhaps anyone who hasn’t read it, the pledge reads:
We the youth of South Africa, recognising the injustices of our past, honour those who suffered and sacrificed for justice and freedom. We will respect and protect the dignity of each person, and stand up for justice. We sincerely declare that we shall uphold the rights and values of our Constitution and promise to act in accordance with the duties and responsibilities that flow from these rights.
I, in fact, re-read it and I urge you to do the same. How could this seemingly harmless and in no way pointed pledge ruffle up the feathers of some people in the white community? Surely we can all identify with the significance of these statements? Surely we still believe that the injustices of the past should never be forgotten and those that contributed to its demise be remembered? Surely, this is perhaps one of the few ways we may prevent ourselves as a nation from treading these paths again? We might only know where we are going by dint of where we have been.
Why are some in a community of white people interpreting a pledge to our country, our past and constitutionalism as a personal affront? I suspect that this is in fact a very important question which needs some real consideration and redress and I suspect the answers which may be provided will be complex and varied. But the point of this article is not to address issues surrounding white identity within South Africa. That is an inevitably complex debate worthy of its own forum. The point of this article is to highlight the fact that there seems to be a knee-jerk tendency, an Apartheid hangover, to turn any issue into a race issue – even when it patently isn’t one - And this seems to happen across all racial groups. The upshot of this behaviour is, basically, that a lot of newspapers are sold with a fiery race allegation headline normally involving the word “CRISIS” and a petty, and often racist, debate emerges – leaving the truly important underlying matters unexplored and unevaluated.
In line with the above sentiment, I make the following bold statements to all members of the South African community and government officials (who I list separately because they often times seem very far away from the South African community and perhaps abode in other alien places), in case there is any level of confusion about the gist of my comments – The pledge is not simply a calculated means to entrench white guilt. Eskom has not failed because it is now managed by black people. Crime is not something that only happens to the whinging white people. Government officials are not criticized because of their skin color but most often because of their competence. Do not summarily dismiss complex issues related to identity, development, crime, and corruption and voter disillusionment by throwing in the race card. Evaluate and scrutinize the individual situations as well as your individual perceptions and oftentimes insecurities within those dynamics.
I challenge you to stop making assumptions about the ideologies and intentions of others, based on the color of our skins or their party allegiances. Where are we headed on this path? Where is all this insecurity and distrust coming from and where will it take us as a nation? This is not a fight by white people against a black government or vice versa. This is an ongoing struggle towards a better society, towards freedom and dignity, towards democracy, accountability and greatness and away from the injustices of our racially divided past.
Where we should all be in South Africa is focusing on putting pressure on our democratically elected government officials to do their jobs and get our country moving and our people mobile. Avoid this unmeritous debate on race, which we seem unable to move away from, and focus on the big picture and on the path ahead. Mobilize yourselves into productive, constructive civic action before we are left paralyzed and stagnant in the blood bath of race animosity that we know too well. Support the pledge allegiance but perhaps insist that all Parliamentarians are bound to say these words too before each session in parliament – although admittedly the word ‘youth’ may need to be deleted. I would suggest that we all need a healthy reminder of where we have been, where we are going to and what we are bound by.
Paula Jan Youens