Thursday, 14 February 2008

Shools Pledge commentary

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


Dr Phil said...

you should be on thought leader next to my hero steve... go check his eskom article and the 160+ comments it generated.

A small addition/nuance/debate, if I may. I take no view on the pledge, but I agree with your sentiment for sure - whining, even when justified (which doesn't include race-based whining), doesn't help none.

But I would submit that some post-94 policies (AA and BEE) were always going to ensure that we remained a racist society. [Although I strongly believe that we would be one without them, so the rest of what follows is probably moot. It kinda becomes an argument about the 'degree' to which we are or may become a racist society...]

I do not for a second want to suggest that we do not need AA and BEE (although they could be improved, especially BEE), because the labour market remains racist.

But these policies - everywhere in the world from the US to Malaysia - do have (many) downsides. The most relevant to your argument is that they require a population defined above all else in terms of race. That will invoke reaction, good or bad, based on the same identification criterion. It cannot be avoided - we can't force people to enlighten themselves. Especially not those who, rightly or wrongly, perceive their prospects to have been clipped because of said policies.

This debate has gone on in the US for decades, without any resolution. And it's way worse than here in Malaysia.

Does AA create divisions where there might otherwise be none? Or is it an essential fillip to people who are disadvantaged by virtue of their skin colour? Does the beneficiary of an AA decision even like knowing that there were things other than ability influencing decisions in the job market? Etc etc.

There is no answer. My view is that as long as a labour market is racist (and there is tons of good research in the US and elsewhere proving that some certainly are), AA is needed. But that will entrench race-based thinking, on BOTH sides of the black-white divide, especially here. This is not a justification for or rationalisation of racism. Just how the world works. Especially ours and the Malaysian parts!

Paul said...

Brilliant letter. But my 2 cents....

Sentiment will always overpower intellectual debate. The most recent example that springs to mind doesn’t come from our shores, but rather from the UK with the debate around Dr Rowan William’s words. His argument was interesting, even if badly worded. The response was dominated by an emotional, anti-Islamic sentiment.

On local shores it’s fucking frustrating when trade union members march in the streets against unemployment despite having no understanding of the economics of their demands. Just as frustrating as when Sandton wives complain about how hard-done they are while living in expensive, leafy suburbs in houses kept clean by poorly paid labor. But, after slapping some sense into these idiots, it’s worthwhile to take note of the sentiment, because that is where the significance lies. In the first example we have people who are tired of their situation, and are willing to risk their jobs to create some sort of change. In the second situation we have somebody who is scared because they don’t believe that they are wanted in their country of birth, and knows that the life that they have come to know can be taken away from them in an instant.

Paula, how I feel this relates to your letter is entirely to do with the part of the white population making everything about race. Let me start with my interpretation of the context of our situation.

I believe that living in this country as a white person (the historically oppressive race) comes at a cost. We were incredibly lucky to have not been kicked out of the country, because the history of the world dictated that that would happen. Instead the governing party has decided that the white population will not have equal rights, and in loose logic it follows that this is the choice of the majority citizens of the country.

So it seems like a fair trade. White people give up some rights (preference to jobs and their standing within political debate) and some of their unfairly won property (through BEE deals and expropriation), and in return they remain citizens of the country. Maybe if the white population reminded themselves of this transaction they wouldn’t bitch so much….. That said, if there is any validity in what I’ve said, it does add to the argument that everything social and political in this country involving the white population has racial implications.

As an example, let’s talk about the school pledge. Read it again with reference to the transaction to which I talk. I can see how some people think that it alludes to this very state of affairs. And through all their weak arguments comes the sentiment that they are worried that their kids are going to be reminded every morning that even though daddy’s rich, you are not an equal citizen in this country, and you will not grow up to the economic privilege which you have grown to know. (This is not my interpretation, just an attempt to read the feelings behind the arguments. My interpretation is that the pledge reeks of fascism.)

Of course if they really believed this, it would only be logical for them to leave the country. That’s why I refer to sentiment. Through these illogical arguments, you can see genuine and valid fears.

In many ways this country is a frontier town. As young guns without the trappings of families and assets, this suits us fine (okay, there have been weddings and engagements of late, but you know what I mean). We can take the risk and see what comes of this beautiful place. But for some white people who decided to start families and careers here, there are more fears. The big one being that the terms of my aforementioned transaction have not been clearly defined.

Many white people thought that by now they would have regained their equal status in this country. I personally believe that such a presumption was ignorant and shows a complete misunderstanding of the repression under which the other races of this country lived. However there is a heightened uncertainty as to if whiteys will ever be equal citizens.

There is also uncertainty as to how much property will be taken away. Retirement savings are going to be worth fuck all if all these companies continue to have BEE deals diluting their earnings. This will be worsened exponentially if socio-political targets are instituted overly-aggressively with disregard for economic growth. And then Johnny McWhite is also terrified that if he is retrenched he won’t find another job to support his family with.

This has got far longer than I intended, and is starting to sound like a message of doom which was not my intention at all. My point is twofold. Firstly as much as we try to escape the trappings of racial definitions, race issues will continue to shape our future as long as we live in this country and the government holds onto racial definitions. Secondly, although it is commendable to try and get people to focus on the more valid issues that face our society, it is in the misinterpretations and the weak arguments that you will find the real human sentiments and fears that will ultimately dictate history.