Justice Conference: Notes & Reflections Part 4

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I was honoured to be one of the contributors at the “Navigating the Deep Waters of Identity” session of the Justice conference. I am busy preparing links to other contributions, notes and reflections about this session, but I have been asked a number of time to share my contribution. So here you go, but please know that these words are but a small part of a very important conversation and I look forward to share more with you later this week:

“The Academy award winning movie, “Moonlight”, presents a mesmerising look at how identity is shaped by our relationships and the stories that inhabit these relationships. In one of the central scenes of the movie, the young Little (main character) and Juan (a “father figure” type character) sit together on the beach in the moonlight. Juan shares the story of how, as he was running around as a young boy in the moonlight, a lady called out at him and said, “In moonlight black boys look blue…” She continued to say, “You’re blue. That’s what I’m gonna call you: Blue.” Little then asks Juan, “So, is your name Blue?” Juan laughs and says, “Nah…At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.

Some have said that identity is shaped by the stories we tell ourselves – stories about who we are, why we are and how we are; and the stories we tell ourselves about “others”. The stories we belief about ourselves, the stories we belief about “others” define our identities. And as Juan rightfully stated, we so easily fall into the trap of letting others determine or dictate who we are and who we become. We can be held captive by the stories we believe. Not only this, we can fall into the trap of defining the identity of others by very narrow or restricted, stereotypical, prejudiced stories and use these narratives to justify our exclusion of the person, the group or the community from our lives (for instance believing the story that we should ignore people who beg for money because it will just reinforce them making a public nuisance of themselves and how this leads us to justify looking the other way or crossing the road rather than facing the person begging on the street). We use these stories to deny certain human beings or groups the space in our lives to create their own story in us.

We need to pay attention and question the stories we have been told by our families, the media, our communities, our neighbourhood watch groups and the humour and jokes we share around the dinner table. We need to be curious about the stories of the “other”. We need to be willing to engage critically with these stories. We need to ask questions about who the main story tellers in our lives are and why we are giving them space to tell stories in and of our lives.

We so often accept stories without question, without realising how deceptive these stories can be. We need to understand how comfort and empire can numb us to this process. We need to understand how our historical and social context – and in particular our geographical context – our presence, where, how we are present – shape our stories.

I can share many stories about how my geographical context – where, how and why I lived in certain locations – have shaped the stories I believed about myself and others, but most recently (around 2015), my husband and I realised that as two Afrikaans-speaking professionals who have lived a very comfortable existence in suburbia all our lives, we have come to the point of realising that the reality of where we lived – our geographical positioning in this country – amongst other things, lead to the exclusion of so many other South Africans and their stories (and so also even some of our own stories) from our lives.

We lived with unquestioned stories, or built stories about people and contexts based on what we assumed we knew (but did not actually have a clue about!) Not knowing those we considered “the others”, not knowing our history well enough, not understanding what life is like for so many other people in our country and fearing “otherness” sustained our isolated, ignorant and comfortable little bubble of existence. Towards the end of 2015, we it became clear to us that God called us to interrupt this. So we moved from wealthy, spacious suburbia, into uncomfortable, crowded, vibrant CBD.

It is through this geographical move and subsequent authentic “encounters” with “the others” or the marginalised of society that we are slowly being liberated from the captivity of the stories that are perpetuating so much of the oppression we see in our world. Slowly the stories about ourselves and about people found rootedness in empathy, love and generosity, rather than blame, fear, competition and scarcity.

It was in attending a feesmustfall vigil that my fear for crowds of young black students made space for stories of courageous human beings and revealed to me the urgent need for justice in our educational system.
It was in touching “the homeless and the beggars” that the label “nuisance” was erased to make space for human beings navigating the complexities of their struggle and the trauma of their daily lives, and came to see how they are God’s voice ministering to me and prophesying to the church.
It was in encountering young people at an open, unstructured night of worship and lament that I heard stories of human beings hurting and not just being “rebellious”, that once again brought me face to face with the reality of my own stories of shame as an “Afrikaner”. We all left a little more human and a lot more certain of God’s redemptive love for us that night.

These are three stories amongst many. With each of these encounters I felt that I was becoming more human. With many of these encounters I realised the particular power that exists in being open and vulnerable. Being present with and listening to the stories of people whom we have not before had authentic encounters with brings us to slowly question, dismantle and rewrite the “us” and “them” narratives to stories about who we really are in relation to each other and who we can become together.

Jean Vanier says that our identity can be a fountain or a prison. It can keep us captive to a certain story about who we are and who others are, or it can be a fountain that brings life.
When we hold ourselves or others captive to stories, we oppress. Wrestling with identities in a way that brings life – like a fountain – means that we are participating in justice for us all.

Ruth Haley Barton wrote a prayer that resonated on a very deep level with my experience over the past year of living in the city. The poem begins with “Oh God, who I am now?” and ends with this phrase, “Help me find myself as I walk in others’ shoes.” I belief that when we faithfully wrestle with our complex multilayered identities it requires an act of self-giving. It requires vulnerability as we take off our own shoes – our own assumptions, our own points of view, and a courageous consistent presence, a faithfulness, a commitment and curiosity to step into and walk in the shoes of another. (Knowing that we put our own shoes back on we will not walk in the same way again.)

But how do we come to this place of willingness to be vulnerable? Where do we get the courage? What can move us from fear and isolation to courage and presence? How do we stay present to this place of authentic wrestling with our identities together…? Exactly where the poem by Ruth Haley Barton starts, “Oh God, who am I now”: a faithful working out of identities need to be situated in the presence of God’s story about us – we need to situate ourselves in the story of all stories – the story of how loved we are. We can only come to a place of liberating our identities in the presence of the most true story about us – this is the story that sets us free from the prisons we live in and the walls we can build.

Walter Brueggemann in one of his Prayers for Privileged People writes the following about this space before God,

“Do your mysterious, majestic God-ing
with our hearts
reclaim
renew
re-enlived
that we may leave your presence
transplanted,
transformed,
transposed,
become by your attentiveness who we
have not yet embraced,
open and receptive,
honest and undefensive,
unafraid and committed to obedience.”

In the presence of God – when we lean into God’s attentiveness (the attentiveness of his love) – we become open, receptive, honest, undefensive, unafraid. In this place our identities are shaped not only through understanding what is truth and deception, but our identities can transplanted, transformed, transposed. It becomes fountains and opens up a whole new realm of possibility in which we can imagine a whole new way of being human together…”

Justice Conference: Notes & Reflections Part 2

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We often miss things that happen right in front of our eyes. Instead, we see only the thing we pay attention to. If you have the privilege of visiting game reserves, I am sure this kind of thing has happened to you. You are so focused on seeing the big rhino on the side of the road, that you miss the leopard quietly crossing the road right in front of you. The selective attention test is a good example of how – in paying attention to certain details – we may miss out on other things that are happening right in front of our eyes.

In the first plenary session of the Justice Conference“What does Jesus have to do with justice?”, René August made this thought-provoking statement, “What we see is not what we are looking at, but what we are looking with.”

We have to acknowledge that there is no objective or neutral position when we come to read the Bible or understand Jesus. Where we live, how we live, our personal history, our socio-political context, our educational background, amongst many other things, are “what we are looking with”. This colours our reading of the Bible and our understanding of Jesus.*

René encouraged us to remember that viewing Jesus with a particular lens and coming to certain conclusions does not necessarily have to nullify the understanding of Jesus reached by viewing his life through a different pair of lenses – rather we should allow these different ideas to converse with and challenge each other in order to deepen our understanding of Jesus. (It is no coincidence that the Bible includes four gospels – four lenses – about the life of Jesus).

Historically, in my church context, we have viewed the life of Jesus through many different lenses: the “son of the Father”, the “miracle worker”, “the forgiver of sins”, our “substitute on the cross”, the “victorious one”, but rarely have we paid attention to what is right in front of our eyes: Jesus was born into a highly politicised context as Messiah – a political term that means “liberator”. In today’s world, as René pointed out, the story could have read something like, “Jesus was born in a time of ISIS in Syria”. How would people living in Syria hear the story that a “liberator” has been born – someone who would bring good news for the poor and freedom for the oppressed?

I would love to hear your thoughts, so please feel free to engage with this post on Facebook or Twitter and include others in the conversation.

 
*One way in which this becomes really evident is how often our understanding of Jesus seems to be a bigger better version of ourselves – a super version of who we are and what we believe.

(If you missed Part 1 of this series, you can read it here)

What I learned (so far) – Part 1: Beyond Walls

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I don’t know about you, but my understanding of how to respond to people who live on the streets, those who are begging, and taking showers in public spaces has for a long time been something along these lines: “Never give them money because then you just enable them to stay on the streets for longer and never get to the point of sorting out their lives” or “Never give them money, because they do not know how to spend money and will probably just buy drugs”. I have even heard and read advice like, “If they are trying to be a car guard or wash your car, do not give them money, this will just reinforce their presence and the fact that they are making a nuisance of themselves.”

Moving into and living in the city centre translates to daily contact with some of the almost 4000 homeless people making a living on the streets of Durban.* We stand in the same queues, share parks, pavements and public spaces and sit next to each other in church.

I can remember struggling when we first moved here with debilitating guilt about what we had the choice of eating every day and what we had access to in comparison with the people I encountered on the streets. But I knew I needed to act from a place of conviction and not guilt. Love, not shame or fear.

I decided to make a point of, at the very least, treating people living on the streets or in shelters as human beings. You would think that this would have been obvious (being a Christian for so many years and all), but how easy it is to justify our behaviour when we treat people as a nuisance, turn the other way, or ignore them when they call out to us. So, I decided, instead of turning the other way or allowing myself to get irritated, I will make eye contact, I will introduce myself and I will ask their names. I will touch them when appropriate, I will stand still and pay attention to what they are sharing with me. I will listen to their story and ask questions. I will place myself in their shoes. I will be honest in my response. This is what I have tried to do ever since. Sometimes I have done well and other times I have failed miserably.

Living on the streets, can be horrendously dehumanising.** Human beings are reduced to “threats”, “nuisances” or “commodities”. Relating to others can be reduced to defending, hustling, begging or fighting. The amazing thing is that when you treat people like human beings you awaken their humanity. You affirm their dignity. When you relate to “homeless” people in genuinely human ways, you discover that they are not simply a homogenous “horde”, but that they are Danielle, Barry, Anesh, Angie and Anele, diverse individuals, with life stories and emotions. You come to see a person and not simply a problem.

But I want to take this notion one step further:

A while ago, I heard Pete Rollins (in an interview with Rob Bell***) share this eye-opening remark:
“We put the “problems” in our society behind walls, or we cut them off. We think if we only get rid of certain people everything will be fine…We think if we go to the homeless, “I am good news to the homeless”, but what if they’re “good news” to us? Because they tell us that there is a problem in our social body that we are not looking at. So if we really want to be “converted” as a society, we have to go to the most oppressed people in our community, let them speak to us as prophets, showing us the problems that exist within our community so that we can be converted, transformed and society can improve.”

I believe that this is not only true on a societal level, but also an individual, personal level. In other words, when I treat a person living in the streets or in a shelter with dignity – as a human being – not only do I awaken our common humanity, but this presents me with the opportunity to regain my own humanity. The interaction humanises me too. We so often pride ourselves in “giving” to the poor or “reaching out” to the homeless (or any marginalised group for that matter), that we may be blind to the reality we, in fact, need their presence in our lives to help us relearn what it means to be human.

Those who have forgotten the poor, disabled and marginalised in their city, have forgotten what it means to be human.

In the face of a person who lives on the streets of our city, I am confronted with my own hidden greed, my own ignorance, the ways in which I have been justifying my feelings of superiority. I am confronted with the ways in which I have accepted being less of a human being and the ways in which I am dehumanising others around me – whether directly, by the way in which I relate to them, or indirectly, through my support of societal systems that are unjust or corrupt.

And in the face of Barry, Angie, Anesh, Anele, Danielle, I see God revealing my own hidden idolatries and calling me to be human again.

 

Notes:

*My friend Robyn sent me the final report regarding a very helpful study on homelessness that was conducted in Durban in February this year (Ikhaya Lami: Homelessness in Durban; Submitted to Safer Cities Unit, eThekwini Municipality, Submitted by: Human and Social Development Programme, HSRC, June 2016, Revised October 2016). The study debunked so many stereotypes and assumptions that we may have about people who live on the streets and shelters in our city. Inbox me and I will send it to you.

**“ From the study mentioned above: “…the participants’ accounts were replete with references to the desire of being treated like “human beings”. Seltser and Miller (1993, p. 93) assert “being homeless threatens the essential dignity of human beings, undermining or often destroying their ability to be seen, and to see themselves as worthwhile persons”. This disrespect and lack of dignity could very well be one of the key factors that contributed to the high rates of distress reported above. Amongst people who are homeless, Miller & Keys (2001) found that being treated with dignity contributed to an increase in self-worth and self-sufficiency and motivated their participants to exit homelessness. On the other hand, treatment without dignity was associated with symptoms of depression and feelings of anger and worthlessness.”

***This interview is part of a series of 4 podcasts (or Robcasts) that I highly recommend to anyone who is open to ask questions about who God is and how we think and talk about God

Everything has changed

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In February this year we moved from our spacious, secure three bedroom simplex in Durban North to a bachelors flat in the Durban City Centre. We made the move for many reasons but mainly because we felt the need to listen to and learn from people who are very different from us, and especially those who are marginalised by our society.

After the initial adjustment period, it felt that although much has changed, in many ways nothing had changed either… That feeling very quickly vanished into thin air! Looking back over this year, we both came to the point of no longer being able to deny the fact that EVERYTHING has changed…

We came to listen and learn… and our world has been turned upside down by what we have heard, seen and discovered. A conversion.

So as we near the end of 2016, I thought it might be a worthwhile pursuit to blog about some of our learnings and the “conversion” process – firstly, because I would love to hear your comments, questions, thoughts and feelings, and secondly, because I hope it may be helpful to you.

In the next couple of weeks I would like to share my experiences, what I have learned (so far) and discovered on issues like generosity, homelessness, the church in South Africa, violence, loving our country, and exclusion, diversity and reconciliation.

Please stay tuned! 🙂

A Story I Lived By…

My mom came home that day trembling and crying. At the time I was in primary school and she was working at the Free State Technicon (now known as CUT). She explained that she witnessed a mob of students viciously attacking another student in her office (both the mob and the victim were black students, this is important in the light of the rest of my post). They were jumping over desks and shouting as they were chasing the victim, and at one point the victim was so petrified of the mob that he lost control of his bladder. Hearing about the violence and humiliation she witnessed was, for me, a young white girl who had grown up in a very protected environment, similar to what psychologists would experience as vicarious traumatisation. Something changed inside of me and somehow, without my mom interpreting the event or making any judgments about the event, and without any conscious effort on my side, a belief was born in me on that day: “Groups of young black students are angry and dangerous. Better to stay away from them as much as possible.” 

The belief may seem illogical. Why was the belief shaped around the “mob” not shaped around the victim? Why was the narrative shaped around fear and not around sympathy for victims? I don’t really now the answer, but I do know that (without my parents ever saying anything of the sorts) I grew up somehow believing that black people are dangerous. It is just something that was there, without ever knowing where exactly the idea was birthed. And so shaping another belief in this direction was probably just a matter of following the same train of thought.

(I think many white South Africans live with this belief, whether we are aware of it or not – “Die Swart Gevaar” legacy of the Apartheid years still needing to be put to death…)

So this belief became a narrative, which in very subtle but powerful ways penetrated the way I lived my life: I went to university and because I studied undergrad in Afrikaans and found myself in smaller classes post grad, I had limited encounters with students of other race groups and never was exposed to groups of black students during my years at university. My only “exposure” to black groups of students was from mass media which portrayed black students to a very large extent in ways that confirmed my biased understanding.* Whenever there might have been information to the contrary, I am very sure that I would have not paid much attention to this because of the selective type of thinking known as confirmation bias.** So the narrative continued to exist…“Black groups of young people are dangerous. Avoid them. Have as little as possible to do with them…”

And so I fell in the trap of what Chimananda Aldichie calls, “The Danger of a Single Story”. I have blogged about this before, but she states that when we let a single story drive our defining perception of a certain person, group or situation it creates stereotypes and “the problem with stereotype is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete, they make one story become the only story.” The consequence of believing such “single stories” about others “is that it robs people of their dignity. It makes recognition of our equal humanity difficult and it emphasizes that we are different, rather than how we are similar.”

I believed a single story about young black people. My belief robbed them of their dignity and humanity. My belief prevented me from responding to brokenness in our society with justice (which is love on a public platform). My belief enabled me to ignore or judge protests and strikes without really knowing or understanding what was going on.

By the grace of God, for the past 18 months, I have found myself in situations were I have been able to sit and listen to stories of young black people. These stories have moved me deeply and have done much to restore their humanity in my broken thinking. I have been privileged to build honest relationships with black young people who have taught me so much about life, about South Africa, about the brokenness of our country, about what it means to be human and Christian, that I would have never understood if I only held to the single story.

With all of this being said, and in the light of the current #feesmustfall protests in our country, can I urge you not to limit your beliefs about this movement to only “a dangerous mob of angry destructive students”? Can I challenge you to rehumanise the movement by understanding it’s complexity? Can I challenge you to not only consume mass media on the topic? Can I challenge you to build at least one deep and genuine relationship with a person who has been protesting…? You may just find that they are protesting for the liberation of all of our humanity. As Desmond Tutu said, “All of our humanity is dependent upon recognising the humanity in others.”  

*Strange how mass media, even now, tells us very few stories of the many peaceful protests by groups of black young people in our country.

**Confirmation bias according to Wikipedia is: the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.”

My Drug of Choice

A saying has been doing the rounds on Facebook (I am not quite sure who originally coined the phrase), but it goes something like, “When you are accustomed to privilege equality feels like oppression.” In my case, I have to confess, it actually is worse. More like, “When you are accustomed to privilege, minor inconvenience feels like oppression.” Allow me to explain. The photo below is the substance of our geyser this week:

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Yes, you are looking at an urn… Long story short, our apartment’s 50 year old geyser needs to be replaced and the landlords have been delaying the process for reasons of their own, but have been kind enough to lend us the urn so that we can heat up water for bathing in the morning (you know, since Durban is freezing this time of the year…;-) So every time I step over the buckets and extension chords into our bathroom, I have the inclination to feel frustrated and upset with the presence of the urn and the inconvenience it represents, but at the same time I am completely aware of the fact that even having a bath, a bathroom, something to heat the water with…or even simply having access to water by turning a tap inside our apartment, is a privilege that millions of people in our country have never experienced in their lives.

In a dialogue I attended two weeks ago, a question was raised, “What is the biggest struggle for white people in this country?” I did not get an opportunity to answer this on the day, but I knew almost immediately what I felt a big struggle is for me. As a privileged person living in this country, one of my biggest struggles is fighting against the inclination towards comfort, convenience and ease. I am not trying to demonise all kinds of comfort. We all need a sense of comfort*. But this is a struggle for me, because I know that comfort numbs. Convenience and ease anaesthetise my desire to take part in or witness pain, discomfort or mess. Comfort keeps me safe in my ignorance and indifference about what is happening “out there” in the world. Comfort is my escapism…Comfort is my drug of choice.

I so often find myself defaulting to comfort rather than venturing out into the messy world to face the challenging and confrontational presence of evil, corruption and oppressive and systems and structures. If I give up on the struggle against needing to feel comfortable all the time, it means I give up all too easily on experiencing pain in solidarity with those who are in pain, weeping with those who are weeping, listening to those who are being ignored. Comfort tells me I can love others from a distance by simply thinking good thoughts about them. If I always settle for what is most comfortable, most convenient and most enjoyable, I know I am removing myself from what it means to be most deeply and truly human – loving others generously with my fullest presence, by paying attention and listening, by touching, by sitting alongside and weeping.

Stepping away from comfort requires courage. As Brene Brown says, “You can choose courage, or you can choose comfort, but you cannot choose both.” So my prayer today is for small and big steps of courage,

  • May I have the courage today not to walk past and look the other way, but to make eye contact and greet the woman who sits and begs in Pixley kaSeme Road as I carry my full shopping bag past her;
  • May I have the courage to tell the man who whistles at women and calls them names that we are women, not objects and that he can call us “sisi”, “ma” or “missus” if he would like to get our attention;
  • May I have the courage to stop, listen, touch and pray with the man who has been walking the streets of Durban with crutches for more than a decade and have forgotten what it is like to have a home;
  • May I have the courage to be with, pay attention and listen to those who I least want to hear from, those who irritate or frustrate me, have world views and opinions that differ radically from mine; may I have the courage to keep on showing up and keep on listening;
  • May I have the courage to live from a place of conviction and not just act and speak from a place of fear and guilt;
  • May I have the courage not to be satisfied with the comforts of charity and good deeds, but keep on partnering with God in bringing true justice to our world.

Amen.

*It would be a worthwhile exercise to consider what the proper place of comfort is in our lives: Were we made for comfort? Where should we find comfort? Can comfort ignite, energise and recreate?

The Wheels of Injustice

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“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Albert Schweitzer said that the wheel of history needed to come to a halt in order to usher in the Kingdom of God, but refused to turn, so Jesus threw Himself upon it, then as He was crushed by it, it does turn; and therein lies His victory.

The question is what are we willing to do in partnership with God to make the wheels of injustice stop?

Suspending the “But..!”

It has happened to most of us. Especially lately with all the political turmoil happening in our country. Someone starts talking about something that makes you feel really uneasy. You feel your heart beating faster and your blood may even start boiling a little. It may in fact really push your buttons. At this stage in the conversation you have stopped listening, because all you can think about is what you are going to say in response and how you are going to defend yourself or your stance…and most often you do not even allow the person to finish their sentence, before you interject with “But..!”

“But we have worked to be where we are now!”
“But I had nothing to do with it!”
“But they..!”
But..!
But..!
But..!

One thing I have learned over the last year or so, and especially in the last few months is that something incredible happens on the occasions where I am able to suspend the “But..!”. Where I have been able to listen without defending, justifying or convincing. Where I have been able to listen without interjecting or trying to proof my point.

On the other side of suspending the “But..!” lies the potential to understand something about someone we would have never guessed to be true, discover points of view different from our own and the chance to have our eyes opened to realities that we never even knew existed. My deepest moments of repentance and growth happened on the other side of suspending the “But..!

I am not saying that you should stop holding to your own beliefs. I am not saying that you should compromise on who you are. I am not saying that you should not engage in robust arguments and challenging conversations. I am not saying that you should agree with everything you hear. I am suggesting that we try and understand the things we hear… I am saying that we should sometimes practice the discipline of suspending the “But…!” and rather take a deep breath and listen…

(If you are feeling particularly inspired by this post, as a primer for practising this discipline, I challenge you to take a deep breath and watch this…and suspend the “But..!” for once: http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2016-06-11-watch-julius-malema-at-the-gathering-2016/#.V2eITjZCI9c)

Youth Day 2016: What has changed?

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Today is 16 June 2016. It is not a mere public holiday. Or the start of a long weekend. It is Youth Day. And it is #40yearslater. What has changed? An oppressive system that fails those who are least powerful in society still seems at the order of the day. Most of us who live comfortable lives have forgotten about the events of June 16, 1976. It is easy to feel that we don’t need to remember and remain ignorant to the fact that our very comfort is built on what the youth was fighting against as pointed out so powerfully on the Izwe Lethu blog recently (I encourage you to read this provocative post). It is #40yearslater and so much has gone wrong… So much of what was paid for with such a high price has been forgotten, corrupted and repressed. So what has changed?

This week as people and organisations have been preparing for Youth Day, images and clips from the movie “Sarafina!” have been doing the rounds again on social media and the news. The plot (for those of you who still may not know this) centres on the Soweto Uprising in 1976. I can remember seeing advertisements and news reports regarding Sarafiona, the musical, in the 80’s and the movie in the early 90’s. Without knowing a single detail about the history, the music or the prolific and legendary Mbongeni Ngema at the time, I can remember that the images and the name simply provoked negative feelings from me as a child. I confess with tears in my eyes, I was ignorant and had no idea of the deep seated racism running through my veins as an Afrikaner child. That was 30 years ago.

Today, however, I can say that I have come to a place of realising my ignorance and growing frustrated with living a life of privileged comfort. I am still privileged however, but I am repenting of my ignorance. I can say that I have read the history, I have listened to the songs, I have cried for those who lost their lives, their children, their brother and sisters. I have cried for our country and continue crying our in prayer for our country. I am a recovering racist. I actively work towards a more just society by the way I live and who I chose to have relationships with. I still make many mistakes, but there is a slow dismantling of my own inclination to discriminate and stereotype others. It is an everyday struggle to face up to those demons. God is working in my heart and my life. I have decided not to let comfort and ignorance define my life anymore. I have decided to be the change that South Africa needs. I have decided to take the hand of God and partner with Him in making His dream come true for South Africa.

So, June 16 1976. #40yearslater… What has changed? It seems that so much is still unchanged in our society. But I am changing. I have changed. It is not much, but that is the only place I can start. Aluta Continua.

Not on my terms: Language and Names

I think one of the most important things that we as Afrikaans or English speaking South Africans can do to work towards reconciliation in this country is to learn to speak an(other) African language. In KZN the obvious choice is isiZulu. We have been doing a basic conversational class through The Siyakhuluma Project on Wednesday evenings. The Siyakhuluma Project aims to bridge both the language and cultural divide amongst people living in KZN. The cultural information shared by our lecturer has really opened my eyes to many things that I have been ignorant of in the past.

Speaking English to an isiZulu speaking person, not only means that you are speaking to them on your terms of vocabulary and grammar, but in choosing to speak English we actually impose our cultural ways of thinking upon the other person without having the faintest idea that we are doing so. Language never is just mere words. It comes with culture and “being”.

One of the most striking ways this point can be demonstrated is in the names we call people by. I will share a few very very basic things I have learned that I thought may be helpful for some – even though you may know this already (and to my isiZulu speaking friends, please correct me if I’m wrong, this is my understanding of it all and I am trying my best to bridge a few divides here!)

As I understand it now, in Zulu culture calling someone by their surname is deeply respectful. Apparently the word for “name” in isiZulu is the same as just “word” (igama – you literally ask “What is the word that is yours?” when you say “Ungubani igama lakho?”) – your name is just a word added to you, but your surname (“isibongo”) is the name you feel praised by. It acknowledges you as a representative of your family (And I’m sure you can connect this with the idea of “ubuntu” which means that we are actually only truly a person through others. I find this incredibly beautiful. You can apparently even thank a person by saying their surname instead of “Thank you” – it is that praiseworthy). So, for instance, if you want to respect someone (say she is an older person in your neighbourhood) and her name is Thokazani Mhlanga, it would be hugely respectful of you to call her MaMlanga rather than Thokozani. (Apparently you usually use the name of the family a woman has been born into – her maiden name in other words)

If you want to call someone by their “word”, I urge you to insist on calling them by their “real name” and not some name they have had to take because it is “easier.” Our lecturer told us the story of how she was given a Latin name in order for her to be christened and accepted into the local Catholic school. She never even knew the meaning of that name and most people in her family could not pronounce the name! I keep on thinking what a dehumanising experience it must have been. Naming someone on our terms like that eats away at their identity and ultimately their humanity. Calling someone by names they prefer or love acknowledges them and is respectful. Amazing that something as simple as a name (or a surname) can play a role in restoring a person’s humanity.

My husband had to learn the names of his new colleagues when we first moved here 9 years ago – Prathna, Prishnee, Prasha, Praksha, to name but a few – which was about as foreign to him – an Afrikaans speaking Free State boytjie – as can be. He managed just fine, so really there is no reason why we can’t also manage Andile, Nobuhle and Sthembisile.