I recently attended a four-day Handing over of the Baton dialogue hosted by the In Transformation Initiative in partnership with the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and Democracy Works Foundation. The purpose of this interaction was to bring together seasoned activist leaders and “future leaders” to discuss the lessons that can be learnt from the past and applied in present day, to re-imagine an inclusive, fair and just South Africa.
When I was asked to do a write up about the dialogue, I planned to offer a crisp, critical analysis of the quality of the content, facilitation and speakers. Finding myself at the end of a process that has – through in depth engagement with issues of leadership and the state of this country – left me mentally and emotionally exhausted, I cannot. Instead, I offer a narrative of the internal dialogue that this week has sparked within me, the less tangible lessons I have learnt, and of my acute consciousness of all I have yet to learn.
The academic within me is terribly uncomfortable at this point. But like the struggle, I will continue.
I started the week with the following convictions: (a) white people are my enemy, (b) the ANC sold us out, and (c) I was going to be forced to sit around a camp fire, singing kumbayah with the mlungus. The third assumption in particular, was based on the email I received days before I was to depart for Pretoria. I was to bring along: 1) an object/picture that represented my life, history or future, 2) my favourite poem or story, 3) my favourite song or music, and 4) a gift to inspire another participant to “excel as a human being”. I don’t even know what that means.
The first two days did little to quell my initial scepticism. While I understood what the facilitators were trying to do, there was an annoying level of “niceness” in everyone’s comments. No one was getting to the real issues -and justifiably so. Being sincere in a group of strangers requires a level of vulnerability that most people are not comfortable with, especially when engaging around issues of race and privilege. However, I did get to meet Ebrahim Ebrahim and listen to him tell his story. This was an incredible experience.
But despite the wealth of inspirational speakers, the most valuable part of this experience, for me, was not actually the structured dialogue. It was the informal interactions that happened in the spaces in between- the interesting chats during extended smoke breaks, the engagements over dinner, the intense discussions over a glass of wine with the likes of Fanie Du Toit and Muhammed Bhabha (sans wine, of course).
On day three however, I was jolted out of my comfortable understanding of whiteness when a fellow participant, a white Afrikaner, stood up and sincerely expressed his opinion that white people don’t deserve to live in this country – that they should pack up and leave. In my mind I was already lounging alongside my swimming pool at my Constantia Berg villa.
But then Fanie asked him where he thought white South Africans belonged. He answered: “nowhere”. I’m not sure I can adequately explain how it felt to watch someone struggle so much with his self-identified white guilt. To watch another human being on the opposite side of the spectrum struggle so much with his inherited white identity to the point that he didn’t even feel he had a place resonated with me more than I care to admit. I suppose it was in that moment that I realised that we are all struggling, in some way or another, with the legacy of apartheid. I think Muhammed Bhabha expressed it best when he said “the biggest mistake you can make is to see your enemy as a homogeneous group”. It is true that there are white people that are more invested in building a better country than protecting their privilege. These are the ones we should work with. I think we can all admit that the struggle wouldn’t have been as successful without the Roelf Meyers and Joe Slovos.
My conclusions are thus: Am I justified in my resentment towards white people? Yes. Does this help me in my efforts of nation building? Unfortunately, not. I have realised – and this will probably receive backlash from my black peers – the inclusion of white people is pivotal in any meaningful attempt at a free and equal society. I am working on coming to terms with this. Anger is destructive to both my soul and my ability to understand what is needed for my country. My feelings of hatred can no longer be my driving force. Hatred also consumes an insane amount of energy.
It was rather unfair of us to blame the leaders of the liberation movement for the problems that still exist today. Did the ANC get it right? Not entirely. But I’m not sure I would have been able to do it better. The reality is that we have spent only 20 years trying to right the wrongs of centuries of oppression in this country. Was Mandela a sell-out? It’s quite possible. But none of these things help us move forward. I realise that blaming the whites and the ANC is easy and it’s probably a bit of a cop-out. To be honest, it’s far easier to point out what didn’t work than to accept the responsibility of deciding what would work. I don’t think it was realistic of us to expect that a group formed to destroy a system, would be the same ones to successfully build a better one. I don’t know of any country in the world where this approach has been fruitful.
This is why platforms such as these are imperative for successful nation building. They create spaces for the transference of knowledge and retention of institutional memory. Perhaps my generation is the one to build, and if so, I am ready, with knowledge passed down from my predecessors, to carry the baton into the South Africa I envision for my son. Will I achieve it in my lifetime? Probably not. But I’m running a relay race, and my job is to get the baton as far as I can, and be ready to hand it over to the next generation when their turn comes.
*To learn more about this dialogue project please go to the project page by clicking here.
**The views of this project blog do not necessarily represent the views of Democracy Works Foundation.