I thought this column should be blogged today – Human Rights Day in South Africa. While I wrote this in 2011, I think all sentiments hold true for today. We need to be the difference we want to see in the world.
People are talking about race, about the tensions between groups. Warmongers and peacemakers are talking about it. Corporate CEOs and schoolteachers are talking about it. Academics and people in shopping queues are talking about it. Columnists and talk-show hosts would have nothing to say without it.
Talking about race in public spaces and in our families is absolutely vital for the future of South Africa. Expressing our feelings and ideas is crucial to the unifying process, even if it exposes the uncomfortable truth that our rainbow nation is no utopian society.
The danger, of course, is that we end up going around in the same circles. It is whites who are to blame for the economic woes of black people; the “influx” of African foreigners is taking away jobs; apartheid happened a long time ago and we should stop blaming it for events today; workers are lazy and over-unionised; companies are racist and anti-black. Round and round we ago, each of us stuck in the safe little world of people who agree with us.
As a parent, teacher or adult mentor of children, do you dare to be different? Do you dare to challenge the prevailing story in your own world, and to hear the stories of others around you?
What can we do now in our own families, circles of friends and communities?
Professor Jonathan Jansen, rector of the University of the Free State, gave an address at the Gordon Institute of Business Science in September 2011 to a group of educators. Based on some of the ideas that emerged from the talk, here are four things parents can do:
- Provide “alternative storylines”, as Jansen puts it. If your child tells you that Somalis or Zimbabweans are taking our jobs, tell them the other story: how welcoming Africa was to our exiled leaders. If your teenager complains that he won’t get a job because of affirmative action, tell him that not only do we have a responsibility to the past, but that any person with passion and endeavour can achieve success in the marketplace. Let those storylines compete;
- Provide “opportunities for activism and idealism”. For example, my local city councillor recently organised a walk for residents around the suburb to discuss and resolve neighbourhood problems, and a number of families brought their children with them to be part of the initiative. Encourage your child to join groups like Interact or Rotary at school, or be part of community youth groups. One proviso: it is better to do than to give. You can’t just ease your conscience by giving the occasional blanket or tin of soup;
- Another thing Jansen likes to say is: “Who’s filling your child’s head?” The more you let your child lurk in her bedroom on Facebook or instant messaging, or wired to social media, or hanging out with peers, the more their ideas, not yours, are filling their heads. Those social experiences are vital, but what also concerns me about Facebook, blogs and so on is how superficial and potentially destructive the discussions are. When there is debate, it often quickly degenerates into name-calling.
I am depressed by how quickly – and inevitably – readers’ comments on news and sports websites turn to insults about each other’s culture and race; and
- Make space for discussion and reflection in the family. A good way to do this is by asking questions. If your child tells you that black or white people are a particular thing, ask them why they think that. Ask them if they can provide evidence for their idea. This also fits into the concept of alternative story lines. Many story lines cannot be sustained when closely examined by a calm listener.
Of course, many adults pass on a limited version of our national story to their children, but I am also struck by those who don’t. We have a glorious history of heroes in this country and, as a parent, you can be a hero in your own space.
I recently watched a video called Where do I Stand?, produced by Molly Blank, based on interviews with youngsters who had suffered or participated in the recent xenophobic attacks in the Western Cape.
One child marched with the attackers who drove out foreign shopkeepers, looted their shops and took a bag of sweets home. Her mother, just an ordinary person like you or me, told her child that she had stolen from other human beings and that the sweets would not be welcome in that home. That mother’s telling of a different story was a small act, but multiply it across a thousand homes and those small acts begin to amount to something.
Be that parent. Your country needs you.