A duty to speak to each other

2014-10-02 06:45

Last month, I spoke at a briefing on radical reconciliation hosted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

I used a personal anecdote to speak on the topic and as a way of explaining why I would refuse to allow Adriaan Vlok, the 1980s minister of law and order, to wash my feet.

A man approached me afterwards at the lift as I left the venue. He had sat through my talk and an earlier presentation by my co-presenter, Kim Wale from the institute, with a keen but quiet interest.

But he had not asked any questions nor made any statements during the Q&A session at the end of the briefing.

At the risk of conferring on him a mysticism that existed only in my imagination, I’d describe his manner as unassuming, something I only now realise I envy.

Writing challenging opinion pieces on race, class and gender, as I often try to do, has forced me to adopt a harder, more curt facade than what comes naturally.

This is because people?–?white people, the economically well-off and other men?–?react strongly, hastily and often angrily to themes that challenge the morality and legitimacy of the power and privilege they enjoy today.

As we rode in the lift, the man told me he understood why I would not let Vlok wash my feet. He agreed that Vlok was indulging the democratic South Africa’s pastime of saying sorry without fully internalising what he was apologising for.

What he said next caught me off-guard. He asked me: “But would you speak to him nonetheless?”

He said we often take how noisily and robustly we discuss powder-keg issues like nationalisation, economic redistribution, transformation and other topics that make up the “radical” side of radical reconciliation as evidence that we are a healthy, thriving democracy.

But, he added, most of the time we’re just speaking past each other or about each other in safe bubbles that affirm our points of view.

He challenged me to speak to Vlok and not about him.

I agreed only to considering the idea. I have a list of defensible reasons why not, the most primary of which is that I do not need to.

I will expend more economically and emotionally than I could ever expect to gain from the interaction.

And it plays into the expectation that black people must be the ones to extend the olive branch and exert the effort to unteach white people the racial ideologies into which they were socialised.

But the man’s challenge has, since then, played on my mind whenever I receive a message from someone outraged by what I write, particularly on race.

The advice from my friends is that I ignore these messages.

“Don’t feed the trolls,” they say. It’s an internet adage that assumes such people are interested only in provoking anger. Indeed, some are.

But in her presentation that day, Kim discussed the institute’s findings over the past 10 years on how frequently South Africans socialise across racial lines.

The numbers are low. Fewer than half of us socialise in our homes or other intimate settings with people of other races?–?an arrangement locked in place by the persistence of apartheid’s spatial planning and its stratification of the economic hierarchy by race.

This statistic even holds true among people of the same economic strata who would presumably live in closer proximity to one another and socialise in the same spaces. This hints at a certain wilfulness to our unwillingness to interact.

As the social psychology theory goes, this means the prejudices we’ve internalised will remain with us and be passed on to future generations.

I suspect, too, that if it was possible to measure the content of these few, deeper, interracial social interactions, most would steer clear of discussing anything too “radical”. And the deep-seated beliefs of the people involved would remain unchallenged.

The same also probably applies to conversations among people of the same race who hold different views on these contentious topics.

This needs to change. These often bruising exchanges are where we might find common ground, or at least slow the inheritance of prejudice.

With that in mind, I’ve been replying to some of the supposed trolls. To my surprise, it’s turned out that they’re mostly people who, like most South Africans, live cloistered from direct one-on-one interactions with points of view contrary to their own.

I have yet to speak to Vlok, but if I do, I’ll put aside my misgivings and treat it as part of my civic duties.

» Follow me on Twitter @TOMolefe

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