My roller coaster heritage ride

2014-09-28 15:00

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September is the one month in the year when South Africans celebrate and embrace that which makes them “proudly South African”.

Over the years, I have noticed how people express this sentimental connection of their culture in various ways.

If you work in an office, you would be familiar with people dressing up in their traditional garb, or team-building activities where individuals bring a variety  of cultural cuisine to the office to showcase their diverse backgrounds.

I guess one’s origin and  culture is all too important in understanding an individual, thereby setting the tone for the interactions to be had going forward, right?

Growing up as a young man in the coloured township of Eden Park on Gauteng’s East Rand, I came to realise life was not as “fully embracing” and celebratory of one’s identity and distinctiveness as I thought.

Rather, the emphasis was more on which “boxes” people belonged in.

I was born in Heidelberg, Ekurhuleni, to an Indian mother and a Swati father. My parents separated when I was very young. In fact, they never married.

At the age of four, my sister and I moved to Tembisa township, where we lived with our paternal grandmother.

We later moved to Katlehong when our school years began, and finally settled in Eden Park with my maternal grandmother, continuing our schooling in Katlehong.

That’s where the racial challenges and issues of identity began for me. I was not light-skinned enough to be accepted by some coloured people and I was teased for being too light-skinned to be “black”.

The challenges I faced growing up under the so-called coloured banner was the constant battle for acceptance and identity to some extent.

The sad thing about these racial challenges is that they occurred even more within the “coloured” communities themselves, almost as if to confirm what the apartheid government had set out to achieve with the “coloured” people: give them a false sense of racial superiority, but make it known to them that they’re not good enough to enjoy the same privileges as the white masters.

Going to school in what was known as a “black” community and later moving to a “coloured” high school exposed me to diverse cultural backgrounds.

This gave me a great sense of appreciation of the diversity that existed outside the confines of my coloured township. The roller coaster that dominated my early childhood no doubt presented me with immense challenges.

But unbeknown to me, this situation also presented me with a golden opportunity of being exposed to many languages, as if to arm and prepare me for this new and diverse South Africa we live in today.

I can converse in at least eight of our official languages, including English, Afrikaans, isiZulu, isiXhosa, siSwati, Sesotho, Setswana and a bit of isiNdebele.

I believe learning each other’s language is critical when it comes to building a more united and cohesive society, especially in one as diverse as ours.

But language alone can never be enough. South Africa is currently experiencing a situation where trust among the different races is lacking, and prejudice can reign supreme because of one’s skin colour or background, especially in workplaces, where tribal stereotypes are entertained and sometimes used as preconceived ideas of who individuals are.

For South Africa to move forward, it is important we truly embrace each other’s differences and be sensitive to each other’s past – especially those of injustice and discrimination – to move beyond the apartheid trappings

of false superiority and inferiority complexes.

As citizens, we all have a duty to work towards a South Africa that is progressive, tolerant, just and free – and one that our children would be proud of calling home.

Even my own children often get asked about their “confusing” surname.

I teach them acceptance and tolerance of all people as they are because while we all are God’s children, we are also unique in our features.

At the end of the day, we all belong to the human race.

Pillay is a radio host and entrepreneur

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