Reconciliation requires open eyes, open hearts

2012-05-12 09:16

I would like to believe the vast majority of South Africans were angered by the racist tweets of Jessica Leandra dos Santos and Tshidi Thamana.

The tweets and many people’s responses have trended and re-trended over the last few days, and have been the subject of news reports and political satire.

They have led to heartrending introspection, and rightly so. But what they must not be allowed to do is paralyse us. Nor must they divert attention away from the cause of reconciliation.

As a nation we have to accept that remarks like these are not once-off exceptions. They reflect the deep complexities of what race means in SA today.

My initial response after reading Jessica’s tweet was anger, both at the words and their public platform. I felt angry that she was able to express such sentiments with apparent impunity.

My anger was also stirred by a thousand slights that will be familiar to many other black South Africans. More often in life it is the indiscernible and unspoken that troubles us.

I have experienced the haughty tone in a store, an icy stare, the unspoken insinuation that I might not have quite grasped a point, the patronising put down – often because I am black.

Some are so oblique and subtle as to be almost invisible and sometimes they have nothing to do with race. Yet their effect over time is to construct a worldview which can feed paranoia.

The other sad reality is that some would have silently agreed with Jessica and Tshidi’s online remarks. Perhaps that silent response is even more lethal because it is internalised.

It seems to me that many people’s anger – on both sides of the racial divide – has intensified, not abated. It would be naïve to believe that racism can be eliminated in 18 years – in one generation.

For many black South Africans, the challenge remains to overcome the burdens of the past without becoming embittered.

For many white South Africans, the challenge is to acknowledge that racism does not just exist in the minds of black people. It is a real and debilitating fact of life.

The Democratic Alliance, like all those who care about South Africa, has been carefully considering the full meaning and measure of reconciliation.

Reconciliation informs us that every South African is a legitimate part of our new democracy. Only reconciliation will free us from fear and angst.

But reconciliation is toothless without its attendant process: redress. The legacy of racial discrimination is real and must be addressed, not just in words, but with deeds.

Putting right the wrongs of the past requires interventions for a period of time. Like reconciliation, these interventions are imperfect but necessary.

However no intervention will be successful if we don’t understand that one group of people’s dreams do not come at the expense of another’s.

We will know reconciliation and redress are working when we start to see ourselves reflected in each other.

We know this work is far from done because Jessica and Tshidi did not see themselves reflected in the eyes of those they tweeted about.

Sensitivity is so important when we choose our words and frame and deploy our thoughts and arguments. Our words and thoughts, if we do not watch them, become actions we regret.

Reconciliation moves us to embrace Jessica and Tshidi with love. These two young women are a part of this country, and their lives must go on too.

Our worst response would be to reject them. I have chosen not to give up on them, and neither should you.

Reconciliation requires openness to the experience of those who do not share one’s own history and perspective; to see with open eyes. Empathy is more than sympathy.

The way to build a strong diverse society is not to make everyone the same. The challenge is not to make “them” like “us”. It is to build a new “us”.

» Mazibuko is DA parliamentary leader. This article is based on a speech delivered at Stellenbosch University on Tuesday.

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