Starting conversations

2010-08-06 00:00

I HAVE no idea what became of President Jacob Zuma’s plan to start a dialogue between South Africans to make them appreciate that we are one of the most diverse societies on the planet.

The president announced this plan at the time when he was under fire for having fathered his 20th child, who was, in this instance, born to none of the four women he was either married or engaged to. Zuma and others sought to explain this in terms of Zulu or a broader African culture but were generally laughed out of the public square.

While I did not buy the argument that there were some tenets of African culture that endorsed married men having children out of wedlock, I appreciated Zuma’s other point that South Africans needed to get into a conversation with each other to share our cultural outlook and, I presume, make it part of a national tapestry.

It is a necessary discussion that needs to be had. A lot of commentary based on narrow ethnic or class backgrounds in our country passes as though it were a universal truth.

Last week some readers wrote criticising my review of Jodi Bieber’s picture essay on Soweto. I am happy they did because it also served to highlight the gulf created by our very different points of departure. I am assuming that the criticism was an honest take of what they read me to be meaning and I hope those readers who were unimpressed with me also appreciate that I spoke from an honest place in my heart.

Debates and discussion are necessary for us as a nation to take the next step. It cannot be assumed that just because people have not spoken out in decades it means they accept the status quo. It should not follow where people — be they blacks or women in racist and sexist societies — have complied with rules that they were not party to creating, that they accept those dictates without question.

Political correctness and old- fashioned politeness stop many of us from speaking our minds. Some white South Africans feel reluctant to describe a black person as incompetent even if the person is clearly out of his depth for fear that they may be thought to be hankering for white rule. Or in Julius Malema- speak, simply “tjatjarag” like the BBC journalist who asked the “wrong” questions.

Blacks on the other hand think that pointing to some of the practices that continue from our shameful past gives them chips on their shoulders. They shy away from expressing views in case this has an adverse effect on their career prospects.

As a consequence, we are all robbed of honest conversations that enhance our workplaces and our civil life. In our quest to be nice we let those with power and authority over us get away with all sorts of things, such as explaining what happened to their plan to start a national dialogue on our diverse cultures.

We allow the views by those who have always had access to the airwaves and in whose terms social discourse takes place to think that theirs are the only views worth considering.

In this space, those who master the language, like those who fire the first salvo, set the tone for what then passes for the national debate. As at the O. K. Corral, those who shoot the first verbal salvoes set the agenda and the rest of us have to fit in.

In this kind of space, spin doctors (sometimes journalists too) are more important than thought leaders. In fact, they tend to think of themselves as such for no other reason than that they appear in newspapers much more regularly than others.

That is why a critical engagement with those who for whatever reason have the privilege of expressing their views in public forums is not only welcome but necessary. It is a reminder that adult human beings are at their best when they know they are allowed to contribute rather than just fit in.

Maybe Zuma had something convincing to say to justify why having had a child out of wedlock was not as scandalous as it was made out to be. We will only know once he decides to share his views with us and the rest of us listen without thinking that we and our life experiences are the norm and everyone else’s are either wrong or backwards.

As with new lovers, there will be plenty of uncomfortable silent spaces or remarks that we are unsure how best to respond to. But it is only the kind of society where all of us feel that we have a right to express an opinion and be listened to fairly that will protect us from the current clamour that seeks to deligitimise the journalistic pursuit for truth and openness.

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