We need to write a common story

2012-02-18 09:59

Almost no one in Cape Town has a single story. We all have multiple stories of origin, descent, heritage and social standing. And many of us experienced interruptions to our story line – by slavery, forced removal or social degradation.

Why does it cause so many problems? When you are separated from your story, you lose your moral literacy. When you break communities, you destroy the moral fibre of society.
Humans are situated beings. They grow from attachments, relationships and identity-forming roots. However, power games of politics and money can cause disruptions, resulting in “de-situated selves”.

South Africa experienced identity disruptions of this kind – with the greater Cape Town at the pinnacle. Slavery, race classification, group areas, influx control and job reservation all destabilised us.
Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, argues that for us to act morally in society we need to have an understanding of ourselves as unique characters in a bigger drama. In this case, the drama is that of our Mother City. And to develop the necessary understanding, we must become co-authors of the story.

MacIntyre says one can only answer the question “what am I to do?” if one can answer the prior question “what story, or stories, do I find myself a part of?”. He also points out how this relates to the youth. “Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions and their words.” In the context of Cape Town, the answers to “who am I and how am I to act?” depend on the prior questions “what stories do I find myself a part of?” and “how does that fit in with the single Capetonian story?”

One can add: “Deprive a community and its members of their authentic stories and you leave them unscripted, social stutterers in word and deed.”

The fact that we have been de-storied presents an obstacle to the creation of a non-sexist,
non-racial, democratic, just and equal society. The solution is that Capetonians must be re-storied on the level of what we share despite the divisions of the past. We need common values and a common identity for the entire country, but in a special way for the Cape.

Our political leaders, schools, universities, religious communities and families have to help us weave our diverse stories into a single narrative. They must point out the continuities and commonalities that unite us instead of focusing on the things that divide us.

In tackling this challenge, we need to go beyond race. Race is just a word made up to oppress people. There is no basis in science for the notion of different races.
If you ask a person who they are, you are asking for a story.

If you expect them to say: “I’m a coloured from Mitchells Plain”, that is not a story, it’s a label. We should instead emphasise our common story and tell it together.

We may still be living apart because of the group areas legacy, but we do have contact at school, university, places of worship, the workplace and in political spaces. That is where we need to start to forge our common identity.

Universities have a key role to play. At Stellenbosch – a chapter of the Cape Town drama – we’re doing our part to create a new story. We’re bringing our students and staff – all 30?000of them, all de-storied in one way or another?– together.
Through our Hope project (www.thehopeproject.co.za) we are focusing on how young people can lead the next generation to a brighter future.

A 2011 Gallup study found that people worldwide seek out San Francisco in the US to settle because it is so cosmopolitan. If they consider themselves “different”, they go there because it is a welcoming place. The same can be true for Cape Town, which has strong diversity despite high levels of inequality.

History has brought us together and created out of many stories this hopeful drama called Cape Town. It is a story far too rich to be reduced to “mountain, sea and fynbos” – majestic as these aspects may be. The story of Cape Town must be the story of Capetonians.

» Professor Botman is the rector and vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University. He is also vice-president of the Association of African Universities

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