South Africa's disjointed, grey identity

2017-11-12 06:04

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A culture of having to physically adapt to a new environment, and people, is inherent in our identity, writes Kaeden Arnold.

As the year draws to a close, I would like to reflect on the transformation of our society from black and white, to the diverse spectrum we have in 2017; coloured not only in rich hues of individual brown and national green, but equally in disjointed shades of grey.

Having only experienced South Africa as a “beneficiary of democracy”, I have witnessed how our young country has struggled to form an inclusive identity, further protracted by what waits for us after the 2019 elections.

The narrative and symbols for social cohesion provided to us through Archbishop Desmond Tutu, President Nelson Mandela and TV advertisements are ones of reconciliation, nonracialism and good times. Even in absorbing these ideals into our collective consciousness, we know something isn’t quite right with our country. Just as there is no single thing that will “fix” South Africa, equally, there is no single problem that explains our current tension.

To come to peace with this cognitive dissonance, I believe many young South Africans have developed a third cultural identity to cope with the stratification of social experience.

The concept of Third Culture Kids (TCKs) was coined in the 1950s by American sociologist Ruth Hill Useem. She developed her theory alongside her husband while they were living in India, observing their children adjusting to a new environment.

TCKs are children who spend their developmental years outside the culture of their birth. The first culture is that of the parents or home environment, the second that of their external environment and the third the compounding of the two.

Amplified cultural inputs result in TCKs sharing characteristics of being physically mobile regarding living locations. They have a greater propensity to be multilingual and more culturally sensitive. However, they struggle to form a self-identity and often feel alien in places that should be described as home.

I wish to use this framework to understand the people attempting to participate in our nation building project.

Consensus is grey in South Africa

One narrative in our country’s history is of physical displacement – colonisation, Mfecane/Difaqane, the Great Trek, the Group Areas Act and “social mobility”. A culture of having to physically adapt to a new environment, and people, is inherent in South African identity.

Even within cities, our class inequality means that moving from Alexandra to Sandton can be akin to international travel. The legacy of spatial apartheid largely reinforces the status quo.

Aside from mobility, third culture experiences play out in a number of arenas. Think of the need to have white and traditional African weddings, code-switching in conversations, no paid leave for ukuthwasa (becoming a spiritual healer), the proud but gauche rendition of singing our national anthem without knowing and/or accepting its meaning, the hollowness of reading the motto on our coat of arms: ke e:/xarra//ke. Consensus is grey in South Africa.

Young South African angst is reflected in research conducted by Professor Joleen Steyn Kotze on born frees studying at university. She notes that “students’ realities are built on single stories of ‘the racist’, continued exclusion and stereotypes. Their sense of nationhood, of being one, is very fragile. Their political reality is full of contradictions: integrated, yet separated; united, yet unreconciled; free, yet oppressed; equal, yet unequal.”

The 2015 SA Reconciliation Barometer report by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation contains some telling statistics about our social cohesion. Two-thirds (67.3%) of South Africans have little to no trust in people of a different race group; and 61.4% of the South Africans surveyed said race relations in the country had stayed the same or worsened since 1994. Just over half (55%) said they primarily associate with people who look and speak like them, 64.6% said a united nation was possible and 71% said they desired a unified country.

We don’t trust others, but want cohesion. We seemingly have to wait for a sporting event to unify us. As a nation we are a mixed-race 23-year-old, birthed by colonialism and defiance, clothed in a progressive Constitution and growing up in a neoliberal word.

As with any break from a singular narrative, we have a natural tendency to retreat into isolation; seeking out like-minded groups.

Western politics currently provides almost weekly examples of the battles for national identity. Equally, the xenophobic outpouring in South Africa’s metropolitan areas earlier this year offered another display of how hard living with contradictions is.

The description of “alienation” for many university, corporate or social spaces is enlightening in how our third culture doesn’t allow us to feel at home. It speaks to the complex effort South Africans make to interpret our diversity. Poor adaptations to this dissonance result in the pitiful notion of “I don’t see race”.

A new set of norms

Perhaps the element within all third cultures is the attempt to establish a new set of norms. These are either progressive adaptations that unseat the status quo or, possibly, a response to a real or perceived loss. The loss of dignity, land, history, community, privilege or access affects us on a human level. Unresolved, it runs out our colour.

As South Africans, we should not be cynical – we have overcome so much. Adapting to a third culture can be both novel and enriching. But it requires an acknowledgment of discomfort and a willingness to be tolerant.

Cross-cultural identities have strong legacies within migration studies, sociology and literature. Our progressive Constitution asks us to reach for the ideal of an inclusive society. But we are not there yet. South Africans have developed a third culture to make sense of our complex social structure. Our blood is green; our skin is grey.

* Arnold is a grey South African.

Read more on:    culture  |  democracy

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