Melanie Verwoerd

Softening our gaze

2017-01-11 08:30

I am writing my first piece of 2017 sitting at the edge of a jungle on the island of Bali, where I have been on retreat for the last 10 days. I decided at short notice to do a bit of an “Eat, Pray, Love” to see in the new year. 

Ok, it was more eat and pray – not a single handsome-it’s-time-darling-Spaniard in sight –which could have something to do with the fact that I went on an all-women’s yoga retreat. The only men we saw for seven days were those who cleaned our rooms and gently shooed the massive spiders from our outdoor bathrooms. Oh, and there was Luca. The quintessential Aussie surfer, who came to get the women who surfed. He kissed every woman, whether he knew them or not, each day – as you do.

I didn’t do the surfing part. I wanted time for reflection on the year ahead.  Apart from my own personal journey, I came to Bali troubled by what seems to me, the deepening and worsening of racial divides in our country. 

Since returning to live in South Africa three years ago, I have been shocked by the rise in racism – between individuals and from politicians. Recent political narratives, with an unapologetic racial slant not only worry me, but scare me. 

Our democracy is so new that this rhetoric can easily break the fragile threads that bind us together as a nation. I am angry at the politicians and political parties who use the race card, not as an honest reflection on what is going on, but for opportunistic, populist reasons and mostly to hide their own shortcoming or failures. 

Politics aside, I have also been reflecting on a question I am often asked: how do we improve racial disharmony through our daily living? I was hoping that my time on this tropical island would provide some clarity.

Arriving in Bali is an attack on the senses. It is humid and steaming hot. Given the tropical nature, the plants and bugs are huge and noisy. Ordinary garden snails grow to the size of the palm of my hand. The geckos chirp so loudly and announce their presence with such an exuberant “Gec-ko” call, that they wake you at night.  

As is the case in many developing countries, where the growth in population and infrastructure do not align, the roads are chaotic. There are thousands of little motorbike scooters, weaving through rows of cars and trucks. They transport everything – people, babies, animals and if you have a long ladder – no problem, you get your mate to drive behind you on another scooter and you both have an end of the ladder on your head. It was in the traffic that Bali started to give me some answers. 

I was on a 20 km journey which took about two hours. Marvelling at how patiently drivers allowed others in before them (I did not hear a single long angry hoot), I asked my driver Gusti where the patience came from. Gusti thought for a few seconds and then replied: “Yes, they (the other drivers) are here, but I am also here. So how can I be angry at them for being here?” 

He went on: “So if I feel unsafe, I just beep lightly to politely remind them that I am here, but I cannot be angry”. 

He then explained how the Balinese are taught tolerance, patience and respect from childhood.  “We are taught to look softly, softly at others,” he said. 

And there it was… 

A few nights later, I was reading a moving record of a week long discussion between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu called “A Book of Joy”. They raise the idea of “softening our gaze” when we look at others – especially those that are or act differently from us. 

Scientists tell us that we are biologically programmed to look at “the other” with suspicion. Researchers have discovered that we make up our mind within seconds about someone new. But, influenced by past experiences, upbringing and socialisation, what we see or feel in those first few seconds is often not the full story, as I discovered again this past week. 

We were 10 women from all over the world on the retreat. Meeting them on the first night, I made the mental notes that we all do – i.e. the ones I liked or didn’t liked mostly based on appearance or first interaction. But as the week went on, I realised just how wrong I had been about many of them. 

The women were all strong and independent. Most of them were travelling on their own and were career driven. But as the week went on the complexity of their lives became apparent. 

There was the woman who had spent her life in the Australian air force, who was in deep mourning over the recent loss of her mum and the breakdown of her marriage. A highly successful, stunning looking, corporate woman who was trying to get over a man who claims to love her, but also has another partner. A recently separated woman who would make Arnold Schwarzenegger look floppy from all her physical training broke down as she spoke to her children who she had left with their father over the phone. And there was the totally organised PT teacher who seemed to have everything under control with ample amounts of post-it notes, but who was struggling with her parent’s recent separation.  

Everyone had their own story and pain. And I realised, with the help of Gusti and the Arch, that in that truth lies possibly the only solution to the racial question in our country. 

The Arch says that when he is in traffic and someone cuts in front of him, he tries to remember that the person might be rushing to a dying friend’s bedside or to a sick child. 

Then he “softens his gaze” and does not get angry. Of course few people in the world are as saintly as the Arch, but with practise we can perhaps all pause and remember that behind every person that might annoy us there is a story of pain and challenges. We will then be more patient and less inclined to vent anger and frustration in person or on social media.

My hope is that in 2017 we will again realise that we are all tied together in South Africa and that we need one another to make our wonderful nation work. The only alternative is to leave. For those of us who are staying Gusti’s words will remain true:

“As long as I am here, others have the right to be here too.” 

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland. 

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