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There is a different way

23 October 2012, 08:13

When my friend Peter Batchelor resigned as chairman of Life Line Pretoria in 1986, he founded what he called the ‘Build South Africa Foundation’. He had seen time and time again how, in the group process used to train telephone counsellors, widely divergent people discovered their common humanity and were able to move beyond their individual anger and hurt to a place where they could truly listen to each other and find a common purpose. “If we can do this on a national scale,” he thought, “surely we can heal the gigantic gap between black and white?”

As a voluntary counsellor I had come to a similar conclusion. As an environmental scientist I had come to see how little effect scientific findings really had in environmental management. The problem, I realised, had nothing to do with science, but everything with human beings. If we could truly allow our deepest humanity to emerge, we would have a much more powerful foundation from which to truly effect changes. And so I joined Peter.

There was only one problem. We happened to be white. Even though we gained the trust of many in the townships, had our telephones tapped and our activities monitored, being white was so deeply associated with the ‘enemy’ by so many South Africans that, despite our success on a grassroots level, we could not make any inroads into the political environment. We were eventually effectively banned by the ANC, Inkatha and the National Party. Why?

Because we, and especially those of us in prominent positions, so often seem to need enemies for our own sense of identity. If it wasn’t for the Nationalist Party and its policy of apartheid, would the ANC have existed at all? Instead of realising our own inherent worth, as Steve Biko so passionately encouraged us to do, many black people today still seem to find an identity in blaming whites and making them the enemy.

Of course, the opposite is as true. Many whites are only too happy to point out the failures of black people, thereby continuing to imply that they are better than black people.

Unfortunately, we have a political system that enhances this approach. It seems impossible for our politicians to sit together and create solutions that would benefit all people. Instead there exists a norm of constantly badmouthing each other. How can we ever find solutions like that?

What is this debate, and all the power mongering and corruption, really about? Is it not about trying to hide an underlying sense of inferiority and insecurity?

I would like to relate here one of the experiences we had. It happened on a multicultural youth camp we organised in 1989, at a time where the racial divide was intense, to say the least.

When we left for the camp, Gert (not his real name) made it very clear that he wanted nothing to do with us. It turned out that he was a member of the Afrikaner Weerstand Beweging (AWB). He said he would drive us to the camp and drive us back, and that was it. Fine, we said. As he drove, Peter and I spoke to him from time to time, and some of the teenagers also tried. He was not rude, but didn’t exactly encourage any conversation.

On the first day Gert was nowhere to be seen. The youngsters had asked him to participate in the various activities such as canoeing and abseiling, but he refused point blank. The second day when we were sitting in our discussion groups, he was seen peeping round the corner of a building rather far away, and one of the boys asked him to join us.

“No!” was his reply.

On the third day, he was much closer, obviously now trying to hear what was going on in the groups. Again, the approach from the group participants was rejected.

Finally, on day four, he relented.

“OK, I'll join,” he said, but was quick to add, “but you know where I stand! All this integration stuff is nonsense. Blacks together and Whites together, but no mixing!”

“Fine” they replied. “That's the whole idea. We’re here to listen to each other and not to try and convert each other.”

As it happened, he joined my group. When he started off with his apartheid tirade, it immediately triggered something in a black group member whose parents had been forcibly removed from their home, and conflict erupted straight away. I did not make any attempt to suppress it. Once the anger had been expressed, it did not take long for the underlying hurt to emerge. When emotions are allowed to be, as in this case, their nature changes, and soon Gert and the black youth were listening to each other.

Gert participated for the rest of the camp. On the journey back to Pretoria, he was surrounded by a number of black boys in the front. He told them how, as a police reservist, he had shot at people during the Soweto riots in 1976. He told them how shit scared he had been at the time. Some of the black boys had been there, and they were telling him what it was like to be shot at. They told him how shit scared they had been.

It was about a month later that we got a letter from Gert. He asked us whether he could be trained as a facilitator for our camps.

We had many similar experiences, including discussion groups between the ANC Youth League and the ‘rightwing’ Afrikaner Vryheidstigting. What was interesting about this was that, after the first highly successful meeting, I was asked by an ANC member to facilitate such discussions nationwide.

It never happened. The particular person was rapped over the knuckles and ordered to have no more contact with us.

We met many ANC members during those days who genuinely wanted to see change to a more humanitarian society. I don’t know where they have gone, because I don’t see them in government.

Let me not fall into the trap of what I am accusing others of and make the ANC an enemy. What I am trying to point out, however, is that there is another way – a human way. When we can truly relate to each other as human beings, instead of making enemies of each other, it is possible to end the self-sabotage so characteristic of both the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ South Africa.

There is a paradox in this, however. The last thing I am saying is that we should not be racist. Racism in one form or another (including sexism, class discrimination, etc.) is deeply ingrained in our apparent nature, or ego. To deny it or fight it merely increases its power, as we have seen. To be human is in the first place to admit what we feel and think. What keeps us from doing this is judgement – our own as much as that of others.

The key to such kind of interaction therefore – the kind of interaction that we saw so often on our youth camps and other facilitated groups – is emotional safety. Judgement and blaming kill such safety.

The paradox of true group process is that, to the extent that we can allow ourselves to be ‘negative’, we will become ‘positive’.

Perhaps when we can truly listen to each other we may realise that Jacob Zuma, despite his shortcomings, is as human a being as we are? As are or were Shabir Shaik, Steve Biko, PW Botha, Hendrik Verwoerd and Julius Malema? That the striking miners, NUM, mine owners and overseas investors may all have valid points that will never contribute towards a solution as long as we keep judging, blaming, fighting and badmouthing each other?

The ‘Build South Africa Foundation’ ended in 1993. It is understandable. With the emerging ‘rainbow nation’ sponsors lost interest.

We have seen some phenomenal changes. Yet things are falling apart. South Africa is not unique in this respect, yet I believe that in South Africa we have a particular ‘something’ that has the potential to show the world what is possible. Many foreigners comment on this. Perhaps the state of disintegration of our education system is exactly the right time to develop a completely new, and much more human approach? We tried to copy European countries, and it did not work. The USA’s education system is itself in crisis. There is no satisfactory national model anywhere in the world that we can follow. So why not develop our own?

Politicians – as politicians – are not going to change the world. As human beings, however, all of us can. Carl Rogers said, “To be who you are is good enough, as long as you are willing to be it, openly.” The black American theologian Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

There is another way. Do we really want it?

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