Looking past the skin on my face


In all of this talk and talk and talk

of blacks and whites and browns

superfluous themes that fracture me

and you,

whose child am I? Where is my place

and how will you reach me

if you cannot get past the skin on my face?

The "superfluous themes that fracture me and you" as Khadija Heeger puts it in "Quicksand" from her anthology Beyond the Delivery Room continues to shape and inform our interactions in 2017.

South Africans are polarised over the discourse on farm killings. A two-year-old gets shot and killed in the crossfire in Elsies River, a common occurrence on the Flats. A school principal and teachers sexually assault learners. In Shoshanguve five children are crushed to death by a falling light fitting; a reminder of how socio-economic inequality impacts safety.

Student activists belligerently challenge the negotiated settlement, rubbishing the Constitution and asking the question "born free from what?" Phrases like "I can't eat reconciliation" punctuate dialogues. Violence breaks out as residents loot and set the homes of foreign nationals on fire. Weekly accounts of national corruption and state capture leave us feeling hopeless.

Twenty three years into our democracy and a month till we celebrate Reconciliation Day, there seems to be very little to be optimistic about. We have grown weary of promises made by our leadership and our trust in them has waned. Our president inspires very little confidence and the shine of our liberation party has grown dull. The explosive book The President's Keepers has put another nail in the coffin of the morale of many gatvol South Africans.

The context to these post-apartheid complexities and manifestations of the past continue to be persistent levels of inequality, with class and race remaining ever deepening fault lines. Enduring structural injustices govern our interactions, all of which is still largely informed by our perceptions of race.

It is little wonder then that identity politics in South Africa remains a central part of policy development and implementation, and it will continue to be as long as historical prejudice produces racial disparities. These inequalities can either be redressed or exacerbated by government policies.

Our current state of affairs can be rather depressing and it is little wonder then that calls for dialogue is more often than not viewed with disdain rooted in what seems to be a collective dialogue fatigue. Race continues to affect the level of public sympathy for those who suffer and at times economic anxiety and anxiety about safety and security – however valid – are used as a pretext for racism.

Our increasing inequality, escalating feelings of anxiety and political polarisation have left us feeling angry and retreating to enclaves. Increasing incidents of violence, whether by disproportionate force used by police on protesters, or from one South African to the other becomes an accepted means of communication and problem solving.

Reconciliation, that word which has since the 'miracle' of the 1994 transition had peace building practitioners across the world looking to South Africa for how-to answers, has come under fire locally. Allan Boesak argues that we have taken our reconciliation process for granted and that the gifts and blessing that have come with it have been eagerly lapped up with little thought given to the courage needed to accept the burden of culpability of our past. We haven't sufficiently interrogated the challenges of moral responsibility that is required to truly restore the rights and human dignity of all South Africans.

How, then, can we think, speak of and enact a different, more radical reconciliation in the midst of these complexities? When there is a gaping leadership and ethical vacuum? The challenge for reconciliation today is not that it is an impossible national project but rather, that it becomes a question of how to stay engaging in these many ongoing conversations we need to be having in order to become reconciled.

If we shy away from these important conversations or allow the skin on the face of 'the other' to become a barrier to reflective dialogue we risk losing the ability to navigate these difficult spaces and complex relationships that characterise the South African landscape.

It won't be easy. But if we move from a place that recognises how our own emancipation is intrinsically linked to the freedom of others, how !ke e: lxarra llke is a call to all, we will courageously take on the challenge. The South African national archive is testament to the resilience in our bones. As Khadija Heeger writes,

but I must talk,

talk hard-talk, soft-talk, talk redfire-talk,

talk cry-talk, stone-talk, water-talk

so I can talk laugh-talk

after things tumble free from under my tongue and deep inside my throat.

- Eleanor du Plooy runs the Ashley Kriel Youth Desk at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

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