Stop thinking 'stereotypes' - we're all South African!

2013-02-03 22:34

It gets my goat when I read in posts or in papers, ‘So, if you don’t like the ANC get on a plane and leave.’ This kind of half-baked taunt seems so obviously aimed at whiteys. I take the bait, I feel anger squeeze my throat. I want to yell, ‘I’ve been a South African all my life, as were my parents and grandparents. I have no direct claim to any citizenship other than South African. Tell me (whether I like the ANC or not) where the hell am I supposed to go?!’ Perhaps I’d add a few expletives to the mix. I’d sound more like a troll than a reasonable human being.

Truth is I am not always reasonable. I can be emotional, I feel things deeply. Sometimes I wear my heart on my sleeve. Emotion, feeling, is part of being human. I feel frustrated when people label me and dismiss me as a 'whitey' or 'umlungu' considered derogatory by some. It's the least of what I am. I’m a mother, sister, daughter, writer, artist, lover, friend, citizen - I am many things to many people. I object to being constricted by limitations placed on me by any one.

And whilst I challenge any person who wants to categorize me and lock me in a labelled box, I have to watch out for doing the same myself, to others.

A case in point. My daughter’s beau is Indian. Or rather of Indian origin, way back. The first night we met him I quizzed him: ‘You’re Indian, so d'you speak the language? D'you practice the culture? What're your views on the indentured slaves brought out to Natal from the year 1860?’

He said, ‘I’m South African! I’ve never been to India and I’m not that au fait with the history'.

It’s bad habit to fall back on the stereotypical: she’s ‘white’ so how can she understand? ...he’s ‘black’, a 'darkie', so no wonder he treats women with disdain! ...he’s ‘Jewish’ so he’s snoep...  Too many of us step into the trap and contribute to ongoing ignorance, bitterness and hostility.

I’d like to share an extract from a letter I received from a young man who’s asked to remain anonymous:

 Dear Joanne

...I am a young black South African who was raised in a Xhosa household. I understand the language but have difficulty speaking it. I’ve been educated in a British schooling system and achieved my A levels. I am a graduate of the Xhosa initiation school and have learned the secrets of my culture. I am studying at the University of Cape Town and will obtain my degree in a few years. I have family roots deep in the Eastern Cape, and our family name is known there. My father himself is a powerful man with South African business, yet I still have family that lives in poverty in the Eastern Cape, family that knows what the lack of service delivery really means.

I have grown up in two worlds. When I went to my dentist a while ago, as I came out, sitting on a chair was Helen Zille herself waiting to go in after me. I’ve seen both sides of the coin and it has worked both for me and against me as being in the middle sometimes does. Both sides either equally hate you or stake a claim to you....

He writes frankly and honestly about the difficulties he’s experienced as a South African ‘stuck in the middle’ and being pulled from both sides. I thank him for sharing his views, and particularly his ambivalence around political allegiance.

And again I wonder why we're so intent, as a society, on entrenching identity as an extreme of one or the other, of either or? Why are we are so keen on judging (and dismissing) according to stereotypes?

This then is the crux of the matter: the contemporary South African may have roots in many different communities, has been exposed to a spectrum of cultural experience and is most likely friends with (or at least has associations and links with) people of other creeds. Being South African means to be nothing less than a complex and multi-faceted human being. Every single person in this country is some sort of hybrid: a mix of cultures; a product and sum of so many influences of genetics and of history as we have rubbed off and against one another; of social and economic challenges which have served to divide us as well as to unite us. We share many common experiences, many everyday hassles.

Instead of eyeing each other as if we’re on ‘different sides’ it would be a fresh breeze in the oppressive heat to recognise how closely we’re bound to each other, how much mutual understanding does exist. We are so much more than simply the tint of our skin. We are not simply defined by our political allegiance. We're not defined by any one thing in particular, apart from being in this (life, country) together.

Martin Luther King Junior said, in 1964: ‘I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.’

As far as my citizenship goes, it’s a nightmare travelling on a South African passport. South Africans have to reveal bank balances, pay mega bucks for visas, get hosts to write letters of support. We have to guarantee, as we sign a multitude of forms, to return home. And yes, South Africa is my home.

I’m not about to give up 7de Laanfor Coronation Street, sunshine for snow, early morning swims at Muizenberg beach for any sort of city living abroad. And I’m not about to give up arguing for what’s right as set out in our constitution which guarantees a place for all.

We have to keep reminding ourselves of Nelson Mandela’s words from his 1994 Inaugural Speech: ''The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us.'

As a collective, whatever role we play, however we fit in, whatever our politics are, we are South African. This is our home. And what the country needs is for all of us who peddle ubuntu from our lips to practise it in our deeds.

I'm on twitter  @JoanneHichens

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