Ramblings in search of understanding….
The past 16 years in South Africa have seen much change in terms of who I am legally allowed to be friends with, share meals with and do life with. This having been said, there are HUGE gaps in so many areas still, huge gaps where we seek to figure out how to be a part of the solution in shifting communities, but can’t seem to unlock the doors to doing so. This past week a study was released to the public about the nature of violence in this country. Nothing in there was unexpected, and nothing in there was staggering news. I am amazed that we had to have a big study commissioned to make it official actually –surely there was and are other ways of finding the path to a different way of life?
10 days ago, I attended a breakfast where people shared on some of the trauma in our communities that was silenced during the early 90’s. I say silenced as it was given a blip in the news, but nothing more. Mandela’s release, the restructuring of a government in transition and how to manage our international relations were more pressing issues as we sought to see shifts and changes. The TRC was one of the transition bodies put in place in an effort to allow people to tell their stories, and perhaps find some form of closure. We knew things had been bad, but so many questions still run around in my head. As an African who happens to be white, in my 30’s and passionate about seeing this continent, never mind our country be recognised for integrity and its growth potential being realised, how do we deal with the following issues below– and I am ignorant of many people’s stories. I don’t claim to have the answers, or all the insights. I am responsible and accountable for what I have heard and what I do know though.
Human beings have the amazing ability to build each other up or damage, break and destroy each other. As South Africans we listened to the stories of Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Congo, Liberia, Burundi, Eritrea and the list goes on, in horror. We stand up and say this is not okay – and it’s not –but how many of us in our 30’s who weren’t directly impacted by the political violence are aware of what our peers are living with – their parents saw, our parents may have seen? Rwanda’s atrocities and human rights violations, sadly, are similar to some of the legacy we get to live with too.
I think about World War 2 and what we know about mass graves, about the wars fought across our continent and mass graves. I don’t think until 2 weeks ago did I consider the reality of mass graves on our soil. Listening to multiple stories of family members needing to identify their fathers, brothers, sisters and children in a pile, not one or two, but a pile of bodies that have been stacked, and not even refrigerated, or moved to a different section of the province in an effort to quickly clean up the streets, makes me want to weep. Our soil has seen way to much blood shed over the 400 odd years of South African’s known and written history. This is in the too recent future for it not to matter. If women weren’t encouraged to go and identify male family members due to cultural constraints and the men in the family were in hiding, or under arrest, it means we have many people without any sense of where there family members were or are today. It also means that as a nation we have seen power being abused in the most horrific way. This to some people is due the fallout of the times, is a legacy of apartheid – all this rhetoric means nothing when you realise that communities are still living in a state of disconnect and heightened emotion; that physically these things are still trapped within their nervous systems– and that is why we don’t see shifts forward, despite changes. How do you shift when you stuck, and the systems have changed, but your reality hasn’t?
The TRC allowed for some stories to be told, people were allowed to tell things within a certain framework…and it would be unrealistic to expect that an entire nation’s healing would be found through the opportunity to tell a story. Especially as the telling of a story doesn’t necessarily mean healing if there is no follow through to the telling – and your story wasn’t allowed to be told as it didn’t fall into the criteria of selection framework. Noma-russia’s story was one of these. Her mother was 8 months pregnant with her when she was raped by members of the SADF and police. This was in the 60’s. Noma-russia herself was raped twice during the struggle years. This was only one story that didn’t get to be heard. How many more stories of rape and associated gender violence have been silenced? And if these stories are being silenced how do we help the perpetrators heal? How do they get permission to heal? In times of war and civil unrest, rape as a weapon is primal. Nothing is new in using rape to wage war. But if you were a rapist, were raped, were a part of that story, with the apartheid struggle, the IFP- ANC battle in some areas as the backdrop where do you get to know that your story matters too? Especially if this turned into being a part of the culture of the struggle, rather than something that we are not okay with – no one wants to see a mom, a sister, a brother, a wife having to deal with rape. Our bodies hold onto trauma, unless we work out how to release it – no new learning, no new ways of doing things, passing things on can happen whilst we in this stuck place – and again we say why is nothing shifting?
Change in any context is hard – whether its good or bad changes, we struggle. SA had two known armed forces – the Umkhonto we Sizwe arm of the ANC and the SADF representing the government. Once you are in the SADF you are property of the government –and when I listen to friends, to guys who did their 2 yrs, or 1 yr or were permanent force, there are stories that get told and much that is left unsaid. Added to this was the integration of the SADF and MK, or simply the dissolution of certain platoons and brigades, and so from having an identity you were suddenly a non-person –which is what much of the old government did to most of the people of this country, I get it. I just question how and where do we position ourselves to take those skills, that identity shift needed that allows for a sense of internal power, and not power that is played out in violence, in abuse or in those skills being used in a self-seeking manner. The same people who were seen as the enemy, the perpetrators, in some ways are also victims, and the so called victims were also perpetrators – we all need healing in that space. It’s amazing to me how within 24 hours you went from being heroes to guilty and terrorists to heroes. And yet, what do we do now with the chaos that is found in so many places where both the SADF and the MK guys have skills, determination and much to offer. How do we offer something though when there is a judgement over our roles, or a lack of being able to connect simply as we have so much boxed?
Safety and security – we survived 2010, we have premiers whose homes are robbed and a former president’s whose house was invaded despite security. We are told to call crime lines, to support policing initiatives, and at the same time polls are in place to find out whether a bribe has ever been solicited from you or you have offered a policeman a bribe? How does that work? During the silenced struggles, police weren’t perceived to be neutral, eyes and backs were turned on so-called black on black violence and then this was all supposed to change after 1994. Now, I listen to stories and see headlines of police brutality; of the same people who are supposed to be protecting me, being the people who aren’t protecting other people simply because of class, or ethnic origin. Who am I supposed to trust when that is happening? As a woman, who is single and often alone at night, do I believe that the police have my back, that if there is a road block, I can trust that righteousness and integrity will prevail? I know that there are many good, committed people protecting us and serving our country. What do I do with the knowledge though of people being brutalised by the people who swore to protect us all?
And then there is poverty -something which is inherently violent. Not because it carries guns or knives or beatings, but because of the price it extracts from those living in it, with it, under it. Children’s ability to dream get shattered; their ability to learn stifled and the day to day survival that kicks in – how is this difference to living through war or conflict. Peaceful poverty may look different to contexts where there is violence too – but the reality again is our brains and bodies have to battle, daily. So perhaps yes, we can look at the legacies left behind, but we also need to own our day to day realities that are not unique to us as South Africans, but not helped by our past either.
Our communities, whether rich or poor, integrated or not, young or old are all dealing with something actually. Some of us are better at saying – Stop; wait a minute, what is this about? Some of us want to know what makes the past that impacts the present. Some of us would rather just say it shouldn’t matter- as yet again, if it does matter then we need to work out how to manage it.
So, my search for understanding means I need to be willing to figure out how do we look at the past in order to redirect the path going forward? How do I, as a white African be a part of seeing change on the soil that is mine too? Not because my original family came from here 500 years ago, but because my identity, my culture, the rhythm in my veins, the things that make sense to me as much as the things that don’t are all inherently a part of this continent.
I believe we are wired to need a sense of purpose. The people fighting the struggle, the guys in the SADF, the unknown faces of Africans –whether Black, White, Chinese, Coloured or Indian – all had a sense of purpose. There was a need for a story so that there was a reason for this purpose. If my purpose and need to be in a place where we seeking reconciliation, forgiveness and concrete pathways of hope and future orientation exist, then I need to be willing to be listening to the stories too that need this. A people without a purpose, without a hope perish. Does this mean then that if we are not being agents of hope, we too are accountable for some of what we see around us? If we are not helping people find purpose, than are we not as guilty as those actively robbing people of their purpose?
To be free is not merely to case off one’s chains, but to live in in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
As a Christian, I believe that we have been given the gift of freedom, as a human being, I believe that we are given choices and that we have much power in those choices. So then to carry on with Madiba’s thought, my freedom (both fought for in this country, and spiritually) means I have a choice to help respect and enhance other’s freedom.
In some ways the career aka life path I have chosen in terms of career helps this – I get to sit and be in spaces where we get to witness people’s stories. In that I have to speak up and speak out about things that aren’t okay, shouldn’t ever be allowed to be okay. I also need to remember that sometimes we need to remember the past, not so that we can get stuck there, but so that we can use it to lay, or where necessary relay the foundations for the present and future.