#unfenceSA

This morning the first conversation I had with another person involved a story of her young (teenager) cousin being beaten to death by 4 other people.  She was called out of church, along with her family. On arriving at the scene of where he was barely alive, under a black bag at the local rubbish tip, his body was okay, but his face was damaged and scarred beyond what seems to be humanly possible to do to another human being.

Then I thought back to my own childhood where a story like this was unknown.  Where the drugs we were warned about including dagga and tippex thinners and stranger danger with sherbet straws or sheets of stickers – this one I have never checked on snopes to verify?!  Where a drug like TIK (yes, I know it’s everywhere) seemed highly unlikely to even get a mention.

Last weekend I sat and listened to stories of people I know and love but who because of our political history being what it was I never got to know and love growing up.  They were isolated from me and me from them based on the amount of melanin I have in my skin and they in theirs.  Based on the amount of melanin and race, secondly by ethnicity, my black friends – for black in this context incudes anyone not white – would have had their education, their life paths and their potential potentially prescribed. One of the most painful things for me to hear was someone whose family I consider one of my closest, most loved people in Cape Town talk about the battle to get to where he is and the chance that a (white) manager took on him years ago, allowing him to work in a store that my family frequented on a monthly basis to receive scripts for my mom’s blood pressure and my asthma.

How ironic, that someone who holds this much value in my world, is someone whose path I could have crossed so much earlier, but didn’t simply because my schooling and local world was 10km in a different direction.

I nearly didn’t go last weekend – when the invite came and I realised it was in the same 10 day period as 2 other preparation heavy workshop engagements, I thought maybe I need to wait for the next one.  I am really glad I did.

I sat this weekend among people I respect as people wrestling, truth speakers and people further down the road in figuring some things out that I am still working on wrapping my head around and listened.

I listened to a friend speak out, knowing that he would offend some listeners, in a safe enough environment to do so.

I watched people who would usually be deferred to first in speaking, or were used to being given the floor, listening more than they spoke.

I learnt about the depth of wisdom and a history that belongs not just to friends, but to communities to, that wasn’t my shared history.

I engaged with a friend who voiced that he wished that the white community would experience what it feels to be hopeless. Not because he is wishing hopelessness on people but because he wants the white community to experience what it is to feel like there are no choices and to mobilise from there and not just be in an inverted power dynamic.

I was reminded again about how we can be hopefully naïve and in this space it diminishes the hopelessness many feel.

Hope matters, but hope needs to be more than just a feel good thing.  It needs to be something that stirs and disturbs us when we are sitting in a place of too comfortable and too easy and too much going on to think that things need to change.

Hope matters for all of us when we are angry and scared about what things could look like, might look or won’t look like.

Hope matters when we see systems in place that still don’t serve us all well.

Hope matters when I have to speak up and out within my own community against things or for things that need to be heard.

Without Hope we all die, but without any action Hope is just a warm fuzzy thing to hold onto.

I am grateful for this weekend.

I am grateful for the reminder that actually, it takes courage to speak into spaces of privilege and power.

I am grateful for being able to think back to my first weekend, at the age of 16, as a family experiencing listening in Strandfontein 25 years ago, led by Wilson Goeda and Gerrit Wolfaardt (I stand under correction here!).That shaped me in ways that I am still figuring out.

Was I comfortably uncomfortable all the time this weekend?  No

Was I challenged to keep listening, to keep wrestling?  Yes.

Let’s #unfenceSA as we keep listening to those who don’t look, think or sound like us and let’s #unfenceSA by engaging in our own spaces more and challenging the areas where we can do better.

Thank you Johan De Meyer for kicking this off.

Impact & Intent: Hand in Hand

Every so often there is a LONG message thread that appears on a social media thread – whether it is about race or family or something else that provokes a response.

Recently I was asked to write a blog that was helpful vs things that were unhelpful in our adoption process- I hadn’t quiet gotten there when another adoptive mom tagged me in a post and vented a little on Facebook re: things that aren’t helpful for adoptive parents to be told/ said. Interestingly a few other adoptive moms reposted this and concurred with a loud YES that this has been their experience – in fact one of the mom’s comment was “we are in our 3rd adoption process now and we still get all of these” despite their adoptions being spaced over a 10 year period.

A different response to this has been from people saying people’s intentions are not all bad in their insensitive way of engaging with things that the blog post highlighted. That it was important to look at intentions. It was important to engage with people around these things and help them see beyond.

I agree with this.

I also think that it’s time we moved beyond just hearing about intentions and also looked at the impact of what happens.

Last year following a miscarriage I had some very hard interactions with people – most of whose intentions were well meaning, but the impact of what they said and did at the time left me reeling.  I am not still reeling. My heart has healed from this – however I am sad that one of the consequences of this is that certain friendships got damaged because while I was sitting with the impact of what had been said, it was hard to get past the intent argument that was put in front of me when I voiced that I didn’t feel safe or seen or heard in the intended act. There wasn’t space for us to look at the how and what in this.

This is something that I feel strongly about. I always have.

I have erred on the side of not always being able to see the intent in things when they have gut punched me in the moment. I have also been on the side of trying to understand what or why people want to know or have said something.

On a bigger scale, I have sat in company with people who still in 2015 believe that the intent behind the apartheid education system wasn’t bad.  It was well intended but the impact wasn’t so helpful or given a chance, because look how things have deteriorated since.  I have sat in discussions with people who have had to be quiet when well-intended people uttered racist or pejorative comments and they were silenced by the ‘It wasn’t meant badly’ argument.

It has been frustrating though trying to wade through both the impact and intent when the impact gets minimised in looking at the intent.

In all of these discussions the focus has been on the intent and while I definitely believe that this does matter, I am also wanting to advocate for more responsibility to be encouraged on the impact side.  I want these things to start being seen as two parts of one whole.  I have sat up at night trying to work out if this is my own place of hurt speaking or if I am actually just frustrated at the way in which we manage this?  My conclusion is that I have been on both sides of this for the right and the wrong reasons at times.

When we only focus on the intent, we minimise the impact for those experiencing it.

When we only focus on the impact, we minimise the opportunity for understanding.

Ultimately though, these things all come through relationships.

Grace happens in relationship.

Growth happens in relationship.

Both sides of this whole happen in relationship.

Hand in hand.

Wrestling with ‘skin’ colour crayons

I run social skills groups for children from Grade R to Grade 3. Without fail in every single group, my coffee/ brown/ chocolate or as one of them has identified himself ‘toffee with a splash of cream’ children ask to borrow the ‘skin’ colour crayon when colouring in pictures of themselves. Not the peach crayon – which is what I apparently am- the ‘skin’ colour. It irks me every single time. It makes me want to hold the crayon next to my arm and say it doesn’t match me – it’s not the colour of my skin (I still look like summer according to some of the college students I teach which means I am tan).

Yet every single child knows that this is ‘skin’.

It frustrates me that this is the case and yet we question why race still matters in terms of how we as ‘old/ big/ adult/ leaders’ engage the world?

I love that one of these kids asked me to guess which baby photo was his – he was the lone person of his race in this group. They divide their friends into the annoying vs nice people. When I listen and watch these children engage with each other based on their individuality, be kind to each other based on their quirks, I celebrate their growing social skills, but I also inwardly celebrate that they see each other as people.

Then I look at my social media feed which is populated with US vs THEM or labels like animals, and narratives saying ‘get over it already’, posted by thcee same people who are asking why can’t we be nice to each other and simply see each other.

Maybe these kids who are still going to be confronted with the meaning of ‘skin’ colour beyond a mismatch of crayons could teach us a thing or two. They are learning to listen to each other. They are learning that sometimes when someone says ‘I am angry’, it’s because I am hurting. They are learning that when we repeatedly ignore someone it can make them ‘mad’ and want to shout and scream so that they are seen – and while this isn’t the most effective way of problem solving, sometimes it’s the only way to feel heard.

My 9 year olds can verbalise this, in safe spaces. In safe spaces, they can own when they get this wrong – when maybe we didn’t listen well enough to the other and so didn’t help find a solution.

Recently in my social media feed the recurring theme in the commentary on current race issues – like being a black working class student at Rhodes or about the Rhodes statue and what do we do with him became about US and THEM and sadly, for me, often a refusal from my ‘skin (peach)’ colour peers to hear the other – I am not saying that the actions, attitudes or behaviours are all to be encouraged, but when we engage on social media platforms and aren’t willing to listen, then all we do is make it seem like ‘skin colour’ is the only way to go.

I can’t only be willing to show compassion to someone because they are ‘nice’ to me, or because they have been willing to see me, if I am not willing to see them first. Sometimes they need to shout loudly at me before they realise I am still standing and willing to listen. Sometimes I need to be comfortable being uncomfortable with someone else’s pain so that we can find another way – especially if their discomfort affords me comfort or vice versa?

I have struggled the past few days with understanding how we ‘skin’ people hold Mandela and Tutu up in regard, and yet disregard the voices of people whose freedom to express their voices Mandela is seen to represent? I struggle with the fact that we repost and honour them and yet dismiss the ‘ordinary’ person of colour when they express their story or pain in a way that we can’t connect to and so don’t validate.

If we truly want to honour the ‘let’s move on’ South Africa maybe we need to stand next to, walk alongside and listen to people whose stories and experiences are different to ours. Not because listening on its own can fix them. But because being seen and being heard and being acknowledged does something inside all of us.

It helps us find each other. Maybe then ‘skin’ colour can become peach and the ‘coffee’ ‘brown’ and ‘toffee with a splash of cream’ will truly all be equal to the peach in terms of value and legitimacy and experience. Despite the different pictures they paint and stories that they colour.

Are there more white people like you?

In the past few weeks I have been faced with my ‘privilege’.
My white privilege.
Yes mine.

I have been faced with the fact that as much as I am surrounded by amazing people, doing things to see communities shift and healed, that there is not enough contact between different (colour)people happening to make people realise that actually there are many(white)who are seeking this change. Who think that justice matters, who think that restitution matters.

How do I know this?

Simply because too often, it’s the same people in contact with the same circles –regardless of what the circles look like. I know this because a friend boldly told me this. He heard me say that my heart was sore because in 2 days I had two friends of colour (from different contexts) voice this sentiment:

Are there more? Maybe there are more but we don’t see or hear them?

Then I got thinking about how do we make these circles bigger? How do we mix them up more?

The next challenge then got thrown at me by someone whose dreams I respect and support, whose voice is loud, whose passion for community, for people and for South Africa is being refined and yet I know that these dreams seem to belong to someone else at times for this friend, as he has other responsibilities in life that stop the pursuit of these dreams.

Why do I think that his dreams matters?
• I believe that we need more young leaders and men like my friend in communities speaking, advocating and encouraging people.

• I believe that we need to relook at how we understand supporting education in this country – for some of us it is about equipping teachers, advocating for bursaries – but I was recently challenged to think beyond that to what does it mean for someone whose very BASIC income is needed to support their family (with basics – regardless of the nature of their work) to how do we support big hearts and brilliant minds out of relationship to be able to study further. We all know that education matters, in this instance though – relationship matters too.

• I was privileged in having parents, who still had to sacrifice, but were able to put me through Varsity with no study debt. My friend’s starting point is not this but it could be if we stood next to him in this. If we acknowledged our privilege – our connections, our contexts, our means – and used it to support him. Then maybe there would be more – more people with privilege being seen as people who are there, who truly are committed to seeing things change.

I want to stand beside a friend to see his dreams come true while his family still live and eat and can celebrate his dreams too. So I am talking with others (yes more of us & mixed racial circles), and praying and seeking other people to stand alongside him. Not out of charity. Out of relationship. This is what family does. This is what we do when we are in relationship and see and hear and acknowledge each other’s dreams.

We help find ways of seeing them happen. I have had people doing this with me. And still do. I want to be a part of someone else’s story too.

This was written with the knowledge of my friend whose story challenged mine – I am grateful that he shared his story with me. In doing so it made me a part of his story as much as he became a part of mine.

What does a freedom fighter look like?

This morning this went through my head after I received a message from a woman that she was furious at people’s attitudes and the stuck narrative that things were better pre-94. That she had “lost it” with someone who wouldn’t respect or listen to another man (of darker colour) doing his job because “it was better before”.

Under apartheid.

You know the days when there was a blanket quota system in place: white, preferably male and um – ja….that was about it.

What kind of freedom are we talking about when we talk about freedom fighters?
– Freedom to vote?
– Freedom to speak our minds?
– Education & health care for all?
– Freedom politically?
– Freedom to be safe?
– Freedom to love who we want to?
– Freedom to worship?
– Freedom to be who we are – male/female/ pink/ purple/ worshipers/ non-worshipers?
– Freedom to know that we matter, that people matter?

I teach a course on contemporary society and all my foreign students (whether from the rest of Africa or elsewhere in the world) comment on the fact that South Africans are obsessed with certain social interactions and dynamics (like race) that aren’t a part of the general narrative in their countries of origin – this doesn’t mean the dynamic isn’t there. It just isn’t as apparent. Day to day, people in different contexts compare what was and what is and question what will be in terms of our contemporary society’s future.

Politically and economically as a broader community we are trying to work out what economic, social and political freedom really means. People like Julius Malema, Steve Hofmeyer, political parties and others are all touting what they believe needs to be, needs to happen for us to be free as a nation. Freedom fighters stereotypically are the icons that have been part of revolutions, to see broader social change come about so that we can have discussions about our leaders, about Steve and Julius on the same social media forums without fear of reprisal – other than people disagreeing or deleting you if they disagree with you.

Yet, when I think about this woman, I see a freedom fighter too. Someone who won’t be on coffee table coasters or t-shirts; someone whose name you probably won’t have heard of.

I see a woman who found ways of helping people know that they matter despite a political system that said otherwise.

I see a woman who stood up in front of a community of displaced, formerly homeless people in a refuge in the 80’s where everyone was scared of HIV/AIDS, who shared a cup with someone living with HIV to make the point that HIV wasn’t something you could catch by simply doing life with people – doing lots of other things yes, but not through sharing life things.

I see a woman who was raised and is a part of the cultural grouping associated with the oppressor – the Afrikaaner – who rants and raves and challenges people yearning back to the days of oppression. Not out of a naive space, but out of a bigger picture space of recognisning that things aren’t all great BUT….

I see a woman who has been impacted by crime directly, overseen health care for political prisoners and gangsters, who with her husband, exposed their family to racial reconciliation weekends in coloured communities pre-94 while there was an awareness that this wasn’t the norm amongst most of their peer group.

I see a woman who has watched her husband’s retirement be impacted by the change of management, whose husband exposed things in his place of work that weren’t ethical and was then “moved out” of his place of work and left with a greatly reduced income because of it and who isn’t bitter.

I see a woman in her 60’s still advocating for fair wages, for good conditions, for people to be seen and for justice for all.

I am humbled by this woman.

I am proud to call her mother.

(Today my mom lived for me Micah 6:8… I am forever grateful for the gift of my mom and dad – we are blessed)