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Friday, April 28, 2017

The Right to Free Speech

A version of this post was originally written for Contemporary Christianity. 

In 2012 a furore erupted across South Africa following the public exhibition of a painting by a ‘white’ South African artist, Brett Murray. Expressing a strand of public perception relating to the numerous scandals surrounding Jacob Zuma, the current President of South Africa, it depicts the President in a Lenin-like fashion with his genitals exposed. As well as the painting being vandalised shortly after it was displayed, some even called for the artist to be stoned to death for the way he had insulted the President.  A fascinating debate followed raising the question of why something one might have thought as an acceptable form of political commentary within the context of a democracy could provoke such an impassioned response.
Due to the artist being ‘white’, and bearing in mind South Africa’s history of racism and oppression, many have interpreted the painting as racist. However, to interpret it in this way is insufficient as it does not account for the way in which the conflicting views crossed racial boundaries, as indeed many ‘whites’ also took exception to it. Pointing to different systems of meaning-making (worldviews) at play, I would argue the furore was the result of an unintended but volatile clash of values: freedom of speech versus the right to dignity and respect, fuelled by an unresolved Apartheid past. However, such a clash of values is not limited to South Africa. It can be seen in the lethal violence that ensued following the printing of cartoons by the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo depicting the Prophet Mohammed. Like the painting of Zuma there are those that will see the cartoons as providing legitimate political commentary while others will interpret it as a form of Islamophobia.
These illustrations bring into the question the relationship between political correctness and the right to free speech. However, they also raise a number of deeper questions that need to be probed. For example, they raise the question of identity and how different groups interpret and make sense of the world around them. They also raise the question of social values and how groups prioritise certain values over others. They necessitate both asking what happens when competing values and ways of interpreting reality collide and thinking about the impact this might have on building peaceful societies.
These questions challenge Western liberal thought that is largely driven by an individualist worldview and that promotes values such as gender equality, personal autonomy and freedom of speech. While other societies may support such values they can be prioritised in different ways. In collective cultures it is the respect of elders and leaders and maintaining the honour and dignity of a group that is given priority. Consequently, to draw Zuma or the prophet Mohamed in such ways serves as a complete affront to the culture. However, what is important to understand is that our values speak to our sense of identity and feeling safe in the world. Subsequently, a perceived threat to these values, coupled with histories of inequality and oppression, can solicit a violent response and contribute to intergroup conflict as they act to destabilise ones sense of well-being in the world – as illustrated with the painting of Zuma and the drawings of the prophet Mohamed.
So how do we respond to this? Should the value of free speech trump the right to dignity and respect or even the right to religious freedom? To what extent should it be curbed by political correctness? If we defend our value for free speech (or other western values for that matter) are we not imposing what we perceive as the superiority of our worldview over the ‘other’? Is that not a form of colonialism – cultural colonialism in this case? Moreover, it raises the extent to which we assume the ‘other’ thinks like us. In the interests of building peaceful society, perhaps we need to give the ‘other’ a little more room to exist, acknowledge and accept that perhaps there is more than one truth so that we can open up the space for dialogue that promotes acceptance and transformation.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Long Live Madiba!

Originally posted on RightsNI Blog
Jonathan Shapiro, South Africa’s political cartoonist famously known as Zapiro, perhaps best captured the mood and legacy surrounding Mandela’s passing (original here).
As aliens from outer space look towards planet earth and see the face of Mandela they remark: “Whatever it is, it’s transformed their planet”.  Signified by the caption of the cartoon Mandela: He Changed the World, his legacy extends not only to South Africa and its people but to the whole world. Indeed, as tributes across the world pour in (see the Nelson Mandela tribute site); and with approximately 90 heads of state attending his memorial accompanied with extensive media coverage we get a glimpse of just how far-reaching his influence extended.  Described byDesmond Tutu as a ‘moral colossus’; by Barack Obama as a man ‘who bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice’ and who ‘embodied the promise that human beings – and countries – can change for the better’ and by others as a unifier, a giant among men and a true African hero, there will hardly be a soul on the planet who cannot say how Mandela’s life has inspired them and given them hope.
This period of mourning and celebration is a moment in time in which we, as individuals and a global community, need to pause and reflect on his life and monumental legacy. Tribute after tribute we hear with deep respect, gratitude and admiration the powerful influence he had on promoting peace, reconciliation, justice, freedom, liberation, equality,  forgiveness and the list goes on. So, it is certainly no coincidence that his memorial service should take place on International Human Rights Day – significant indeed!
I, myself, never met Madiba, but as a South African growing up in the country’s transitional years, I was privileged to experience the fruit of his transformational leadership. In particular, what stands out for me is that despite the extreme suffering he went through, a suffering none of us can ever begin to fathom, he stood by his principles and walked out of a hell with no bitterness. Where we expected revenge and retribution he brought restoration, reconciliation and forgiveness; where we expected anger and hate he brought love and kindness.
As I continue in my personal reflection on the life of this “giant in history” and the reaction of overwhelming love and sadness the world has had towards his passing I am left pondering what it was about Mandela that made him to be the man he was and exert the influence he did. If we want to bring the change we say we are working for then the legacy we need to be taking from him is about how he was able to do this?  What was it about this man that seemed to defy expectation and in fact uphold the values we all politic about? Was it a matter of personal faith? Or, perhaps it was due to a deep spirituality?
I certainly don’t have the answers but one thing that is sure is he was able to view humans as humans – not as racial, religious or national categories – but as humans. In this way, he seemed able to transcend the boxes with which we define each other and promote one over the other. He had a sense of humanity’s connectedness and inter-dependence with one another, understanding that if one pillar of humanity falls we all fall.  Rather than looking at our world through individualistic eyes that is all about me and my needs, he saw it through collective eyes through which one’s well-being depends on the well-being of others and the society as a whole. Perhaps therein lays the challenge: to begin developing a profound sense of our connectedness with all humanity and not simply those who are part of our group. In understanding this, maybe we too can begin to adopt some of his values and become the people, the change-makers, our communities and societies need.
The danger at the moment is that Mandela is being transformed into somewhat of a mythical figure and revered as a ‘secular saint’. Whilst Mandela in this mythical form is significant and much needed as he inspires each of us to be the best we can be, the danger is that he becomes untouchable, irreproducible, unreachable and written off as ‘one of kind’ – a person no one else could ever hope to be. So, we need to remember that underneath the mythical figure is Mandela the man.
To remember that Mandela was a man is to remember that Mandela was a human being just like any of us, faced having to make the same choices, and even tougher choices, each of us have to make. The point is that, as a human being, if he could bring and embody the transformation as peace and human rights practitioners we are all striving for, then so can we.
In conclusion, let me reiterate the words of the South African President, Jacob Zuma, in his Address to the Nation on the Departure of Former President Nelson Mandela:
“This is indeed the moment of our deepest sorrow. Yet it must also be the moment of our greatest determination. A determination to live as Madiba has lived, to strive as Madiba has strived and to not rest until we have realised his vision of a truly united South Africa, a peaceful and prosperous Africa, and a better world.”  

Friday, November 16, 2012

I Benefited from Apartheid

Check out the T-shirt slogan gone viral: I benefited  from Apartheid! I want one!
I love the dialogue its provoking because like it or not I, as a white South African, benefited from Apartheid. By virtue of my skin colour I got to go to good schools, I got to have access to good health care, to clean water, I got to live in a nice, water proof house and so the list goes on. Did I choose to benefit from Apartheid? No! Does that mean I should feel guilty? Absolutely not! Does that mean I should support the abuse of BEE policies - certainly not! Does it make me a racist for speaking against some of the ANC policies and actions? Not at all!

However, what this does mean is that I know from whence I come. It means that I have a deep understanding of social inequalities and injustice and therefore have a moral and ethical  responsibility to fight for and stand up for equality - the equality of all persons. But more than that: by acknowledging that I benefited from the past in fact liberates me from the shackles of white guilt! It gives me the integrity and credibility to speak up equality and speak our for social justice. It allows me to say 'This is who I am' and that's OK and you black man are OK too.

So, why is this statement so provocative? I'll tell you why. It's provocative because it hits at the core of white identity. It penetrates through to that part of white identity that still believes that whites are the superior race and that the white way is the right way. That is not to say the white way is the wrong way  thereby making the black way the right way. No, the white way is simply A way and not THE way. But this is to digress.

It is provocative because it is to acknowledge that yes Apartheid was wrong and so on - but more importantly it is to acknowledge that somehow I was complicit in it. That is where it stings. But me? you might say. Surely not?! I'm a good oke and at the first chance I got I voted against it!

So, the difficult and painful thing about this is that by aligning yourself with Apartheid in this way you are left having to question the foundation and truths upon which the world you grew up in was constructed. When you do this you start to find that what you believed in all this time is fundamentally flawed. And you find that the ground you were firmly standing on wasn't so firm after all and you are left falling with no where to go.

If this white identity is built on false principles then who are you? In South Africa this is not an easy question answer. You are not black and you can't be white so where do you go? The society has insisted on keeping these categories giving you no place to go. So you start to think to yourself that yes I'm an African and you try to redefine yourself in these terms to find your place in society. But again you find that the society kicks you out. You're white! they tell you and therefore have no right to call yourself an African. But then you start to wonder who is an African?

In the end you find your entire inner world collapsing. As painful and disillusioning this might be you do have options. You can either stay clinging onto your former white identity and create a world for your self in which you feel secure. I would certainly advise against that but if you so choose I understand. Or if you like you can leave your white identity entirely and become someone else. I don't know - anyone but you will remain shackled. There is however another way. Go on a journey with your pain and find who you are. Find out who your Creator God made you to be. Let your pain show you your brokenness and humanity. Identify with the sufferings of Jesus Christ. When you do these things you will begin seeing the humanity in others. you will find that we need each other to be fully human. In doing so, that guilt, that shame, that fear, that anger and resentment that caged you in will be gone; that ground that fell away will become firm again; and you will be free to enjoy life in a way you never thought possible! Why? All because you decided to admit you benefited from Apartheid and find out who you really are.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

They who point their finger will have 3 pointing back at them: South Africa 2010 vs London 2012

Adebiyi Openiyi and Cathy Bollaert
When the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued security warnings against potential terrorist attacks, ticket scams and ramped street crime – to name but a few - to British fans heading to South Africa for the World Cup Football competition in 2010, many in the country were aghast as those security concerns were for many South Africans grossly exaggerated. The nanny-state it seemed was over-stretching its bounds, the result of which led to a lower turnout of British fans compared to other countries. However, by the end of the competition, despite such afro-pessimistic sentiments, there were no terrorist attacks and nobody got stabbed as had been predicted. In fact, the World Cup Football went ahead with very little incident!
Now with the Olympics Games currently in progress in London, in the interests of equality, it is only just that one stop to reflect on the former judgements made by the pompous British media and see if the UK is able to do better. Based on a very brief scan of what happened in the run up to the Games – it would appear not!
Firstly, one should take note of the staffing issues that took place in the UK Border Agency (UKBA). A security warning would have been well served for the potential security breaches that could have gone undetected as a result.  To compound matters, thousands of Home Office staff, including UKBA agency workers called a strike in the run up to the Olympics. Moreover, the dispute over job cuts, salaries and privatisation also involved staff at the Identity and Passport Service and the Criminal Records Bureau. For a nation that has already experienced one terrorist attack – this is disconcerting to say the least!
Secondly, there were serious problems over London’s ability to provide adequate security and security personnel for the duration of the Games. In the end, due to such inadequacies, the British government had to draft in more than 3000 troops to boost security conjuring up images of London turning into a mini Baghdad!
Such are the concerns of sport fans that many decided to steer clear of the British Isles this summer.  One Jamaican who wanted to see Hussein Bolt compete at the Olympics said, ‘I am not convinced really about the security in London, even though I already made my booking, the situation is not encouraging’. Many visitors to the UK have to factor in the memory of the7/11 bombings in London and are aware of the fact that many of the suspects apprehended in the War on Terror have come from the British Isles. Not to mention, trite as it may appear, Britain is home to the most notorious football hooligans in the world.
So, instead of pointing pompous fingers of judgment to other nations England would do well to first look at its own imperfections and short-comings! Whilst we can all breathe a sigh of relief that there have been no major security breaches during London 2012 – be reminded that despite the afro-pessimism surrounding South Africa’s ability to organise the World Cup securely and efficiently, at least they did not confuse the flags of one nation with another!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

My Floating Generation: The Elephant in the Room...as a South African presently living in London, what to do next? (By: Shaun Mclennan)

What does it mean to be a white South African living in the UK? We come from land where our upbringing, influences and teachings were welded from a melting pot of freedoms we as white folk never shared with our generational equals living on the other side of the race line. As a generation, as well as an individual, I was never given a choice either way – this was the life we would grow up in. I have a choice now.

As a young South African I never quite grasped the realities of Apartheid as it was winding it was way to freedom revolution of 1994. I had a maid, I went to good schools, I enjoyed the best that South Africa could offer without a stitch of guilt – the beaches, the mountains, the rivers, the bush, the warmth , the food, the braai’s, the pool, the, rugby, the safety and security…the safety. There was Natal, Vaalies, Leon Schuster, takkies, Combi’s , red-nose day, koeksisters, chappies, pronutro and boerewors…mmm boerewors. It was Utopian melody of life’s luxuries made possible through a generational apathy and made easy through government suppressing the cries for change from voices living in comparative hardship. Having said that I don’t know if I would do anything differently to my parents, and to be frank I don’t think that many of you reading would have done either. Think about it, your entire life you were never made to fully appreciate what adversity was being experienced on the other side of the breadline. Government was a well oiled machine ensuring that this was the way of the life, this was right – we as whites were guilty of going with the flow and in our minds I think we felt we deserved something for the progress we contributed to: they fought and won wars on neighboring borders, they built infrastructure linking the coast to the mainland, they built hospitals, schools, developed a thriving agriculture sector, developed the most powerful economy in Africa. In truth, these triumphs of civil progression and military thrust were only possible through the blood, sweat and tears of our brothers in arms, all South Africa’s people. All 48 million of us deserved the fruits of these victories and only a fraction of us got to taste them.

This has all been said before but the reality of the years of inequality frame the big question on all our minds – all you South African Londoners reading this. We are all here for fairly similar reasons: travel, money, security and relationships and I find a common reality for a lot of us, for my generation is that we are floating – we have big questions hanging over us as what do we do next? Do we go home? Where do our roots now belong? Where is home? Is it here? Is it in Australia or Canada? These questions were never asked of our parents generations – this is our biggest challenge as a generation…finding the answer.

In attempting to try and answer this question you need to be realistic about the realities in South Africa which are often very difficult to swallow for many of us: 1) your children’s experiences in South Africa for better or worse will be very different to those ones you had; 2) safety will be an issue for the next 30-40 years at least; 3) giving your child the same quality of schooling that you had will most likely mean you will have to invest a lot more in their education; 4) you will work to a government which has still got growing pains and will make mistakes and is most likely to be threaded with corruption here and there – you cannot compare it to the well established governments and delivery structures of the UK, Oz or any other 1st world country; 5) the value your saved Rand in 40 years is uncertain, so you need to plan accordingly; 6) getting employment will require a slightly different approach to London or anywhere else but there will always be a need for the skilled, and a place for the motivated; 7) the chance of things going pear shaped politically is there as the Malema’s of the world take shape.

One has to balance these realities with the positives of a move back home or moving anywhere else. In considering these realities, the answer to the big question remains very personal and can only be. For me, weighing up the good and bad, I have chosen to go home accompanied by my green mamba passport...I think someone once said, “the red dust of Africa is difficult to get off your feet” and in truth that’s simple for me; I feel like I exist in London’s small houses, busy trains and pubs and as awesome as this experience has been, I feel like I live at home…maybe it will change as the romance of living in the wide open arms of South Africa will be cast away as the realities of a developing nation take hold.

I wish you luck my fellow floaters in coming to your decision...may you find roots and grow in happiness wherever u land.


Saturday, May 29, 2010

Afro-Pessimism: The World Cup and Stab Vests (By: Stephen Bollaert)

Today I googled “Stab Vests” – 27,600 results – and the first and most obvious relate to South Africa and the Soccer World Cup – quite an eye-opener – but I am getting ahead of myself.

On Tuesday (26 May) I arrived in the UK on the first leg of a cycle tour from London to Switzerland. First stop - my sisters home in the genteel middle class and rather conservative village of Welwyn Garden City north of London (despite the name it is more of a village than a city). Very neat, clean and leafy – reminds me of Pinelands outside Cape Town.

Having a few weeks in hand to organise a bike, set it up for touring and do a couple of trial runs I fancied the idea of finding casual employment to supplement my meagre supply of pounds – the Rand does not go too far here. This idea turned out to be wishful thinking in the current economic climate but, while irrelevant to the issue of Afro-pessimism, it does explain why, within 4 hours of arriving in Welwyn Garden City, I was seated in a local employment agency.

So here I am doing the rather futile round of employment agencies (by the way I am “legal”) and being interviewed by a very helpful lady when we (that is the staff and I) are disturbed by a man entering the office and acting rather strangely. Being fresh out of South Africa my thoughts went straight to armed robbery. A bit of an adrenalin rush then relief – ‘he does not seem dangerous’ – ‘but he is a lot younger and beefier than me’ – ‘maybe on drugs or maybe simply a bit strange’. Nevertheless, my natural response to protect women and children had already kicked in and I left the agency to call in my back-up (my brother-in-law). Though numbers were now on “our side” clearly size and age was not.

Fortunately the “offender” almost immediately followed me onto the street and straight into the arms of a local community policeman. My guess is that the other staff member had called in for help at the outset of the disturbance. Within a minute or two help was at hand. Impressive! I was equally impressed to see how the policeman handled the situation. The thing I noticed was the distance he kept between himself and the “offender” while fully controlling the situation. This got me thinking about knives, stab vests, the World Cup’ Afro-Pessimism and the resultant visit to Google.

What is it that drives this irrational fear of violence in South Africa? Perhaps it is Afro-Pessimism and a subconscious desire to see Africa fail or maybe it is driven by a sense of “white” and, in particular, English superiority. My guess is that while these may be factors the real reason is ignorance and fear of the unknown. A little “street smarts” which is essential anywhere in the world is probably all that is needed for a perfectly safe and memorable visit. Of course, ill advised visits to the shadier sides of South African cities is potentially dangerous – but then this applies across the world and, having “survived” walking through downtown Johannesburg with no other “white” in view; selling chickens in the heart of a “black township” which most of my “white” compatriots have never and never will visit; as well as regular cycle rides through the back roads of our local “black township”, I wonder what all the fuss is about.

Then it struck me. I have never been held up or mugged though two of my children have. I have never been subject to armed violence aimed at my person except when I ill advisedly tried to help a “damsel-in-distress” only to be attacked by the very same “damsel” yet, when faced with this mans strange behaviour in a country I perceive as perfectly safe, I immediately think ‘armed robbery’. The cause – all the hype and bad press – nothing sells like bad news and I, probably like most, have been conditioned to expect the worst. Sad isn’t it?

Incidentally the “offender” is as “white” as I am and if - IF - over the next few weeks of cycling in the UK and across France to Switzerland I am subject to personal violence the chances are that it will be at the hands of someone pretty much the same colour as me. Of course I am not expecting that – my greatest fear is heavy trucks on narrow roads.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

...classified as a white person

The other day I was rummaging through my old documents trying to track down my birth certificate. There, in the midst of all my old report cards, I stumbled upon my very first identity document. As I flipped through its pages there it was – my formal classification document in which I, Catherine Bollaert, was legally ‘classified as a white person’ under the Population Registration Act as legislated in 1950.

I was flabbergasted! In all my thirty-three years of existence it had never once occurred to me that I might have owned a real-mckoy document of such historical significance! I mean I knew that Apartheid had done this to people. But there it was - my name on this little piece of paper with a stamp that declared that this person has been ‘classified as a white person’. Immediately my mind began interrogating the significance of this discovery. Was it intended to be a treasure or a curse that needed to be burned?

With this discovery, it felt as though I had landed with a thud into the heart of South Africa’s Apartheid history. Where did that leave me? Even though I was too young to have really experienced what Apartheid was all about, the colour of my skin meant that I was guilty. Nonetheless, I had benefitted at the expense of the ‘other’. For this, justice and restitution had to be made. So, was this the hard evidence proving me guilty as charged? However, on the other hand, because of the very nature of my being white, I am now cast an outsider – an illegitimate child.

So, it was as though this little piece of paper contained the curse of my identity. With THAT stamp the rest of my life had been pre-determined. Unless I could change the colour of my skin there was nothing I could do about it. Because of these four little words I would grow up in an all white neighbourhood and go to an all white church and be educated in an all white school, each of which was over-flowing in privilege. Most would consider me lucky! A blessing indeed to have been born white in a context where to have been born black meant being classified as sub-human and treated as such. Nonetheless, it was also because of those four little words that I would be trained in the ways of racism; that I would be taught to privilege privilege itself; and taught to fear the black man coming towards me. Because of those four little words I was now part of the world wide web of oppressors. So, the discovery of this little piece of paper was like discovering hidden muthi – the magic charm that contained the power of my curse. For this reason alone it needed to be burned.

No. This little piece of paper is now becoming my treasure. It is evidence that I too am a product of the society into which I was born and which continues to be defined by the stamp that the authorities on that day felt like putting on your little piece of paper. Can we really be defined by the tone of our skin colour or by the ability of our hair to retain a pencil? Does this not only go skin deep? Can we not see the absolute absurdity of all of it? Should we not be laughing out loud in mockery of those words - to think that I, that we, have allowed them to dictate who we are today? Whilst I am in no way dismissing the magnitude of the injustice of Apartheid and the severity of how it destroyed the lives of millions of people – the least of which is mine – can we really let those few little words on that little piece of paper continue to maintain its pervasive power which is still plaguing the stability of our society? In as much as you had no choice in your being classified as a ‘black’ or ‘coloured’ or Indian person, whose consequence you have had to live with, I too had no choice in being classified a ‘white person’. I too have to live with the consequence of that. But it is me who now gets to choose how.