Friday, March 18, 2011

On fear

It’s not often that I feel like standing on a soap box but this week I will. I don't make any apologies for offending anyone. Freedom of expression and all. I’m going to chat about fear. A bit of background. I grew up during the tail-end of the apartheid era here in South Africa. When I was a little girl I lived with the very real fear that terrorists were going to blow me up with landmines or shoot me.

'cos that kind of stuff happened... and sometimes still does. Our country isn't perfect. Our farmers are murdered up north for being white landowners. Our black lesbians suffer "corrective" rape in the townships.

But we are working on things. We open dialogue. We are talking to each other. We are trying to find solutions.

We are very fortunate here in South Africa that we had a relatively hitch-free changeover from minority rule to a true democracy. Granted, there’s a whole new set of problems in our Rainbow Nation nowadays but at least our children can grow up without fearing a “Night of Long Knives” or bloody revolution.

I grew up beneath the pall of civil war. It’s not very nice. This kind of fear leaves a dark smudge on one’s soul.

What has this taught me?

My generation stands as a bridge between the old and the new. Too young to be decision-makers to be blamed for the previous regime we nonetheless were present to usher in the new era of reconciliation tempered with tolerance and a spirit of ubuntu. And yes, I’ll be honest. The New South Africa isn’t all peachy keen for white folks. We are discriminated against for being “previously advantaged”. But that’s not stopping me from working hard at my job and paying my taxes. I love living here. I love my country.

Also, it’s not for us to rest on our laurels here in South Africa either because there’s still a lot that is broken, and there are many, many problems. We are, by and large, a multicultural melting pot of people who have no choice but to make allowances and indeed celebrate each other’s differences. We are not a monoculture. Sometimes we do rub each other up the wrong way but I do believe we are starting to see ourselves as South Africans first, then black, white, coloured, Zulu, Jewish, Afrikaner, Indian Christian or Muslim second.

The differences between South Africans will always be there, but I firmly believe that we, as a nation, are working hard, despite the growing pains, to make this work – that lovely little catchphrase of “celebrate diversity” and all that.

We all have something special about us as tribes, cultural groups or Africanised nationalities to bring to the table.

Now, back to fear. When I was growing up, I was constantly warned about “die swart gevaar” and “die rooi gevaar” (the black fear and the red fear). Communism and a black uprising were these terrible fears hanging over our heads. The Commies were going to come and take away everything we held dear and all the white people were going to die during the Night of Long Knives. This is what my parents believed. This is what I believed.

I was too scared for us to drive on dirt roads because I believed the “terries” were planting landmines. In hindsight I realise this wasn’t happening in Cape Town’s rural areas but it was all we heard on the news. And we believed it. Swapo was going to swarm across the Angolan border and a host of other terrible things were going to happen.

The fear choked us. We became insular as people, viewing those of other races with suspicion. International sanctions against South Africa didn’t help either. Many of us were ashamed of calling ourselves South African and those who could, travelled on British passports.

And, to a degree, that legacy of “us vs. them” still exists though we try very hard to eradicate it. It’s that old fall-back, harking to preconceptions and stereotypes. It’s easier to blame a previously held misconception than try to look at ways to solve problems. And holding onto the fear, the preconceptions and the misplaced anger only leads to further knee-jerk reactions. It goes both ways.

I’ll say this: there is no easy solution. But I’ll add to this statement from what I’ve learned as a South African. There comes a time when you must stop looking at the differences, and stop trying to be right, and accept that everyone, in their own heart, feels that they are perfectly justified to think and believe in a certain way.

Once we stop trying to be right all the time, we can start looking at the common ground we share with our fellow humans. Whether someone believes in red apples and another in green apples is beside the point. That both will die for their belief in apples while ignoring the basic fact that we are Homo sapiens… Now that is sheer and utter foolishness.

What we are capable of doing to The Other we fear is but a mirror of the disrespect we show to our Selves.

I’ll close by saying what I said to my dad when I first figured out what apartheid was: “But we’re all people, daddy. Why can’t we all just play nicely?”

Come on, people. Play nicely. We can share our toys, can’t we?

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