Saturday, 18 July 2009

Nkosi sikelel' iAfrica

“I was not born with the hunger to be free. I was born free - free to run in the fields, free to swim in the stream that ran through my village, free to roast mealies under the stars.” Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
Tonight at Radio City Music Hall, an increadible group of performers will gather for the Mandela Day concert – a 46664 event. Today papers across the globe will carry, along with stories about news and bombs and crises, messages of thanks and congratulations to this great man, who gave up so much for freedom. Many people will remember and honour the legacy of his work for the struggle. It's good to remember what people have achieved, to be inspired by their stories and their works. In South Africa the papers have been full, over the past few weeks, of fractious articles for and against the efforts to remember. The foundation and some of the Mandela family have been urging that the day should be dedicated to encouraging the spirit of volunteerism. Some people have been talking about making July 18th a public holiday. Some have questioned why one person should be honoured and remembered more than others. Some people might think this debate is somehow bad – that there should be a national show of piety and respect instead of a heated exchange of ideas. I'd argue that this is exactly the point – the fact that South Africans can disagree and debate and everyone has a right to have their say and have a voice is precisely the freedom that was so hard-won. The simple act of debating and disagreeing – and the fact that no-one can shut that down – is a tribute to the work of struggle heroes like Mandela, and particularly to those who sought not revenge but peace and freedom.

Having grown up in the period of transition in South Africa, my whole life has been framed by issues of race and reconciliation and disenfanchisement. At some level, I suppose, I imagined that coming here, so far away from that, I'd escape those issues a little. Instead, on the first sets of classes I'm teaching is all about exposing sheltered South Korean kids to the ideas of race and discrimination. Ideas which, although they aren't as obvious or as openly discussed here, still affect this society – as they do every society. The summer courses for this class are all built around the book To Kill a Mockingbird. In some ways, I'm a little daunted by the idea of trying to condense and contextualise the reality of racism and oppression for a group of young people who have never really seen or heard about it. It's very different from working with other South Africans who have grown up knowing and understanding these issues. But the spark of questioning and wondering is there, at least in some. And because they are still young enough to be open to new ideas, and perhaps because they don't necessarily have fixed preconceptions about this issue, it has to potential to be a journey of discovery for them. I will be glad if, through teaching and debating and a little of my own experience, I can open their eyes a little to the values of freedom and equality.

In some ways it is easier than trying to explain what really happened, what the actual point of the struggle was, to adults who know something about it. Particularly those who know something about it based on occasional media reports and the aggrieved whining of bitter South African ex-pats. The subtleties of the struggle in South Africa pass these people by completely. They all assume that South Africa is really just another African state where the blacks (generally maligned as “the ungrateful blacks who refused to appreciate everything we'd done for them”) rose up against their white “protectors” and took over a country they were ill-equipped to run. Someone said to me the other day, “I'm not a racist but isn't South Africa much worse off now than it was under Apartheid with all the crime and rapes and stuff?”. I hate that phrase: 'I'm not a racist but...'. It took me a moment to respond, not because there is any truth to the statement but because there is so much that needs to be explained, there is so much context, for a person to understand what has really changed. Lots of people are victims of violent crime in South Africa, but the idea that this didn't happen under Apartheid and that everyone was somehow better off when men with guns regularly went into township areas and shot children and teenagers and mothers and sons simply for being black is pure fiction. As if the problems in South Africa suddenly appeared in 1994 up until which point the country was a peaceful place populated by god-fearing men who never did a thing wrong.

It's hard to explain to people, to convince people, that the struggle in South Africa and the negotiated revolution were and are about so much more than Black and White. The reason that South Africa's transition is so spectacular is not that the black people came to power. That did happen all over Africa, with both good and bad consequences. South Africa is spectacular because the end of Apartheid was a revolution – it was a complete change from brutal oppression to fairly comprehensive freedom for everyone, for everyone no matter what race or religion or culture. Something which still bothers a lot of people in the country, many of whom are not that happy with an extremely liberal constitution and are still a little uncomfortable with everyone else having the same freedoms they do. I don't know quite how to explain to my colleagues that from a South African perspective, the differences in To Kill a Mockingbird between the Methodists and the Baptists and the class distinctions and the disputes within communities are as important as the issue of race. I have a friend in SA who is adamant that South Africa is ignoring the huge and important question of race in the public discourse and that this is a great threat to the country's future. I think he is wrong, not because I don't think race is still an issue – of course it is an issue – but because I think that our mistake for so many years has been framing everything in terms of race and there are other discourses and dichotomies that are equally as important.

South Africa's leading struggle hero remains someone who stayed in prison and who sat down around a table with his oppressors and negotiated a peaceful revolution for the sake of all South Africans, for the sake of the non-sexist, non-racial future the Freedom Charter sought. I'm as familiar with the techniques of brainwashing as the next person – partly thanks to the Apartheid era schooling system which began, in my first three years of school, the slow process of turning me into a good Apartheid supporter – and I get as frustrated with the oversubscription to political correctness as anyone else. I don't think this is that. But as a result of what I have seen and live through and learned, I hold the doctrine of freedom more dear than almost anything else. And particularly more important than security and efficiency and growth. Mandela Day is a celebration of that freedom, with all it's dirt and hardship and idealistic hope.

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