OPINIONISTA

Oscar Van Heerden: That which binds us together is greater than that which drives us apart

As the 2019 general election approaches, how will you do your part? Will you ask, how am I affected and what can I do? Or will you continue to pretend that none of these issues affects you and that all is well in Mzansi?

As South Africans, we have come a long way with our transformation agenda and project since 1990. We had secret talks, then we engaged in talks about talks, and finally, we agreed to negotiate a settlement among all races. We produced an outcome and the world called it a miracle. We overcame many obstacles over the years and we continue to overcome.

In my previous column, I mentioned that we as South Africans must start having the inconvenient conversation about race, privileges and prejudices. I insisted we start this conversation because the elephant — of the race — remains in each and every room in Mzansi. I realised that besides having to deal effectively with our own identity politics in South Africa, we too are global citizens. Which does beg the question, how does the world view us these days, 25 years after the fall of apartheid?

Race matters in South Africa and we must have the inconvenient conversation.

In many ways, we all subscribe to the famous Dan Vera poem:

The Borders are Fluid Within Us

This is what is feared: that flags do not nourish the blood, that history is not glorious or truthful. I sleep and dream in two languages. I gain wisdom from more than one fountain. I pass between borders made to control what is owned. The body cannot be owned. The land cannot be owned, only misunderstood or named by its knowing.

In short, according to me, prejudices must fall and we are all global citizens. But do we all agree with these sentiments? Looking at the intolerance that is still projected daily in this country, can we truly say the miracle still holds? Can we agree that the agreeable overtones in the early 1990s are no more? What happened then?

Do I hear some of you saying that the black man should simply get on with it and should stop having a sense of entitlement? That 25 years on, shouldn’t he/she have something to show for it?

Well, Doctor Martin Luther King was once asked why the black man in America doesn’t just lift himself up by his bootstraps, as all other immigrants did. His response, I reckon, holds true for our context in South Africa as well. He said to the journalist:

White America must see that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. That is one thing that other immigrant groups haven’t had to face. The other thing is that the negro’s colour became a stigma. American society made the negro’s colour a stigma.

Though slaves were freed in 1863 they gave the slaves no land or nothing in reality to get started on. At the same time, America was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest. Which meant there was a willingness to give the white peasants from Europe an economic base. And yet it refused to give its black peasants from Africa who came here involuntarily, in chains, and had worked free for 244 years, any kind of economic base.

So, emancipation for the negro was really freedom to hunger. It was freedom to the winds and rains of heaven. It was freedom without food to eat or land to cultivate and therefore, freedom and famine at the same time.

And so when white Americans tell the Negro to lift himself by his bootstraps they don’t look over the legacy of slavery and segregation.

Now, I believe we ought to do all we can and seek to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps, but it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And many Negroes, by the thousands and millions, have been left bootless as a result of all of these years of oppression and as a result of a society that deliberately made his colour a stigma and something worthless and degrading.”

Back in South Africa, I’m sure the world still holds a largely positive view of our beautiful country. They visit in their millions annually, and we as a country have very good relations with most foreign governments. But there is a concern out there, will the centre hold? We have made good progress with regard to investments into the economy over the last year, prosecutions are unfolding with regard to corruption and yes, the economy did grow marginally at just over 2% in the last quarter.

However, it remains up to all of us to return to that spirit of ubuntu we displayed in the 1990s if we are to progress.

As the 2019 general election approaches, how will you do your part? Will you ask, how am I affected and what can I do? Or will you continue to pretend that none of these issues affects you and that all is well in Mzansi?

Happiness and dignity are what black South Africans want desperately, how and what will we do to make these a reality.

Only together can we achieve greatness. As Barack Obama says, we have a stake in one another… what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart. DM

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