Nation Building: Our country, not “this country”

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO SAY.jpgI’ve been out of the loop on the #Zumamustfall campaigns that spread across South Africa at the end of last year calling for the removal of our corrupt president (protestors are pointing to things like Nkandla, the mansion Zuma built with tax payer money- protest chant is simply “Pay back the money!”) I’ve been out of the loop because I’m in America, and I’ve been out of the loop because the articles that my black South African friends are sharing on social media aren’t super supportive of the movement. Yes, many South Africans across racial lines want Zuma to be held accountable, agree that the ANC is becoming complacent with their power–using it for themselves (the few) rather than to benefit the many. But the biggest critique I’m hearing is that these protests are springing up because Zuma sacked the finance minister and that put the Rand in a downward spiral and the best way to get white South Africa to turn out to protest is mess with the economy. When poor people are out there protesting about the rising cost of food, but the Rand has stabilized, will white South Africa still be there?

But then I saw this video the other day (linked to at the end of this post), it’s a few months old, but the speaker, Craig Stewart who runs the Warehouse in Capetown said something that has been sticking with me all week. In my own words, he said something like:

We chant “Pay Back the Money” and rightly so. Our president needs to find ways to pay back the money he took from poor South African tax payers to build his luxury home and pool. But white South Africans, we ourselves have luxury homes and pools, most of the time at the expense of poor black South African labor. Have we found ways to pay back the money? We are angry that Zuma has used his power and privilege to secure jobs for his friends and family. He’s used his power and privilege to help a few. We are angry, and rightly so. But we have used our power and privilege to build parallel healthcare and education systems, rather than working for the common good.

We have used our power and privilege to build parallel healthcare and education systems, rather than working for the common good. That. That right there. That’s what’s wrong with white South Africa.

I’ve been thinking about this issue of reconciliation for a long time now. It’s nice to talk about it in the abstract. Two hypothetical groups asking for forgiveness and forgiving each other rather than turning to violent bloodshed. The South African experiment: a rainbow nation from a deeply fractured patchwork of people that had been pitted against each other for years. And it seemed to work. The threat of civil war was hanging so heavy over everyone’s heads, the miracle of Mandela and the opportunity to make peace looked like a decent way out. Black South Africa gave up the idea of a revolution, a complete take-over and turn-over, and instead followed Mandela into compromise. White South Africa gave up having a monopoly in the political arena, gave up formal segregation and gave up criminalizing black people, and it felt like a lot. To see white spaces suddenly flooded with black people: the government, the school system, the healthcare system– it was a shock. And it felt like a massive change. I don’t want to minimize that. To see your whole world flipped upside-down like that feels like a very huge thing.

But if there really was reconciliation, and not just compromises, we wouldn’t be here in 2016 with people wearing “F*ck white people shirts”, while on the other hand white people taking photos of people protesting over rising food prices and then going back to their nice lunches on their balconies (story shared on a forum I follow on facebook). 

In Radical Reconciliation, the authors point out that for forgiveness to take place, it just takes one group, but for reconciliation to happen, there needs to be repentance, and that takes two people. Repentance. That’s a Bible word that means to turn around. To acknowledge what you’re doing is harming the other person and to stop it, and start working for the benefit and wholeness of the other, not just yourself.

In 1994, there was lots of talk of “nation building”. It became one of those political words that people toss around and kind of mock, and slap on to anything. (“Ohh, let’s have a braai. Hashtag Nation building.”) “Transformation” is another one of those words. But these are good words that I think white South Africa (on the whole) didn’t take hold of.

Some of us were concerned with nation building, maybe at the start. Maybe we were on the front lines of helping a school to integrate, of going to a soccer match not just a rugby game, of hiring more black people at our business, of paying for our maid’s daughter to go to school. But not all of us were on board with nation building. In A Change of Tongue, Antjie Krog shares story after story of how in many cases, at a local government level, white people were not interested in power sharing, nation building, or transferring the institutional knowledge and skills built up over the years. We just left and said, “You figure it out. You wanted this- here, take it.” And we wonder why things like Home Affairs are chaotic.

On the whole, white South Africa has not embraced nation building. We’ve left. We’ve left to Australia and England and Canada. We’ve left to the suburbs and gated communities. We’ve left to private schools with higher school fees. We’re even starting to leave places like uShaka water park, or the Durban beachfront, because they’re too overrun with black people now. We’ve left to private hospitals. We’ve said things like, ‘This country is going down the drain. We’ll end up like Zimbabwe.’

Do you hear it? This country. Not our country.

Maybe if we said our country, if we really saw this as our country, we would use our privilege and power to make it better, not just for ourselves, but for everyone. Imagine if that helicopter Mum who spends hours making cupcakes for her child’s class party sent her child not to a private preschool, but one in Sweetwaters. When she arrived and saw the state the preschool was in, she would unleash all her energy and resources and connections to see that preschool become a place where her child would actually learn something. Wouldn’t she? And that would benefit the entire community, giving all of those children the quality ECD foundation they need.

If there was no private hospital and that Shoprite CEO to wait in line at a government hospital for hours, and the facility was not that nice, wouldn’t he use his power and influence to put pressure on the government to expand and improve medical services?

And if we were doing these things, if we really were invested in our nation and the common good, I think we’d see a lot less frustration and anger across racial lines, and we’d be a lot more united in our calls to stomp out corruption at a government level.

People are angry because for the vast majority of South Africans, the end of apartheid didn’t change anything. Beyond having a democracy now where everyone can vote, materially, a lot of people’s lives still look exactly the same.  If materially, nothing has changed, then has reconciliation really happened? Reconciliation doesn’t mean, “I don’t hate you in my heart any more, let’s be friendly.” Reconciliation in the Tutu sense, in a Jesus sense, means solidarity, it means we’re walking down the road in the same direction now, it means we’re in a restored relationship and what hurts you hurts me. It means this is our country.

At the beginning of lent, I shared a corporate prayer of confession for racism. It was rather American-centric. I think perhaps the South African version should include a line that says:

Forgive us for the way we have oppressed black people throughout our history—from slavery to segregation, to apartheid. 

Have mercy, Lord.

Forgive us for using our power and privilege to create and maintain a parallel system of education and healthcare that benefits our group, and not all of your people in South Africa.

Oh God, have mercy on us.

Today, I’m asking myself:  Where in my life am I part of creating a parallel system that just benefits my group, rather than the common good? Where is the spirit of apartheid lingering in my own actions and choices and heart?

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