South Africans still like to classify each other. But labels are the name of the blame game, and all they do is divide us further, writes Khaya Dlanga
We like to label people, here in South Africa. A nasty hangover from our past, perhaps, still causing headaches in the present. So much for the old saying: United we stand, divided we fall.
It reminds me of something said by the man they called Honest Abe – Abraham Lincoln – in a speech he delivered on a date important to South Africa – June 16, albeit in a different year, 1858. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he said. “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”
Day in and day out, something new divides us – often on racial lines. Politicians are excellent at dividing us. They pit one against the other. They label people, in order to have a bit more power over us.
Since we all believe that we are too smart to be used in this manner, we don’t see it happening. Clever folks like us should surely see such clumsy attempts at manipulation coming from a mile away. But no. Too often, we don’t see the dangers of the labels being bandied about, because we are too caught up in – and enraged by – the affairs of the day.
These labels we use to sort and divide each other aren’t usually very positive. Once we’ve labelled something, it’s too easy to dismiss it.
There is no reason to be divided, although it comes a little too naturally to us: if we happen to sit on opposite sides of the fence, our views will inevitably differ because we don’t have the same perspective on things.
For example, a man driving a luxury vehicle past an informal dwelling will have a very different take on that house than someone who lives in it.
He might say the people who live in such poverty are lazy and need a kick up the bum. Or he might indulge the unfortunate romance some have with poverty and think: “Oh, poor people are so happy.” As if he wishes he were as poor and, so, as happy as he imagines they are.
But there is nothing romantic about poverty. If it were, why doesn’t he give up where he stays, and live with the poor? St Francis of Assisi gave up everything – not because of some romantic notion about poverty; it was so that he could help the poor.
The other day I had a great conversation with friends I admire greatly. We often have very different views on things. Which is precisely the reason I respect them, because it is through engagement and disagreement that you learn about the world. The debate was about white liberals.
Specifically, those among them who persist in being perplexed by black people who openly defend and support the ANC, looking at them as if they had suffered a sudden drop in intelligence, just for voicing that support. At times, someone said, one gets the feeling that one needs to ask their blessing to support the ANC.
“How can you support them when they are so bad?” You can almost see the confusion and patronising questions they are grappling with. “But you are so smart,” they say. “How can you support them?” As if these ANC supporters need someone else to help them think, so that they might see the light.
The temptation of course is to respond by saying: “I never asked you why you kept voting for the National Party”. But of course, the denials would be loud and vehement. I have yet to meet a single white person who has admitted to voting for the National Party.
Steve Biko wrote about white liberals who, in their minds, “always knew what was good for blacks, and told them so”.
All these thoughts, these characterisations, are applied so easily to a person who matches the description of the label in question. There’s no need to even bother getting to know them. Everything you need to know is right there on the label, under ingredients.
The labels themselves are a big part of the problem. Labels create this us-vs-them attitude: They think they know better but in fact we know better. Consequently, actual solutions elude us, because we are too preoccupied with the camps we find ourselves in.
I define myself as a constitutional democrat. But why do I define myself as such if I don’t believe in labels? That’s a good question.
Our Constitution is often described as one of the most liberal in the world. I would go so far as to say that it is ahead of the people: It is not in step with its citizenry. Most people support the death penalty, and since most people are religiously conservative, they reject – as Chief Phathekile Holomisa of Contralesa did just a month ago – the idea of the gay rights enshrined in the Constitution. It is in this light that I say our Constitution is ahead of us. Still, perhaps we ought to do more to aspire to its ideals.
It’s with this in mind that – if pressed to define and label myself – I would define myself according to the document that binds this country and its laws together.
Of course many of the principles it enshrines are open to interpretation, but there are some that clearly are not – even though the same issue might be up for debate in other democracies. For example, the Constitution of the United States leaves decisions regarding the death penalty open to interpretation by each state. Our own Constitution is clear on the matter: there is no room for competing interpretations.
But again, if I believe that labels divide and paint us into corners we either cannot or are too afraid to get out of, then why do I define myself? Well, we define ourselves according to what we think is right, because then we are right. I think I’m right, after all, and that constitutional democracy is right.
But digging in our heels is not how we are going to get to the answers we need in order to get out of the divisive and divided situations we find ourselves in.
Perhaps we could find guidance in the words of a man who was labelled by some as an extremist, Malcolm X, when he said during a debate in Oxford in 1964: “You’re living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution, a time when there’s got to be a change. People in power have misused it, and now there has to be a change and a better world has to be built and the only way it’s going to be built is with extreme methods. And I for one will join in with anyone. I don’t care what colour you are, as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth.”
Follow Khaya on Twitter: @KhayaDlanga