/ 27 January 2015

Don’t leave forgiveness out of SA’s race debate

The great race debate in our country reflects the changing mood towards race and it’s clear that the forgiveness and reconciliation of our early democracy has been scorned
The great race debate in our country reflects the changing mood towards race and it’s clear that the forgiveness and reconciliation of our early democracy has been scorned

Over the December holidays I happened to be introduced to a wealthy white businessman and farmer from the Western Cape.

In the course of the conversation he asked who I wrote for as a journalist. “The Mail & Guardian,” I replied. If he was from outside the country I may have taken the trouble to explain more about the publication but it had never been necessary to do so – until now.

“What’s that?” he asked. Seeing my surprise he explained that he didn’t bother with local news.

It was reprehensible of course. Had he really been oblivious to the entire debate around farm labourers in the Western Cape? Or the racism debate raging on in that province?

But it made me realise something about the lively opinion spaces in the South African media these days – we may well be preaching to the converted.

Earlier racial social compact rejected
There are a number of social commentators thrashing out the great South African race debate in columns, blogs, tweets and on long Facebook posts.

They largely reflect the changing mood in the country towards race and it’s clear that the forgiveness and reconciliation of our early democracy has been scorned.

There is a growing school of thought that has rejected the earlier racial social compact, saying it left the status quo intact for white South Africa where it mattered – economically.

The majority of black South Africans have obtained little meaningful economic participation in the country. There are also arguments against this growing school of thought.

So long has the debate been raging that I imagined everyone was familiar with it. But in another conversation with a white South African this past weekend, this time a conscientious and caring young man earnestly seeking answers, I realised again that South Africa’s opinionistas had created something of an echo chamber for themselves, where certain things, perhaps wrongly, have been taken for granted.

He asked me how we could work our way back to the values that underlined our initial freedom as a country: forgiveness and reconciliation being top on the list. He admitted frankly that he had not kept up with all the debates on the topic.

Reconciliation a sugary package
I tried to explain to him. South Africans were very angry these days. Hadn’t he heard? Many young black South Africans thought the whole transition was a farce.

Forgiveness and reconciliation was the sugary packaging used to sell them an ugly truce that left them disempowered. The Truth and Reconciliation process was admirable – but hopelessly skewed.

Too many black South Africans had told of their pain and offered forgiveness and too few white South Africans had asked for it. No one wanted to talk about forgiveness and reconciliation anymore.

Throwing out the baby and bathwater
He wasn’t convinced and I understood why, hearing myself speak.How dare we reject values as timeless as forgiveness and reconciliation in their entirety?

Even as I write that sentence I can hear the outcry. I’ve seen how others have been attacked for advocating a form of peace in these times when people are hankering after a revolution.

But we’re tired of those words – forgiveness and reconciliation. Because we experienced a version of it that was too simple, and too flawed. It was a superficial plastering of a wound that continued to fester.

In the aftermath we threw out the baby with the bath water. We no longer want to talk about forgiveness and reconciliation because we saw both values modelled in their infancy. The rewards we expected did not come soon enough. So we’ve done away with it: the phrases have become démodé.

But the process of forgiveness is enormous and complex. We cannot plumb its depths in just 20 years. And at this stage in our national conversation, when we’re talking about uncomfortable truths and rejecting the solutions of those before us, we dare not leave it out of the debate.

To reject forgiveness wholesale and its aim of reconciliation is foolish in the extreme. We can have far more honest conversations than we have had. We can talk about difficult resolutions. But we cannot forget or deny this most basic of human values.

We need to live in hope
I remember having dozens of conversations with friends of colour – particularly black women – at university about the racism we experienced at the hands of our white peers. In our dining halls, at our churches, we’d cringe as people who we thought we knew would forget our names, ask us incredibly ignorant questions or just flat out ignore us.

When some of these white peers started trying to fix things and worked hard at racial integration we resented the superficiality of it. We found their attempts trite and patronising. But one day one of my friends had a revelation.

“Of course it’s superficial for now,” she said. “Stitching together a wound always is at first. But in time the flesh will cleave together again, and we won’t need those stitches any more.”

We need to live in hope that that day will come for our country, even as we have our difficult conversations.