Thursday, May 29, 2008

Xenophobia is what Verwoed wanted!

I said I wouldn't. But I will. Talk about these issues some more.

A facebook friend posted this link -
So its official. South Africans really do hate foreigners. Why is this a problem and why should it bother you if you are a South African?
Well, first there's the obvious one of "During the struggle the neighbouring countries welcomed refugees and exiles and gave them shelter. The 'beloved country' wouldn't be what it is if it wasn't for them." I'm going to discount that as irrelevant (even tho it obviously is relevant) only because, as I mentioned before, there is an ongoing tendency, from the government, to be talking about the past, the "lest we forget" mantra. Lets assume we have forgotten. Lets assume that we won't need their reciprocity if anything ever goes drastically wrong here again and ordinary folk are forced to go and seek refuge abroad. Lets assume that it doesn't matter. We are an island, we want to stay that way. "This is our country. Keep out".

Lets talk about ubuntu, that other much bandied word. Ubuntu. To be human. Humanity, compassion. What the Buddhists would call karuna, maybe. We need compassion. I'd go so far as to say its a biological imperative. Studies show that acts of kindness, giving, etc actually show up as having positive effects in the brain, with release of good chemicals or whatever. But the other thing about being human is that we are subject to stress, and prolonged stress of the kind that the majority of the so-called poorest of the poor are subject to makes people behave badly. We may not like to see people burning to death by neighbour-inflicted flames - but my sense is "never say never". Until you (oh UN official, oh WTO policy maker) have really felt the absolute stress of not knowing what to feed your child, how to feed your child, when you will ever be able to feed your child, whether you will be able to feed your child AT ALL today) you simply are not able to judge. The same goes for you, oh wealthy goldgrubbing South African. Its not a moral issue - its just simple - if you have not felt this, you don't have it in your experience, you can't condemn. However chilling it may look to you.

Lets remember our history. Our real, far back history, the origins stories that are as old as the rolling hills of Qunu. I'm talking the old stories, before Nongqawuse and her visions. Before the slaughter of the cattle, before the coming of the white man and his white flapping sails. Before David Dullard wrote his silly Sunday column that implied Africans love a good bloodfest. Where are those stories? Sometimes I think that South Africa's colonisers did a really good job of rubbing these out.

When I was travelling around Zambia collecting histories for the Ceremony! book (more on this later) there were several fascinating things I observed.
Fascinating thing number 1: Origins stories are political. Its amazing, the "we were here first" stories and how they vary from region to region, chief to chief. Aside from a massive DNA lineage project there is probably no way of ever getting the true version - and who cares? Its the stories that are interesting. Its the way there are similarities in language and ritual and oral histories wherever you go on the subcontinent. The way the links crop up, merge and drift away again. The root words, trade words. You say manzi, I say maji. You say njovu I say ndlovu. An ndebele-speaking visitor to Jeppe street might not know the elbow word, but dig deep enough and there are going to be ancestral commonalities, of that you can be sure. SO: the colonial project of erasing histories was an effective one, but it wasn't only the white colonisers who did this. A strong chief moving into a new area and defeating the people who live there, or intermarrying, etc, will eventually retell the histories of "the people of this land" to support his/her version.
Which brings us to fascinating thing number 2: origins stories are economic - ie they are about land claims. We were here first. Of course the apartheid regime were masters of this, which is why pupils in white south african schools were quite literally taught that their forefathers had arrived in an empty country and the bantu people arrived at more or less the same time and didn't have any original prior claim to the beloved country.
Fascinating thing number 3 is that somehow the biological imperative of genetics comes into these stories so strongly. One genetic line pushes its story as a dominant narrative, while another family tries to assert its own story as the truth. So many oral histories are about disputed heritage rights. The chief who was overthrown and his nephew took the throne. The need to defend your own line.
So we got politics, access to resources, and genetics.
The three oft cited claims of the xenophobic are:
"they are here to steal our wives" - they are from 'elsewhere' and are "impure". [genetics]
"they take our food/jobs/houses" - [economics]
"they do crime / corrupt our culture / we don't understand them /they must go back to where they come from." [to my mind this last is about power, and politics]

What does all this have to do with Verwoed?
When Maggie was here visiting from Zambia and witnessed first hand some of the disdain that her foreign accent earned her, she was mystified. Hospitable lass that she is - she works in a safari camp for goodness sake. She understands the imperatives of tourism - she couldn't understand this.
"Its ignorance," I said. People in this country really don't know much about what lies beyond our borders. The previous regime wanted it so.

For those of you who may not know much about BE (Bantu Education) I'm going to give you a little refresher.
Verwoed said: "to equip the Bantu to meet the demands which economic life will impose upon him... What is the point of teaching a Bantu child mathematics when it [sic] cannot use it in practice?... Education must train and teach people in accordance with their opportunities in life."
The system was expertly designed to make people just literate enough to become labourers but not enough to become critical thinkers. And of course volleys of indoctrination, rote method learning, etc. We shall not teach them about their African neighbours. We shall not teach them about their past. It wasn't about neglect, mind you. Yes, black schools were under-resourced, but there was detailed machination behind the madness.

Those white Seffricans who are tired of hearing that apartheid is responsible for the country's ills (yes you know who you are) I'm sorry to say it - our education system is still shocking. Well, there are two education systems in this country and the one for the majority [read poor] of people is still very much afflicted by Verwoed's cleverness. Teachers trained in that regime are still in our schools! Its sad to say, but Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi [my only real comparitive ref points] have much more effective literacy training at primary school level than SA schools, and on the whole have better capacity to produce critical thinkers. Those of us who have battled to make an impact in PDA (previously disadvantaged) schools will know that as fast as you train teachers they die or change careers. That you can put books in schools but if the teachers can hardly read (no I am not joking) then they will be ashamed to use those books in the classroom.

As the good poet said "If you know your history, then you will know where you are coming from..." the same goes for geography. and economics. and genetics. and logic.

So lets go back to those accusations:
The foreigners are stealing our wives / polluting our genepool? ... biologists know that a mixed gene pool is a healthy gene pool. And, sorry, but the last time I checked, women were allowed to choose who they might marry in this country.
The foreigners take our houses/jobs... Can we not flip this on its head - foreigners are bringing new skills and education into this country. Including an entrepreneurial spirit (god that's hard to spell) that should be contagious.... many of the outside folk have started their own businesses in the informal sector. Take note, take example...
The foreigners corrupt our culture? dear fellow South Africans, show me a pure culture and I will show you a dead culture!!! Trace your roots. Did you know that totems exist in Uganda that are identical to totems in Zambia? Meaning that people migrated back and forth for centuries, trading, marrying, settling, packing up again and leaving. Leaving calling cards of words, rituals, seeds and cultivating practices? This was a continent of traders and exchangers loooong before Mr van Riebeek and Mr Livingstone and their milky followers came here. That is eXACtly why the hospitality code was so important. You gotta give shelter to your mother's people. Next month it will be you.
You wanna break the chains of white man's domination? Welcome your brother and find out how their journey was. Who knows when you will need to travel that journey yourself. Share your knowledge, your stories, your histories, your origins. Verwoed's lies are exACTly about keeping you cut off and stranded from a continent of family, humanity, origins. Apartheid was defeated because ordinary South Africans refused to let their ubuntu be destroyed by evil.
And now?

Now its time for you to shut up, white girl.

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