Skin deep: Is conflict still inevitable between colours and races?

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Who cares about race when the team is winning? Black and white players in South Africa’s Springboks celebrate their win over Argentina in Port Elizabeth last month in the Rugby Championship opener  (Photo: EPA)

THE past week’s events in the United States and Germany add fuel to a perennial question: What is a nation’s true nature, behind its outward veneer. What demons hide there, racial or otherwise? The relevance for South Africa is clear.

The US constitution posits a society with everyone equal before the law. Yet to President Donald Trump’s outrage, black American footballers refused to stand for the national anthem before a game, kneeling in front of thousands of spectators to protest police brutality towards blacks. For them, America is not what the anthem’s stirring words profess. Predictably, Trump roared publically in speeches and tweets that they must stand, or be “fired”. But they won’t.

Germany’s demons are emerging from the closet too, shown by dramatically increased support in last week’s federal elections for the far right, ultra-nationalistic party, Alternative for Germany, making it the Bundestag’s third largest party. It calls for Germans to stop feeling guilty for Nazi crimes, to honour Wehrmacht soldiers who served in World War Two, and to examine crimes of the Russian Revolution’s “Jewish murderers”. It has likened Muslim refugees and asylum seekers to “invaders” and expressed understanding for a right-wing nationalist’s mass murder in Norway.

Since the War and the Holocaust, Germany has resolutely presented itself as an enlightened democracy. Does this shift to the right signal reversion to previous identities – anti-Islam, anti-black, anti-Jewish?

Turning to South Africa: Despite its history, it is doing relatively well on such issues. Last Sunday marked Heritage Day, when people across the spectrum of hues, languages, religions and ethnicities celebrated their diversity, with different groups donning traditional clothing, hairdos and other items. While politically the country is under assault by corrupt shenanigans of President Zuma and the Guptas, assisted by enablers such as auditing firm KPMG and PR agency Bell Pottinger, who stoke racial tensions, as a society it shows a remarkable degree of tolerance, even friendliness, among different groups. It is by no means perfect; racism and xenophobia are often expressed by individuals and politicians, but in the public domain they are generally slapped down as anti-South African.

Beneath the surface, racial tensions will take generations to solve – if ever. And the dynamics of race relations are more complicated than just black and white.

An excellent film in Afrikaans (with English subtitles) currently on circuit called Vaselinetjie, unpacks some of the fine nuances of what skin colour means, beyond the black-white labels. It portrays a young white-skinned girl’s anguish growing up in a poor Coloured village, reared by her Coloured ‘grandparents’, who is maliciously derided by school peers for being “too white.” At the school principal’s prodding, she is sent to a Johannesburg orphanage containing white kids. They regard her as white, but she never feels safe enough to reveal that her grandparents are Coloured, or how this situation came about. The veneer collapses when her grandparents attend a social event at the orphanage, leading friends she had trusted and loved to label her, contemptuously, as a “half-breed” – not white enough, nor black enough to fit in. She is shattered, but clings to the memory of her grandmother’s words: “G-d doesn’t make mistakes.”

What is it to be South African? White minorities – Afrikaners, English, Jews and others –  fear for their long-term future among the country’s huge black majority, still struggling with the racial legacy of its history. So do minorities like the Coloureds.

Racial demons lurk everywhere despite grand proclamations of liberal constitutions, including Trump’s America’s or Merkel’s Germany. Is South African society far enough down the road of multiracial tolerance to stay on track?

There are good and bad signs. But mischievous politicians scratching the wound for expedient ends could easily sabotage the idealistic “rainbow nation” project once again.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

  • Read a review of the film Vaselinetjie by arts critic Robyn Sassen 

 

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Master stories and their multiple virginities

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Stories are slippery things: Who tells the real story of South Africa? Is it politicians like President Zuma, whose people spread smears about contenders like Cyril Ramaphosa? Or a homeless man in Johannesburg, one of 30 million South Africans living in poverty?

NIGERIAN poet and novelist Ben Okri wasn’t referring specifically to South Africa when he wrote: “To poison a country, poison its stories… A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves.” But he might as well have been, if measured by the toxicity pervading our body politic today.

As the ANC’s December conference to elect a new president approaches, rumours are heard that powerful politicians fearful of losing control might create such chaos, it would be aborted. The “poisoners” of this nation propagate carefully-timed smears such as the supposed extra-marital affairs of presidential contender Cyril Ramaphosa, with objectives so obvious that a child could see through them: Can you trust a politician who has an affair (even if Ramaphosa has admitted to one several years ago)? Previous ominous smears have said opposition to the ANC is a western plot for “regime change” rather than democracy at work. Or that former public protector Thuli Madonsela who revealed the curse of state capture, was a CIA agent.

But politicians will be politicians. Okri also said: “The magician and the politician have much in common: they both have to draw our attention away from what they are really doing.” The next few months will be a roller-coaster of magician-like, dirty tricks as President Jacob Zuma fights Ramaphosa’s rising popularity.

Not only South Africa lives in almost surreal times; it is everywhere. No-one knows what to believe, as fake news goes viral through Twitter and Facebook. Historians fifty years down the line will try, with the benefit of hindsight, to penetrate the fog. But even historians always differ on the “real” story.

This week marked the sixteenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre. A moving memorial and museum containing names of the 3000 people killed was created at Ground Zero. But that story is far from finished or understood. Will future historians call it the beginning of the Third World War? Or the West’s wakening to the scourge of terrorism from which even America was not immune, and the beginning of the fightback? Or the grossness of powerful politicians whose reactions created more hatred and chaos rather than less.

Stories are told differently as events recede. Barney Simon, icon of South African theatre and co-founder of Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, whose craft was story-telling, remarked: “A story has a thousand virginities.”

What does this mean? On the street, for example, immigrants to this country from Eastern Europe or elsewhere – such as Jews, Italians, Greeks and other communities, some of them refugees – often arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s with nothing but a suitcase and a story. Many were unable to even speak the language. Forced to reinvent themselves, their families now tell stories of resourcefulness and success – within a generation many children of these people were educated professionals. The same can be said for many later immigrants from the Congo, Somalia, Nigeria and other African countries, many of whom have established businesses and enterprises small and large.

So, are the master stories South Africans are telling about themselves, healthy or poisoned? Is it still triumph over apartheid and inspirational attempts by blacks and whites on the ground to overcome racism? Or the epic of great reconciler Nelson Mandela which made us the darlings of the world – though some young people call him a “sellout” for negotiating with the apartheid government to avert a civil war? Or a tale of intense disappointment at the country’s decline to junk status economically, socially and politically so soon after the Mandela euphoria? Stats SA says one in two South Africans – about 30 million people – live under the poverty line, more than ever before. Is this fixable, and who can do it?

It is not clear whether this country will drown in its poisonous stories, or negotiate the current mess and thrive heroically in its healthy ones. Okri never gave us a crystal ball.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

Sick men hold the doomsday nuclear button

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Does the world’s fate lie in the hands of psychologically sick people? Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un? Psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud might have revealed some startling facts

SIGMUND Freud is probably frowning in his grave while world citizens watch despairingly the rising momentum towards nuclear war between the United States and North Korea, driven by politicians holding nuclear buttons he would have had much to say about. Two at least are psychologically dysfunctional.

US president Donald Trump, wanting to appear smarter than everyone, throws tantrums when anyone disagrees; North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in total control of his people and military, wants to appear more macho than everyone – a gang leader daring others to take him on. North Korea is “begging for war” says US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley.

Freud, a neurologist who founded psychoanalysis, was born to Jewish parents in Austria. He fled to London in 1938, aged 82, to escape the Nazis. His secular Jewish identity influenced his intellectual and moral outlook, and psychoanalysis’s rationalist values.

Can religion and rationality reconcile? Last week, an eminent Orthodox rabbinical delegation representing 90 per cent of the Orthodox Jewish world met with the Pope, presenting the document Between Jerusalem and Rome, calling on Catholics and other faith communities “to assure the future of religious freedom, to foster the moral principles of our faiths, particularly the sanctity of life and the significance of the traditional family,” and to strengthen the “moral and religious conscience.”

It marked the five-decade anniversary of the radical 1965 Vatican statement Nostra Aetate, devised by Pope Paul VI to guide Catholics in relations with non-Christian communities, heralding a sea change in attitudes towards Jews and denouncing anti-Semitism and treatment of Jews as the people who had rejected the Messiah. Pope Francis said Nostra Aetate “represented the Magna Carta of the Church’s dialogue with the Jewish world.” Despite irreconcilable theological differences, the Church and Jews were trying rationally to construct a better world together, “blessed with peace, social justice and security.”

Freud had a “rationalist” approach to morality, evoking scepticism among religious leaders about psychoanalysis. But the thread of psychoanalysis runs through many places. Pope Francis admitted recently to a French sociologist and author of an upcoming book that he regularly consulted a female Jewish psychoanalyst in the 1970s in his native Argentina when he was 42 and working as a Jesuit official. “She helped me a lot,” the Italian newspaper La Stampa quoted him as saying.

He said people with straitjacket points of view bother him, even singling out “rigid priests… It’s a form of fundamentalism… Whenever I run into a rigid person, especially if young, I tell myself that he’s sick… in reality, they are persons looking for security.”

Although the Catholic Church used to mistrust psychoanalysis and other forms of therapy, it has softened on the subject. Vatican guidelines applied in seminaries training future priests, today appreciate psychologists’ help in assessing candidates’ suitability.

Coincidentally, tensions between faith and rationality are superbly portrayed in a play currently running in Johannesburg directed by Alan Swerdlow, entitled Freud’s Last Session. It portrays an imagined fierce conversation between an old, sick Freud approaching death from mouth cancer, and CS Lewis, a much younger Oxford professor of literary scholarship and firm believer in Christianity and G-d. In the argument between these two great intellectuals, Freud claims morality itself is something brainwashed into people by their parents. When his cancer becomes too much to bear, he will commit suicide. Lewis protests that only G-d gives life and only He can take it away.

Whatever one thinks of Freud and Lewis, rationality and faith, one thing is certain: Some of the leaders the world has mistakenly put into the most powerful positions on earth, could do with serious interventions, whether rational or faith-based. Untold millions of people could die if these men’s pathologies are given free rein.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )