I recently received some correspondence from a virtual friend here in South Africa that I haven’t had a chance to meet yet, asking me my perspectives on the “rainbow nation”, etc. I’m still quite new here, and thus quite hesitant regarding offering my own answers to this nation’s challenges, but I suppose it’s time to put some of my thoughts about this matter into essay form, in part to see for myself what I think.
What are the responsibilities of the living for the injustices perpetrated by previous generations? What form of justice should be determinant over matters of private property when much of the original property claims for certain families and companies stem from fortunes made through theft and immoral abuse of other human beings? What claims to ancestral homeland and thereby priority in governmental affairs can be accorded to various groups on the basis of skin color in particular? How much should religious beliefs be taken as markers of ethnic identity and loyalty, and thereby indicators of one’s “proper place” within the social power structure? How far can societies play “what if” games regarding the sorts of cultures they would have had were it not for colonialist atrocities? To what extent do education systems need to be “de-colonialized” in order to take into account the interests and needs of those who have been historically oppressed? And perhaps most importantly, what practical measures can be implemented which might serve not to take revenge on the descendents of the oppressors, but to genuinely empower the descendents of the oppressed?
As such things can never be discussed from a position of absolute objectivity, I should start by laying my cards on the table, so to speak. I cannot deny that my perspectives relate to the fact that I am a white male Protestant Christian, nor that I am from lower middle class roots, that I am relatively highly educated, that I have spent most of my life as an expatriate, and that my academic specialty has been “values subjects” within the humanities. For those that don’t know me I should unpack these factors just a bit further.
My Dutch roots on both sides of my family come from people who left their homeland with basically the clothes on their backs and perhaps just a little bit of money to buy some cheap homesteading land in the United States. The only non-white, non-Christian people they knew before emigrating were Jews who were starting to move into the small towns they came from, and Gypsies who passed through on occasion. They were all basic laborers; not capitalist power brokers, industrialists, major land owners or slave keepers of any sort. Their greatest sin, if it can be taken as such, was gross ignorance and some consequent prejudice regarding the exotic peoples from outside their realm of experience. Their main concerns were to maintain the honor of the cultural and religious values which they had been taught and to keep their children alive, both with limited success. Over the course of the next four generations these families went from not being able to speak any English when the census takers came around to their descendents not being able to speak anything but English. Something was probably lost in that process, but no one can be sure what.
Christianity of various sorts has been an important part of my family history. When children died of disease or were left orphaned because their parents died young of disease the church played a major role in providing the comfort that kept the family going. Then in my own immediate family, when the crisis of divorce hit, it was to a different branch of Christianity that my mother in particular was able to turn for help. Thus while I regret many of the power struggles and abuses of power committed in the name of Christianity, from my own personal perspective the more important matter is appreciating the message of God’s mercy, and passing that forward to others. And for that reason I continue to identify myself as a believing Christian.
But some of these aspects of identity run fairly thin for me in many senses, in that I’ve spent much of my life isolated from the culture that I grew up in. Instead I’ve learned to marginally blend in wherever in the world I find myself. An important part of that experience was the years I spent as a foreign student in the University of Helsinki, serving as part of the local support organizations for foreign students. Then from there this cosmopolitan identity was further reinforced by my becoming a teacher in some of Finland’s finest international schools. Rather than seeing questions of “us vs. them” as absolutes to do our bargaining on the basis of, I have come to see these social boundaries as indications of what sorts of spice of life I can hope to gain from the various types of individuals I encounter. I have taken it as part of my mission from there to help students and immigrants –– both of which I find myself perpetually identified as –– to overcome cultural misunderstandings and prejudices as much as possible, without feeling as though they are betraying their personal identities or ancestral heritage in the process.
That’s me, in very broad brush strokes. So how does that make me feel about the “rainbow nation” I now find myself in? I guess I should say both uneasy and optimistic. I see many levels of social disparity that I am not entirely comfortable with, some attitudes that seem impossible to fix and some people still being treated as disposable; yet I also see young people caring about education, artists and writers digging deep into questions of core human values, and people stopping to be friendly to each other and to strangers regardless of skin color. I don’t want to pretend that problems here don’t exist, or pretend that I can see easy solutions to them, but I firmly believe that a “liberal” perspective can continue to move this country forward. This puts me somewhat in opposition to my “black conscious” academic virtual friend, who has quoted Steve Biko’s rejection of white liberalism to me:
The problem is white racism and rests squarely on the laps of the white society. The sooner the liberals realize this, the better for us blacks. Their presence amongst us is irksome and of nuisance value. (From page 72 of the Biko anthology, “I Write What I Like”)
As much as I respect the intellectual courage and integrity that Biko was willing to die for, I disagree with this perspective on a number of grounds. The most important aspect of the quote itself, and the intent of students quoting it these days, is to look to the past, as though restoring some ideal state of affairs in some mythical golden age –– before the onset of some current perversion of the natural order of things –– would be the means by which to put an end to all of the ills and sufferings of the present. In this sense Biko’s modern day disciples and other black consciousness advocates seem to share the same self-defeating mentalities as the American “Tea Party” movement, the various incarnations of Al Qaeda, militant Zionism and a host of other problematic forms of conservativism. In the case of the black consciousness movement this means trying to restore African culture to a pre-colonial state of affairs, as though the world was a paradise here 500 years ago, and if only we could return things to the way they were in that time period everything would be OK for all of the poor abused black Africans.
In taking liberal opposition to such a perspective I by no means want to deny the reality of historical injustices nor sweep them under the carpet. My hope for the future would rather lie in A) looking for forward-looking rather than nostalgic, backward-looking solutions to the problems that face our societies; B) not resorting to dehumanizing other people, regardless of their parties’ historic guilt or debts to others; and C) operating on the assumption that regardless of a person’s gender or racial, cultural or religious background that person should not be stereotyped with regard to personality, capabilities or competence –– believing that all people are capable of learning to cope and relate to each other in better, more functional ways, regardless of how badly their tribes have screwed up in the past.
Besides the impracticality and naiveté implied in an attempt to turn the clock back, there are a few things about the black consciousness movement as it has been presented to me that I find problematic either morally or philosophically. To start with there is the rejection of “colonialism, imperialism, neocolonialism and settler minority regimes.” Aside from the fact that those phrases are rather loosely defined to encompass anything or anyone that disadvantaged black folk could be encouraged to blame their problems on (sometimes justifiably, other times less so), this comes across as a recipe for racial scapegoating and economic isolationism. The last thing Africa in general and South Africa in particular needs at this point in history is to be cut off from the rest of the world economically. It was the pressure of economic sanctions from the West that effectively brought the Apartheid system to its knees; and if the old elite power structure could not survive without economic cooperation with the rest of the world, there is really no way that an experimental all-black neo-Marxist regime might. For that matter South Africa’s current dependence on trade with the West is really no more sinister than the United States’ current dependence on trade with the Far East. But perhaps most troubling is the way that cries of “Africa for its indigenous peoples only!” echoes the neo-Nazi cries of “Germany for the German folk!” or “Russia for the Russians!” As I have blogged before, I am deeply opposed to hate-mongering in all its forms, regardless of how many historical grievances can be called up to justify it.
In addition to this we have the same problems here that we find associated with any proposed program of repatriation –– with examples ranging from movements for sending all of the former American slaves back to Africa, to those demanding the removal of all Protestant families of Scots descent from Northern Ireland. After 3 or 4 generations you really can’t meaningfully talk about these people having any other homeland. And this is to say nothing of the problems entailed in trying to apply such a program to those of mixed parentage, or those whose ancestors were hauled into the territory against their will centuries ago. In short, there are many types of non-indigenous South Africans, and making blanket condemnations and restrictions against all of them, as the black consciousness movement calls for, is both impractical and unjustifiable.
After that there are the concepts of forming a union between all indigenous Africans of all tribes and languages, and for these peoples together to enact “the complete socialist transformation of society.” This comes across as the most naïve form of utopian idealism possible. To start with, emphasizing tribal autonomy would seem to be a recipe for the Balkanization of existing African nations. On the assumption that mutual hatred for all non-indigenous folks could bring people of all tribes and indigenous cultures together, and they could succeed in removing all such “outsiders” from their traditional homelands, what would be left to hold them together after that? With all of the allegations and evidence of corruption among even the best of African governments, how could there possibly be enough trust to keep such a federation from dissolving into a bloody civil war? And attempting to organize the socialization of natural resources and infrastructure –– while attempting to be the first Marx-inspired government in history to have a genuine respect for individual human rights –– would compound these problems and risks exponentially.
Then there is the question of eliminating “colonialism in education”: assuming that the languages, religious/moral views and philosophical approaches to establishing factual “truth value” which were brought in by the former conquerors need to be expunged from the education system. To that I say, while there is certainly room to improve the respect accorded to traditional African wisdom and while academics should be working to preserve an understanding of and build an appreciation for traditional languages and ways of life, there also needs to be more to the education system than that. The highest priority should be to empower young people to take active and autonomous roles in the global economy and in global culture. That requires both practical skills –– learned in part from former imperial cultures –– and cross-cultural understanding for interacting as fruitfully as possible with those from outside of the students’ cultural backgrounds. In these respects an “anti-colonial” revolution in South Africa’s education system could do far more harm than good. One need go no further back than the “debate” over AIDS in this country 10 years ago, when the political elite rejected the “imperial” scientific view in favor of an embarrassing cocktail of traditional medical beliefs. Please, God, let that sort of debacle not be repeated here in the immediate future!
I could go on for many more pages responding to the texts I have been sent on this matter, but let me try to draw this to a close with some comments regarding what seems to be the black conscious take on Christianity. Christianity, in its early Renaissance form, was clearly part of the problem with European colonialism –– on that there is no question –– but there is something of a question of distinguishing “baby” from “bathwater” here that remains to be addressed. Writing about the views of the former president of Ghana and pan-African political hero Kwame Nkrumah, my friend comments on how Nkrumah turned from Catholicism to Marxism, and how a background in Christian teaching seems to be a shared factor among the vast majority of powerful indigenous political voices in Africa. In his political speeches Nkrumah made indirect reference to the Gospel’s admonitions regarding “the kingdom of God”, and in providing a background understanding on that –– quoting from unnamed sources –– my friend Ndumiso actually puts together a very agreeable account of the message of Jesus in this regard. According to his research then the “kingdom of God” referred to in the Bible,
… is the imperative to face the challenge to change human relations here on earth in such a radical manner that new human relations devoid of all the consequences of sin emerge. […] “Sin is regarded as a social, historical fact, the absence of brotherhood and love in relationships among men, the breach of friendship with God and with other men, and, therefore, and interior personal fracture. …Sin is evident in oppressive structures, in the exploitation of man by man, in the domination and slavery of peoples, races and social classes.”
If we accept this as the definitive Christian understanding of mankind’s basic problem to be overcome (as I am quite willing to do) and if we take working towards the realization of the kingdom of God as the task of all Christian believers, this leads to two inescapable conclusions: 1) The European colonial project had nothing to do with the true message of Christianity. 2) The realization of the social ideal of “the kingdom of God” ––overcoming “the consequences of sin” –– is as noble a goal as any defender of Africa’s poor could possibly promote.
This is not to say that Christianity has been practiced as a European tradition in anything like the terms presented here. Those in greatest need of the Christian message may well be those who have used some warped version of it to promote their own selfish and ethno-centric agendas. Many who have claimed to be Christians seem to have adhered far more closely to the teachings of Machiavelli than to the teachings of Jesus. This sinfulness continues to be evident here every day, in the form of all of the white “bakkies” (or pickups, as I still think of them) going down the streets with white drivers in front and a load of poor black laborers and their tools in the rear. Quite obviously “brotherhood and love in relationships” has a long way to go before it reaches a point where we can speak of it as having been restored. All I am saying is that Christianity –– practiced as its founder intended –– should be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
The European conquistadors of the Renaissance period got as far as they did by borrowing sea faring technology from the Vikings and Arabs, philosophical ideas from the Greeks, military tactics from the ancient Romans, explosives from the Chinese, and monotheistic religious practices from a former Jewish sect. They adapted all of these to their own needs, keeping none of these skills in the same form in which they inherited them. This made them technically but not morally superior to those they conquered, but that distinction was lost on most of them. It would be many centuries before they started to realize that the old doctrine of “might makes right” really wasn’t sustainable. Many still haven’t realized that this to this day… but in all fairness, neither have most non-Western indigenous peoples. So rather than having piles of pots and kettles calling each other black (and please excuse the analogy’s problem of blackness being a seen as a bad thing), we need to have come together and find better bases for recognizing our basic brotherhood, regardless of all of our little differences. That may be the Christian way, but it is still the right way.