A Quiet Street in Suburbia

14 12 2010

A few weeks ago, I visited a friend to a black suburb, not terribly far from my home.  I was immediately struck by a sense of freedom.  I breathed deeply  in an effort to experience it fully and, perhaps, save some for later.  It was a few minutes before I realized what it was unique about the neighborhood, causing these feelings.

I scanned the street.  There were no fences or gates, only a door onto a lawn.  There were open doors onto open sidewalks.  There were warm streetlights and pedestrians strolling around—at night!  There were empty lots filled with green grass instead of dirt and glass and rubbish.  My soul breathed.

For the first time, I realized explicitly the effect of the constraints that are an everyday part of life in South Africa.  White areas are clean, but protected from danger like compounds.  In a squatter camp, rubbish is everywhere and you must constantly look over your shoulder.  In Kwanagxaki, at least on this street on this night, I felt liberated, and my soul rested for a brief moment.

 

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Thoughts on Separation, Safety, and Social Justice

19 04 2010

Excerpt from Cry, the Beloved Country: A father reads an essay written by his recently murdered son.

(historico-cultural word choice may be objectionable.)

“It is hard to be born a South African.  One can be born an Afrikaner, or an English-speaking South African, or a coloured man, or a Zulu.  One can ride, as I rode when I was a boy, over green hills and into great valleys.  One can see, as I saw when I was a boy, the reserves of the Bantu people and see nothing of what was happening there at all.  One can hear, as I heard when I was a boy, that there are more Afrikaners than English-speaking people in South Africa, and yet know nothing, see nothing, of them at all.  One can read, as I read when I was a boy, the brochures about lovely South Africa, that land of sun and beauty sheltered from the storms of the world, and feel pride in it and love for it, and yet know nothing about it at all.  It is only as one grows up that one learns that there are other things here than sun and gold and oranges.  It is only then that one learns of the hates and fears of our country.  It is only then that one’s love grows deep and passionate, as a man may love a woman who is true, false, cold, loving, cruel, and afraid.

I was born on a farm, brought up by honourable parents, given all that a child could need or desire.  They were upright and kind and law-abiding; they taught me my prayers and took me regularly to church; they had no trouble with servants and my father was never short of labour.  From them I learned all that a child should learn of honour and charity and generosity.  But of South Africa, I learned nothing at all.”

The father is stung by these words, pauses, protests, mourns, and is compelled to continue.

“Therefore I shall devote myself, my time, my energy, my talents, to the service of South Africa.  I shall no longer ask myself if this or that is expedient, but only if it is right.  I shall do this, not because I am noble or unselfish, but because life slips away, and because I need for the rest of my journey a star that will not play false to me, a compass that will not lie.  I shall do this, not because I am a Negrophile and a hater of my own, but because I cannot find it in me to do anything else.  I am lost when I balance this against that, I am lost when I ask if this is safe.  I am lost when I ask if men, white men or black me, Englishmen or Afrikaners, Gentiles or Jews, will approve.  Therefore I shall try to do what is right, and to speak what is true.

I do this not because I am courageous and honest, but because it is the only way to end the conflict of my deepest soul.  I do it because I am no longer able to aspire to the highest with one part of myself, and to deny it with another.  I do not wish to live like that, I would rather die than live like that.  I understand better those who have died for their convictions, and have not thought it was wonderful or brave or noble to die.  They died rather than live, that was all.

Yes, it would not be honest to pretend that it is solely an inverted selfishness that moves me.  I am moved by something that is not my own, that moves me to do what is rights, at whatever cost it may be….”

——-

In post-apartheid Cape Town, there is a lingering and now cemented separation, an inevitable yet unchallenged result of the policies of separation.

Like any modern city, Cape Town is a study in contrasts.  A cursory glance reveals the swarthy European Southern Suburbs, with its shopping malls, razor-wired gates and ADT protection; the swimming, muddied and sotted bars and clubs of Long St., swarming with tourists and laced with beggars; the harsh, sandy, fire-prone townships of seedy roofs and tin shebeens.

Every day, men and women wake up on different sides of the city to rise and stumble into the bathroom in preparation for the day.  They slap cool water around the curves of their face, blink the sleepiness out of their eyes and look out the bathroom window at what must be the most stunning and majestic city on the face of the earth.  Table Mountain, peeks up out of a bed of clouds and smiles at the crashing, crushing waves of ocean at every edge of the compass.  Patches of fynbos frame the wayward slopes all the way to Cape Point, where the baboons bounce about and bully tourists.  Up and out.  Up and out.  And then back, back, back…turning from the omnipresent, ageless beauty, back in the bathroom, each must return to her life, to look himself in the mirror.

An army of domestic servants fills the train at the east of the city every morning around five a.m., determined to destroy and dismantle every soiled cloth and sullied corner in some distant house in the suburbs.  The same army returns in the evening to the dirt floors and rusty, corrugated metal of home.  Every day of the week, servants of Philanthropy and Humanitarianism load into white mini vans and VW Beetles to volunteer in schools, orphanages, and medical clinics, full of goodwill and good feeling, confident in the efficacy and legitimacy of their contribution.  These same speedily return with a vague but thankful regret, to walls of brick, floors of marble, and kitchen appliances of shiny metal.  These cultures interact only briefly, superficially, ocean waves resting ephemerally on the shore before retreating back to status quo.

Pleas and please, don’t ride the train, don’t walk at night, please, please.  you can’t go there, do that, be like that.  make sure the alarm is on, lock the gate.  don’t look, don’t give, don’t.  please, don’t be naïve, you’ll get used to it, it’s just the WAY THINGS ARE, please…

——-

I understand too little and judge too quickly.  I make a lousy judge at that, a person of privilege from a privileged culture.  For all the ways that I do feel courageous and honest, brave and noble, Lord, help me.  I am fresh off the plane, a neophyte in comprehension, laboring to discern, decipher and find meaning.

I am no South African.  I did not grow up in the bush or love the veld.  But I know what it is to love truth and justice, to seek to dedicate, perhaps sacrifice one’s life to the idea.

The forces working against reconciliation here are strong.  Large among these is the mythology of violence.  Perpetuating this meta-narrative becomes the new justification for separation, which has famously proven a means for systematic group oppression.  It exacerbates the problem and proves self-fulfilling.  Whole communities are defined and imprisoned by the story.

Safety is often cited as a motivating priority for people’s action or lack of durable action.  It would be foolish to dismiss the high potential of violence or the legitimacy of concern.  Nonetheless, the driving question must be whether the outcome is worth the risks.  Why should people groups live apart?  Where will liberation come from?  How will justice and transformation be enacted?  Is it too much to ask for the Kingdom now?