Our past is haunting us and our youth: iLIVE
Shortly after the closing of the TRC Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu said “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. If you don’t know about your country, you don’t know the history; then you don’t know very much that is important in your life.
You have to know about the TRC because it made a very important contribution to how we are able to live together reasonably harmoniously. Unfortunately bygones, don’t infect the bygones, we don’t have the power to nullify them, to say ‘bygones be gone!’ and they go – they don’t go. They return almost always to haunt us” (IJR – Truth, Justice and Reconciliation DVD, An Introduction)
On 16 June we celebrate Youth Day in South Africa and while we have much to be proud of, there is little reason to rejoice in our reconciled nation when our 15- to 34-year-olds South African youths are known as the ‘lost generation’.
Challenges such as high unemployment rates, a failing education system, as well as high levels of crime are our reality – too harsh to ignore. As alarming as these challenges may be, they often distract from another major concern – the lack of our youth’s knowledge about their own country’s history and the importance of reconciliation.
Many will declare that addressing the current backlogs in the schooling system and youth unemployment are far more urgent issues than sharing history 18 years after apartheid. The youth themselves prefer to move on rather than to reflect on the past.
This was well-reflected during the focus group discussions conducted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) in 2011, when most of the 16 to 24 year old participants indicated that it is time to move on and that apartheid and racism are past issues. The South African Reconciliation Barometer 2011 data also confirms that regardless of race, almost 70% of youth say they want to forget about the past and just get on with life.
The participants of the focus groups disliked the fact that racism exists and denied being racist themselves. In contrast, their use of language indicated apprehension and dislike for other race groups and policies such as the employment equity act – as an outdated legacy of the past.
The trend of using discriminatory language seems to permeate in the interaction and communication when discussing the topic of race relations. Social media platforms have become the battlefields of emotions and opinions about race and ‘the other’.
The recent Twitter incident, when South Africans models Jessica Leandra Dos Santos and Tshidi Tshamana made racist comments is one example among a few. The racist comment by the one triggered a racist reaction by the other. Both were young children when apartheid ended, yet they have inherited the perceptions and attitudes of their parents’ generation towards race, probably fuelled by their own experience and perception.
The past, which has haunted us, is now beginning to catch up to us and our younger generation, not only in the sobering socio-economic picture of inequality but also in our lack of ability to talk to each other.
Another disturbing racial incident which also dominated local social media occurred a few weeks back, when an email was circulated sharing the angry comments made by a young person ranting about his fellow students. “.... Arrogant f**king swines, and I will make it my facebook status because I want them all to know” the tirade began, going on to display the commenter’s sense of superiority, based on his race:“You are all f**ked all without us Whites. You were still in your little mud huts. Go on if we owe you everything. We owe you shit! Expect everything for nothing and have the biggest attitudes I have ever come across.”
Although these comments are shocking the fact that the responses made were mostly of support and understanding seem even more horrifying to me. Even though most of the commenter’s friends did not use such expressive language, they too agreed and vented about their fellow students. A deep anger about other racial groupings’ behaviour on campus gave birth to protracted expression of frustration.
If those opinions are an accurate reflection of how many youngsters perceive the world around them, this implies that they have not found a way to encounter the ‘other’ in a manner that creates understanding. A lack of knowledge of the past and how past events have influenced South Africa as a nation today makes the comments and action of the youth understandable, but horrifying at the same time.
The topic of race and racism is complex especially in the South African context and so are the ideas and opinions about it. Many youngsters are just an echo of their parents’ generation without the depth and substance of understanding or the personal lived experience. These race related comments and opinions are then often mixed up with the current frustrations and fears – an explosive mix of emotion and loose talk.
Parents, teachers, communities and society at large have failed to help our young people understand that other race groups are just people that are different, and are not a threat. We, ourselves, have not learnt how to deal with issues appropriately so it is not surprising to most of us that our youth use racist language. Many times public debates reveal that we have not found ways to engage with each other constructively.
A culture that promotes conflict and shouting each other down rather than proactive dialogue, listening and engagement permeates through politics and media. The recent Spear artwork incident showed that when we see a picture we do not like, we proceed to destroy it, and similarly, if we feel offended by comments or behaviour, we shout back, shout louder. How can we expect the young generation to be different when so many adults fail to role-model reconciliatory behaviour? The lack of understanding of ‘the other’ and the ability to express criticism in productive and creative ways is something we have failed to teach our youth.
The South African Reconciliation Barometer is an annual nationally representative survey that measures the perceptions of adult South Africans regarding reconciliation. Six indicators namely, human security, political culture, cross-cutting political relationships, historical confrontation, race relations and dialogue, provide insights in how far perceptions have changed.
Conducted since 2003, to date the survey has not found significant differences in attitudes about reconciliation between young and older South Africans. However, this may begin to change as the ‘born free’ generation enters the survey sample. Economic inequality, political party membership and race are the top three perceived biggest divisions by South Africans.
The picture however is not totally bleak. There are also quite a few young people who choose to speak up and are trying to do better than their parents’ generation and better than some of their peers. The concluding comment to the above-mentioned Facebook vent was actually one of reason by a fellow student: “...with your respect, your status and consequent comments are riddled with generalizations and racist ideology. There is a difference between freedom of speech and hate speech. Your misguided views encroach on the dignity of an entire group of people, which shows your intolerance and arrogance. ...”
The recent response to the article ‘I’m a racist’ on the website thefridafactor.com by Joshua Henkeman on the blog Beneath the surface is another account of a young person who reflects and elaborates deeply. It gives reason for hope.
It seems there is not a shortage of young people with an opinion about race and reconciliation but instead, a lack of platforms and space to express themselves. The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation is pleased to launch, this Youth Day, an opportunity for young South Africans to share their stories of reconciliation. The Youth Arts Reconciliation Award titled ‘Coming of Age with South Africa.
(Y)our (hi)story of Reconciliation’ will be a platform for youth born in 1994 to express their realities about Reconciliation in their lives. Photography, canvas art and writing are the techniques they apply to showcases the topic. Discussion groups, media alerts and exhibitions will follow the submission of the work to encourage debate and open platforms. This award will be an opportunity to express their stories of reconciliation. For more information on how to participate and submit your work, go to www.ijr.org.za
When the former constitutional court judge and one of the pioneers of South Africa’s Constitution Albie Sachs prepared to receive IJR’s annual Reconciliation Award he said: “The task of reconciliation, it goes on and on. It is not as though you have achieved it at a certain moment. There are glorious periods like with the World Cup: we couldn’t have had the World Cup if it hadn’t been for these processes.
They laid a foundation, a framework in which it was possible for people to express spontaneous joy and happiness without feeling they are giving up on anything important. Now we are back to a kind very sobering reality and there is going to be lots of meanness in our society and this glorious spirit is going to be tarnished and weakened. But then we pick ourselves up again and we carry on forward.”
Taking our lead from Albie Sachs, it is clear the process of reconciliation must continue as a recipe for a more inclusive, fair and democratic society. And Youth Day provides a perfect moment to remember this.