OPINION: We are one

24 September 2015 - 20:33 By Heather Robertson
Clans, culture, life experiences and accepting one another’s differences . . . these issues are what our heritage is all about, say Nelson Mandela Bay residents and visitors.
Clans, culture, life experiences and accepting one another’s differences . . . these issues are what our heritage is all about, say Nelson Mandela Bay residents and visitors.
Image: The Herald

It is well over two decades since our loveable national conscience, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, proclaimed South Africans as a rainbow people of God, affirming for the first time the rich cultural diversity that makes us South African.

The late socialist activist and intellectual Dr Neville Alexander posed a less Christian, more indigenous metaphor to create a narrative of who we are.

He used the metaphor of all our identities being tributaries flowing into one great river, The Gariep (The Orange River).

Writing in his essay: “Language Politics in South Africa”, Alexander said he chose The Gariep as a metaphor because it is dynamic, which “gets us away from the sense of unchanging, eternal and God-given identities”.

“For this reason,” he continues, “it is appropriate for the transitional period in which we are living, any one tributary might flow more strongly than the others, that new streamlets and springs come into being and add their drops to this or that tributary, even as others dry up and disappear; above all, it represents the decisive notion that the mainstream is constituted by the confluence of all the tributaries ... that no single current dominates, that all the tributaries in their ever-changing forms continue to exist as such, even as they continue to constitute and reconstitute the mainstream.”

Both metaphors – the priest’s rainbow and the intellectual’s river – offer us much more inclusive and complex ways of seeing ourselves as a nation, compared to the divisive definitions of black, white, coloured and Indian assimilated into our 21st century discourse from the crude apartheid lexicon.

President Nelson Mandela in his first month of office, built on Tutu’s rainbow concept when he proclaimed: “Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

Thabo Mbeki, when he was deputy president, embraced every strand of humanity that has sewn itself into the South African social fabric with his famous “I am an African” speech at the adoption of The Republic of South Africa Constitution Bill on May 8 1996.

In his definition of African, he started with the San and Khoi, Malay slaves who came from the East, British settlers, the warrior men and women that Hintsa and Sekhukhune led, Afrikaner peasants who endured concentration camps, and Indian and Chinese indentured labourers.

He said: “I am the child of Nongqause. I am he who made it possible to trade in the world markets in diamonds, in gold, in the same food for which my stomach yearns. The patriots that Cetshwayo and Mphephu took to battle, the soldiers Moshoeshoe and Ngungunyane taught never to dishonour the cause of freedom.”

Speaking if Indian and Chinese labourers he said:

“I come of those who were transported from India and China, whose being resided in the fact, solely, that they were able to provide physical labour, who taught me that we could both be at home and be foreign, who taught me that human existence itself demanded that freedom was a necessary condition for that human existence.”

Mbeki ended his speech saying: “The constitution whose adoption we celebrate constitutes an unequivocal statement that we refuse to accept that our Africaness shall be defined by our race, colour, gender or historical origins.”

I don’t think that I am alone in wondering why and how we allowed ourselves to move from such a beautifully poetic, culturally inclusive narrative into the cesspool of polarising crassness epitomised by xenophobic attacks on Somalian, Mozambican, Bangladeshi and Pakistani traders, Steve Hofmeyer’s and Julius Malema’s racist rants and President Jacob Zuma’s Zulu cultural chauvinism.

Our country sometimes feels like it is caught in a vice-grip of fear and loathing. with groups like Afriforum claiming criminal farm murders are racially inspired. This is spurred by the idiotic comments of jaded Afrikaans pop star Steve Hofmyer who says things like: “Blacks (God knows, probably not all of them, but most of those I observe) feel justified and 'entitled' in everything, from quotas-low matric marks to land rights-brutality”.

Yes, we have a culturally diverse heritage, but our people still feel the stabs of prejudice and mutual suspicion that more than over 400 years of colonisation has imposed on our national psyche. And the anger is that much more pronounced when the economy is weak, jobs are scarce and the easiest people to blame are those who seem to have more.

So what heritage do we celebrate when the great economic divide tears our rainbow into pieces and stems the flow of our Great Gariep?

As an assignment for Heritage Day on Thursday, Siyamtanda Capa, an NMMU journalism student intern at The Herald and Weekend Post, was tasked with speaking to a random selection of Nelson Mandela Bay metro residents about how they define themselves and what they view as their heritage.

What was striking about their replies was that nobody defined themselves according to any apartheid-era racial category.

People defined themselves according to their Xhosa tradition or clan lineage, one young man described himself as a “free spirit”, others described themselves as South Africans or Africans from different descents, be it British, Chinese, Indian or Kenyan.

Women in particular defined themselves according to their roles as mothers, daughters, wives and caregivers, while even others defined themselves according to their religious belief and their love of braai-ing, cricket and rugby. Not a single one of them defined themselves according to the pigmentation of their skin.

Perhaps it is in these honest reflections of deep self-worth and pride in being all the rich textures that make us human, that our redemption as a nation lies.

Yes, we are living in tough times, surviving the struggles of the economic downturn and the loss of confidence in our politicians that corruption, cadre deployment, incompetence and the jostling for power and positions has incurred.

But we are the living heritage of our inclusive constitution. It is in the honest endeavours of our daily lives that we continue the next chapter of the narrative that Archbishop Tutu, Neville Alexander, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki started.

We are the rainbow. We are the Gariep. We are Africans. And we have the power to create a better city, country and continent.

We are our better tomorrow.

- Heather Robertson is editor of the PE Herald: http://www.heraldlive.co.za/