“Only human” – the work of transformation (inner and economic)

anger-icebergSouth Africa’s  challenges of transformation continue to be immense. The country has among the world’s highest levels of both inequality, and long-term unemployment. Beneath these, as an extraordinary recent piece by Jay Naidoo powerfully reminds us,  is a perhaps even more daunting challenge – the inner work of becoming free of unconscious habits of mind conditioned by centuries of privilege and entitlement on the one hand, and disempowerment on the other.  Our failures to address effectively the inner challenges are wreaking havoc with civic discourses, not only in South Africa, but in many other places as well.  The result is that the economic challenges continue to fester, with rising risks of a downward spiral.

Along the road to South Africa’s liberation, Jay Naidoo (Jay, as he is known by all who have worked with him) has been the General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, a leader of the internal democratic resistance to apartheid (the United Democratic Front), the lead architect of the African National Congress’s Reconstruction and Development Plan, and a Minister in Nelson Mandela’s first Cabinet. In recent years, he has been a consistent voice for ethical, participatory inclusive activism – turning his back on a dysfunctional politics, and devoting his energies to developmental activism from within civil society.

Here is how he describes his personal inner challenge:

“I grew up in racist South Africa. I was angry. I was humiliated. I felt inferior. I was almost broken. I was defined as a non-white, an inferior person, in the lexicon of apartheid. The tragedy is that I indeed felt inferior to white people, just as many people of colour still feel, even today. I wanted either to fight those who were doing this to us, or to give up and drift on to the inevitable path of social delinquency that many hopeless souls seek so often…..And yet, a bigger part of me wanted to do neither of those things; instead I dreamt of changing the matrix, altering the system.”

As Steve Biko, putting it in the political language of the black consciousness movement, reminded us, the psychology of the oppressed and of the oppressor are two sides of the same coin:

In time we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift – a more human face….. As a prelude, whites must be made to realize that they are only human, not superior. The same with blacks. They must also be made to realize that they are also human, not inferior…..”

What does learning to be ‘only human, not superior’ entail? Jay tells this story:

“A few months ago I had to queue for my passport in Johannesburg. I love joining queues. You feel the pulse of the nation. With a great bunch of mainly young people (albeit all of colour), we were having an animated discussion on the state of the nation. One was a dancer who had trained in New York, another was a psychologist at Chris Hani Hospital and the other a personal banker at a major bank….A white woman just behind me, already an earful of complaints piercing our rich discussion, deliberately raises her voice, “This country is going to the dogs. I have flown from London to come and pick up my passport. You are hopelessly inefficient.”

At which point, not knowing better, but happy at the level of service, I said, “Well, madam, if you don’t like our country and believe all has gone to the dogs, why do you want a South African passport?”

If eyes could shoot daggers I would have been dead on the spot. Ignoring her, I went into the offices, continued my conversation with the earnest young people, and picked up my passport. As I was leaving I was surrounded by a group of white women she had mobilised, who, spewing vitriolic racial abuse, shouted:

“Go back to Bangladesh. Go and die there you f***king ***.”

These were middle-class whites. These were angry, affluent women in fancy cars. In South Africa, just scratch skin deep and the vile explodes.”

As a progressive ‘white’ person, I recoil at the way in which Jay was confronted. But I have come to understand that there’s no escaping the reality that my sense of efficacy in the world is, in part, a consequence of being born into privilege, and the conditioned presumptions as to how the world works and my ‘rightful’ place in it that accompanied this privilege.

“How” Jay asks, “do we build a new process of dialogue that will open the way to a road map on the contentious issues facing us as a country? How do we build trust? How can we listen to each other?”

Absent awareness, as the graphic at the top of this piece reminds us, our usual default response is anger.  The inner work needed to bring self-awareness to our inherited presumptions – to move from anger and recrimination to listening and mutuality — is daunting. But  the world is offering us (in Europe, in the United States, in the Middle East, as well as in South Africa….) a preview of what the alternative looks like.  Read Jay’s piece! We have work to do…..

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