Week 36: Closer than Comfortable Encounters

With our hearts beating wildly – we could not quite process what we had just seen. A small family- mother, father and small child, had been standing on the side of the road, waiting to cross from the left side of the major two-lane highway – speed limit 120 kmph (about 70 mph). While we were still some distance away, they decided to cross in front of us, dad in the lead, mom by his side holding the small one’s hand. Getting to the middle of the road safely, they paused and regarded the minibus filled with passengers barreling toward them at full speed. Rather than waiting, they lurched forward and ran directly out in front of the bus. We knew they could not make it – and we swerved onto the shoulder to get out of the way of the minivan who we could see would need to take desperate measures not to hit the family. Veering onto the opposite shoulder throwing up dust and dirt, the van laid on its horn, but the family did not seem to process what was happening and continued forward directly in its path. At the last moment, the family stopped, and missed being hit by the van by what seemed to be a few millimeters.   Had we just witnessed a miraculous survival or a desperate act by a desperate family?

This moment framed for us a week in which violent acts in nature (Nepal and the Himalayas) and society (Baltimore, South Africa) defied our understanding. Why had the family not just waited for the bus to pass? Across the globe, why would six officers of the peace so badly manhandle a young man who was not a threat and not committing a crime? We are aware of our own ignorance about what is the real story but that does not provide solace. In South Africa, it seems that unemployment, poverty and crime create a situation in which, like Baltimore, many people have no hope for a better life. Some turn to alcohol to ease the pain – and this has been pointed to as one factor in the astronomically high number of traffic deaths – three times the number of the US (33.9 compared with 11.8 per pedestrians100,000). Even more striking – 43% of these deaths are pedestrians just trying to get from one side of the road to the other. Pedestrian bridges are not used, we are told, because robbers lie in wait to take advantage of those trying to cross.  Everyday, we see children, families, and mostly young men take their chances with traffic that isn’t always as attentive as it should be.

Another symptom of this hopelessness is the xenophobia – resentment, fear, and violence toward foreigners in South Africa – stories of which saturate the news media and has even made its way to those of you in the US courtesy of NPR. Most of the attacks on foreigners have been in Gauteng province, in the northeast corner of the country (more than a day’s South_Africa_xenop_3285635bdrive from here.) However, the number of foreigners killed in the violence is truly appalling. Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, an influential figure among the Zulu ethnic group, hasn’t helped as he is credited with sparking this new wave of violence after saying, that foreigners should “pack their bags” and leave. This violence is primarily aimed at other African people, who are fleeing a situation more dangerous or difficult than what they see in South Africa. Those being killed are from countries like Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Closer to home, in what has been characterized as “RhodesRage” student protesters demanded the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from its prominent place at the University of Cape Town. Siya Minyanda, a local writer has summarized the controversy

well: “Rhodes was born in 1853 and went on to become one of the world’s wealthiest men and the premier of Cape Colony in 1890. But he is also responsible for the beginnings of enforced racial segregation policies in South Africa, with his early drafting of the Natives Land Act which later came into effect in 1913. Upon his death in 1902 Rhodes donated his fortune to setting up UCT, now ranked one of the best universities in the country. Aware of this history, protesters called for the statue’s removal from the center of the campus with a well-organized #Rhodesmustfall campaign, arguing that the institution should become “more African”. Some even called for his remains to be exhumed and sent back to the UK.” He goes on to argue that this strategy of removing historical figures whose politics are no longer popular is an attempt to rewrite history. His final words “As a black (UCT) alumnus who walked past that statue for four years, I think Rhodes should be left exactly where he is.” Another commentator Mighti Jamie, wroteYou bring down statues of hate and yet you build the biggest statue of all. To kill the very people who helped liberate you. You have made this soil a monument of hatred for your brother.”

How can we make sense about these actions, in either country? We are hardly in a position to explain anything, but can offer some hopeful glimmers from our limited vantage point. Over the weekend, we participated with our local church in a visioning weekend. Trying to solidify a bond between a church in Kayamundi and downtown Stellenbosch, the leaders in the church organized a weekend retreat to explore how small but concrete steps could be taken to deepen existing bonds, and to help both communities to see the good in each other, and to share talents that each had. The results included such things as joint choir practice and songs, sharing time in each community, and spending time for each community to teach something to its counterpart. These were very positive steps, taken by mixed groups who had respectful conversations to produce them. We were told it had been a 5-year journey to this point, building the ways of understanding the different ways each group works, and grappling with the preconceptions and misconceptions on each side.

We have had to deal with our own. Looking at a beefy contractor, with an Afrikaans name and a somewhat curt attitude, it was easy to think that he was a symbol of the Apartheid era, until we found that he had grown up in Kayamundi, had been friends with many of the parents of participants from that town, and spoke isiXhosa. He knew more about the town than anyone who did not live there. Our feeling on listening to a man talking about his military experience 40 years ago, when a fellow soldier’s comment about inter-racial marriage inspired murderous hatred, had to yield to his realization a few years later how terribly he was indoctrinated, and how that led to a desire to reform. Asking in a get-acquainted session for someone who spoke 3 languages helped us discover that most of the Kayamundi people needed to do just that: in addition to the home language of isiXhosa, they needed to speak Afrikaans and English to get work.

We are not in the same situation as the family in the middle of the road. For one, we have found that when we tell people that we are from the US, they are fascinated, not angry. Mostly the fascination comes from the fact that we are here when very few Americans are, and we are referred to as “the foreigners who like to talk to us.” However, we feel that there is a lot of traffic moving past us that is closer than we thought, and we are not always in the right place. Our one hopeful thought on an uncharacteristically dark post is that for almost all of us, the instinct is to swerve off the road to save a family. Even if they have made some terrible choice, and run into harm’s way, it’s worth it to help them. The challenge is often to see that we have the ability to change. We ourselves share the US tendency for impatience. It’s hard to conceive of a plan for rebuilding a community that lasts for decades, much less to be steadfast in the pursuit of it. We have been inspired by those we have seen trying to do it, in their own imperfect way. It’s been difficult for us to admit to South Africans how we still struggle after so many years. Clearly, however, the right answer is not to give up, but to see all of us in the middle of the road, and try to give us a chance.

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