Where is the true South African?- Praveen Naidoo

OPED: Bird of freedom reduced to ashes
By Dr Nobody

I doubt you’ve seen this strange byline before, and I really hope you won’t see it

You see, just for today, I want to be a professional nobody. I do not want to be a
Black or White person. I don’t want to be a descendant of African, Asian or European
ancestors, or boxed into any other ethnic, cultural or genetic classifications.

This denial of my identity – just for today, I must stress – has a very specific purpose.

I want to talk about something which is burning deep within me, leaving me disturbed
and dejected.

I suspect that many other people in our country are also feeling as disillusioned as I
am after the recent Race-Based Violence which left many people dead in Phoenix,
Durban. Overnight, whatever social cohesion that had been established between
communities appears to have evaporated in the heat of the burning and flagrant

Communities who had been separated into Race-Based Townships by apartheid’s
buffer zones. Since then, they found ways of living together, or so it appeared on the

In just a few wild nights in Phoenix, the bird of freedom which took flight in 1994 was
consumed by flames and fell to the ground, to be reduced to ashes.

I want to talk about this.

I want all of us in our country to talk about this, as South Africans, regardless of our
ancestral origin, shade of skin, ethnic, linguistic, or any other Race-Based Box that
can be conjured up, for whatever reason.

Imagine that I am a young unemployed looter from Inanda, or an Indian business
owner who lost four stores, or a uniformed police officer who stood by and watched
the looting, or a sinister foreign hand inciting people to racial confrontation. If you
know that I am one these people, you could well be influenced by what I am saying –
such is the extent of Race-Based Perceptions in our country.

My identity may even surprise you. You may ask: how could you, as an African
person, Coloured person, Indian person, or White person even think this, let alone
say it in public? How can you, as a looter, shopkeeper, policeman or agent
provocateur; as a national government minister or municipal mayor; as a political
commentator, journalist or social activist; as a corporate CEO or night shift office
cleaner – how can you say this?

I can say them because, just for today, what I’m saying cannot be interpreted (or
mis-interpreted) by who I am, or which compartment I fit neatly into.
By becoming Dr Nobody, I can be Mr, Mrs or Ms Everybody.

I can be a South African (my proud nationality by choice), an African (gratefully born
unto the soil and soul of this amazing continent) and a member of humanity
(appreciating my sentient existential manifestation as a human being in the cosmos).

I am all of these, and I can dig into these things because they unite us: our common
humanity, the spirit of our African-ness, our special South African-ness has this
extraordinary power.

We can only transcend the things that divide us, like our polarised past, by firstly
acknowledging that it continues to sustain our unequal present, and secondly, doing
something to change things.

The escape from the box of a byline is intended to stimulate this process. It allows
me to disclose how thoroughly disgusted I felt as Phoenix erupted in mid-July, and to
share how deeply disturbed I became as the implications for our entire country set in,
unsettled me even further.

Clearly, many of us have learnt absolutely nothing from apartheid. We have learnt
nothing about the sheer indignity of racial prejudice that we inflict on each other, or
the utter disrespect behind branding all members of any community because of the
behaviour of some.

Even after it became clear that sinister forces were manipulating social media
narratives, exacerbating tensions and inciting violence among all communities, we
failed to sit up and take notice.

We allowed African people to be stirred up against Indian people. We allowed Indian
people to be stirred up against African people.

Some of us behaved like hot-headed plundering hooligans; some of us like racist,
trigger-happy vigilantes, out for revenge as our blood boiled within us.

Many people were killed. The actual tally of victims on each of the warring sides is
not as relevant as this supremely painful fact: we did this to ourselves.

We failed to see that a hidden hand was exploiting deep-rooted tensions that have
remained unaddressed, that these hands were deliberately and skilfully cutting open
old wounds which are yet to heal.

All of us, whether we happened to be the looter, shopkeeper, police minister or
mayor, allowed this to happen in our own country, and some of us took part in it. We
allowed our constitution to be rubbished as the shopfronts we shattered littered the
streets with fragments of glass and broken mirrors.

Collectively, we should all be thoroughly ashamed ourselves, whether the whole
world was watching or not. We should be ashamed that this is how we behaved to
each other, and this is how we defined ourselves to Africa’s detractors and to the
Is this who we became in just a few days, or is this who we really are?

Clearly, the democratic government led by our obviously complacent ruling party has
done little to reverse the wrongs of our inequal past and bridge the Race-Based
Gaps in our society. The gap between the very poor and the very rich is now wider
than ever in South Africa. The fighting in Phoenix proves the fragile state of race
relations among our people.

This gross failure of government leaves abandoned communities with little choice but
to go it alone, and to rise up against racism today just as we rose up against racism
yesterday under apartheid. Racism can never be explained or excused by the
identity of perpetrators, but by their beliefs and behaviour.

This is a painful admission: we have not rid ourselves of racism.

What happened at Phoenix can easily be forgotten by media, and those of us who
don’t live here, because the killing has stopped. The politicians stopped visiting after
the TV news crews left. But, if tensions and anxieties between neighbours are swept
under the carpet once again, the illusion of the rainbow will disguise the ferocity of
the storm that will strike our nation again in the future.

We have to ask ourselves: why are we all still doing so little, in a country ravaged by
Race-Based Divisions over centuries, to rid ourselves of the plague of prejudice?

If we are genuine South Africans, we will look back at our history and see how far we
have come, recognise that there is still much to do to achieve equality and eradicate
poverty and racism, and get cracking on the task.

We can dust off the constitution – we seem to hardly refer to it these days – and page
through its chapters to see where we failed, and how we can pick up the threads to
mend ourselves.

If we are authentic Africans, we will fall back into the ample bosom of our continent’s
spirit of Ubuntu, we will recognise that we are joined to each other, we are defined by
each other, and we are one because we are each other.

If we are true members of humanity and are humbled by our unique place in the
cosmos, we will understand that our origins and our destinies are intrinsically tied
together. We will know that our future depends on each other, and that we are all
cojoined by this wondrous and precious phenomenon we call life, with the instinct to
survive and thrive.

Whoever we are, wherever we find ourselves on the wealth-poverty scale, whatever
our ethnic origin, it is time to elevate ourselves out of these confines. It is time to live
out the most robust constitution in the world every day of our lives, to embrace the
warm heart of Africa, and to be truly human in every way possible.

If we did this, we will find ways to address the pockets of Phoenix which persist
throughout our country.
We can all be sure that there is a genuine South African, a true African and a kindred
human being somewhere within each one of us, regardless of how others may
choose to define us.

It is time for that person to stand up and show up.

It’s time to know who we have been in the past, to examine our wounds and our
flaws and see who we have become today, and to fix them so we can be who we
really want to be in the future.

If we succeed, we will never again need to shed our identity to talk about this, as our
conversations will no longer be coloured by the tone of our skins.

The identity of the author of this article will be revealed in next month’s edition.

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