South Africans need a revolution of the mind

Posted on January 4, 2010. Filed under: News |


One may have to go back in time to save the future. In order to truly heal one has to face the demons of the past. As a young black South African woman, who has just turned 21, I should be one of the happiest people in this country. I am the SA success story: raised by single women (mom, aunts, grannies) who were born in a rural area, I have in a short time come further than was possible for most young women of previous generations.

I have a private school education, am attending one of the finest universities in Africa, enjoy a budding spiritual and social life and have a big supporting family. I also know that should I gain the right qualifications, affirmative action will help people like me find jobs more easily.

It would therefore be safe to say that, for people like me, this should be the land of opportunity. I recognise this, but at the same time I am anxious.

I am anxious because when I look around me and see the poverty and the indignity to which millions of South Africans are subjected, I realise that while I may be living the “South African dream”, my experience is not widely shared.

I walk past people who are begging for bread when I can enjoy a prawn salad. It is not uncommon for my peers to complain about getting a BMW instead of an SLK for their birthday when there are children who have to walk 20km a day just to get to school.

We seem to be going further into the past. While I may not have experienced the height of apartheid, my understanding is that while the state referred to it as separate development, it condemned most South Africans to underdevelopment.

Today, it seems to me as if not much has changed. The same injustices remain: those who were in the gutter in apartheid are still there, administrative systems have not changed, most of those who were born in privilege by virtue of apartheid still do not seem to care, and some politicians and officials that represent a liberation movement now seem to be lining their pockets.

We seem to excel in every negative statistic, be it poverty, inequality, Aids or crime.

There seems to be far too little urgency in setting this injustice right. In the process we are not only failing those who fought for justice, but through our inability to fix a crippling education system, we are also jeopardising the well-being of future generations.

Although I may not be a specialist in the field, I doubt there are a lot of people who would disagree with me when I say there is a need for a psychological revolution in the minds of all South Africans. Every South African: be you black, white, rich, poor, young or old.

There are mindsets in our people that need to be addressed and until such time as they are we cannot seriously expect a better future for our country. A structure is only as strong as its parts so if we still find people who think that they are better than, or inferior to, the next person on grounds of race, class, gender, ability or religious orientation then we have not moved on as a country.

But I don’t believe that revolution can happen until we heal. Despite the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, this country has not healed. It is hurting and very little is being done about it. All we seem to be doing is occasionally changing the bandages of a festering sore that is threatening to spread and endanger what holds our fragile society together.

As a country we are still angered by the past and that anger is being carried on to future generations. How else would you explain the tempers that flare around the issues of affirmative action or black economic empowerment?

To draw on a personal experience, I recall a time when I walked out of a sociology lecture five minutes into a video on South African spatial segregation. I simply could not stomach the idea that white people thought that they had the right to re-organise people’s lives.

I cannot begin to describe the anger, the pain and shame I felt. And this comes from a child who has grown up in a free South Africa.

How much more anger do those South Africans who lived through the beatings, the blatant segregation, the violence and the breaking down of their self-perceptions feel?

Have we considered their feelings toward the TRC, setting their tormentors free to carry on with their comfortable lives as though nothing ever happened?

When saying this, I do not for one moment advocate revenge, but what cannot be ignored is that there are scores of ticking time bombs roaming the street, making your coffee, cleaning your house, answering the phone at reception and raising your children. These are people who faced injustices and their hurt and pain was never acknowledged. They never got a chance to air their views uncensored. And we wonder why violent crime is on the rise?

We need to heal ourselves as a people. The government can only do so much, and it most certainly cannot do anything about the hurt that runs so deeply in the souls of its people. We all have a chip on our shoulders. All of us. We have surely come a long way as a nation but, just because I am able to sit next to a white man on a park bench does not mean our perceptions of each other have changed or are as they should be. The age-old saying goes “a problem shared is a problem halved” and therein lies a powerful truth.

Somehow, it seems to me, we have failed so far to face our problems together, and as such many feel that the challenge to overcome the legacy of the past is simply too big. Maybe it is time that we changed our thinking. Maybe we should start to move beyond thinking of what we cannot do and actually do something about those things we can do. That may require that we start at the beginning.

Healing is where we should start. Once we have healed, then and only then can we learn to appreciate ourselves and not feel the need to import foreign values and systems when we are fully capable of finding solutions ourselves. It is only once we have made peace with our past and have grown to love ourselves as individuals and as a nation that we gain respect for ourselves.

This involves a realisation among those who were oppressed under apartheid that they are not inferior; that they have dignity as people and that they should be proud of who they are. But, having spoken to colleagues from other so-called “population groups” in recent times, I also realise that many of us, regardless of our background, are still driven by a sense of fear of victimhood.

Black South Africans don’t trust white South Africans because of the past, whites don’t trust blacks because they fear revenge (and some argue that they are already the victims of revenge), while Indian and coloured South Africans feel that they are again falling between the cracks of white economic power and black political power. It seems as if all of us fear and that our behaviour towards each other is driven by that fear.

This is terribly sad because, deep down, we all have the same desire to be proud of our country, to feel safe and secure, and to know that our children have a bright future ahead of them.

Importantly, we all also yearn to be accepted for who we are, regardless of all the different tags that we as South Africans use to label each other. We need to get to the point where all of us realise that all these desires that we have for our country can only be achieved if all of us are committed to this dream. For this to happen we will need to stop the fear.

This will not be easy. There are so many factors that limit even basic interaction in this country, never mind a national conversation on the hurts of the past.

Just in my generation there are young black people who feel cheated by history and thus feel that restitution, be it through BEE and affirmative action, is their right.

On the other hand we have the generation of young white South Africans, born in the 1970s and 1980s, who see it as unfair that they pay for the political decisions that their parents made.

Both parties are convinced about the legitimacy of their contradicting claims. There is no easy solution to resolve claims like these, and therefore the challenge will be to get these two (and other) groups together in a safe space to express their views without fear of judgment. We need to come together in such a way that we can walk away from that conversation not feeling like victims of the past, but like people who are understood, aware of our shared objectives, and with hope for us all.

But above and beyond that, we need this conversation to liberate our minds so we no longer just see black, coloured, Indian and white, but see each other as just ordinary people with extraordinary potential for transformation. The question is whether you will be part of that conversation?

Batandwa Ndovela is an intern in the Political Analysis programme at the IJR, and this article was written in her personal capacity.

This article first appeared in the Cape Times on 16 December 2009. To read the subsequent response by Dr EV Rapiti, click here.


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6 Responses to “South Africans need a revolution of the mind”

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I am speechless because this piece captures virtually all issues that I feel most strongly about as a ’70’s and 80’s product who grew up in a white boarding school ( white friends would later be conscripted into the army) as well as the streets of the townships ( black friends joined MK and APLA whilst others died). This is a very moving call to all of us, coming from a generation that is increasingly brave enough to speak out to us!

It is well said and done by Bathandwa. The issues dealt with here are real and need to be taken serious. Well done Bathi.

Somebody said if you do not know your past you do not know your future. This issue kept me thinking deeply as I am from the ’70s and have seen people living life without a purpose and direction. I am making it in life through positive attitude and tolerance and motivational speakeing

Excellent article, Batandwa. One question though, what does it mean to be healed? How would you define a healed person? We grapple with this question quite often in our programme. I would be delighted to hear your views.

Thank you all for your input. It is encouraging to see that there are people out there who are not willing take our beautiful country at face value but are willing to question all those issues that lie beneath the surface.

In response to Valdi’s question, and to express a personal opinion, healing is when we the individual has come to terms with whatever has happened to them and it no longer is a sore point in their lives. For some healing comes in different ways where some need to hear an apology and thus be empowered to forgive. Others may get healing through simply acknowledging the past and the pain it caused. But as earlier mentioned, being healed is when you have made peace with the past and are ready/able to move on with your life being fully confident that should that issue be raised again, it will not reduce you to a weeping pile or an angry raving lunatic – just to be blunt.

However, i am in no way saying that this is an easy goal to achieve because stepping back into that space and going through all those emotions is not an easy task for human nature. Thus as a people, if we can support each other in this quest we may come out richer in knowledge, wisdom and love – things greatly lacking in our beloved country.

One would say that you are contradicting yourself based on the opening paragraph which paints your university as an institution that enables individual self-advancement and does not address societal matters as the ones you highlight as you go on in your paper. One should be careful not to promote self advancement when addressing sensitive issues like the well-being of our country and its citizens.

It is a good piece granted. I personally agree with some of the points you have made. I see that you do appreciate the position you find your self in, however are still haunted by the demons of our countries past and its implications it has today and its implications it has on our attitudes towards each other and towards our country. Yes we do need a psychological adjustment when it comes to a lot of the challenges we are faced with in our country, but as you have rightfully pointed out different races have different perspectives on what is right and is needed by our nation. I personally think that as long as we still pointing at each other we will never come to a point of agreement and actually executing proper solutions for our country. I really agree with you it is a mental issue that needs to be addressed more then anything, I mean if people would start introspecting themselves instead of others we will all realize that the problem begins with us and how we see ourselves.

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