On Monday night I attended the very first Inclusive City dialogue as part of the second phase of the Inclusive City Campaign which the City of Cape Town launched in 2015.
During this phase, the idea is for local councillors to initiate workshops with community leaders, where everyone can collectively grapple with racism. As leaders, we can never make the assumption that we have the solutions to all society’s problems. The input and ideas from everyday people often give the most meaningful insights and I was looking forward to hearing directly from the people in a local community.The session that I attended took place in Gugulethu, in a classroom at a local primary school. The concept is based on keeping the number of participants around 20 people, so that all participants have the opportunity to engage. It was very encouraging to see many more people arrive, and watch how the classroom soon became too small for everyone in attendance. It clearly indicated what we expected: there is a great need for this initiative.
Various sector bodies and stakeholders were represented. These included the Gugulethu Churches Association, the Gugulethu Neighbourhood Watch Association, the Abemi Residents Association, and the National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers Union. As representatives, they are in turn encouraged to return to their organisations and to initiate and continue this dialogue there.
We started with an ice-breaker in groups which were given three tasks. We had to introduce ourselves, mention one thing that is important to us as individuals, and then find one thing which is important to us all. It was fascinating to see how our priorities brought us together. Our commonalities were caring for our families, improving the livelihood of communities, and furthering reconciliation and values like respect and fairness.
This made one thing very obvious. Despite coming from different walks of life and representing different interests, we all shared the same goal. We all want to see progress in the lives of those around us, and we want to build an inclusive society. It illuminated that we are humans first, before any other identifier we may choose to employ. That acknowledgement put Ubuntu in the centre of the discussion which followed.
Immediately racism was exposed for what it is: a barrier preventing us from achieving what can only be accomplished together.
As soon as the discussion started, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was mentioned. The consensus was that the TRC was but the start of the process of reconciliation. We still need to rehabilitate the minds of South Africans in order to rid them of racism and racist thinking.
Participants recounted the racism they have experienced. Some spoke about white-on-black racism that they experienced at institutions of higher learning. Some reflected on the pain of having experienced racism, with the scars of 1976 to prove it, and how they have been able to forgive but never forget. This is the reality for most South Africans. We all share in the pain of the past but now we have the opportunity to shape our own future.
Another discussion topic was the discrimination we sometimes become victims of through the actions of people in our own race, when we see someone treat another race better than they treat their own simply because they are lighter in colour. Are we doing enough to interrogate our own prejudices, inferiority complexes and/or superiority complexes?
Herein lies the importance of knowing your rights as the best departure point. You must be armed with the knowledge that the Constitution protects you from discrimination.
Similarly, your behaviour must also be guided by the fact that you cannot discriminate against anyone else on the basis of their race.
Once you know your rights, you are empowered to confront racism where it occurs. While we cannot control when or where racism occurs, we can control our response towards it. One participant stated that ‘through racism we have bled and cried’ and asked how much more we will let it take from us.
I left the session with an overwhelming sense of hope. I was reminded once more that the majority of people want to help each other to move forward. I am looking forward to the next dialogues which will take place in Blouberg and Athlone. I would also like to challenge other organisations and businesses to host their own dialogues on race. This is a conversation that we all need to keep having for many years to come if we want to build an inclusive country.
We need to confront the past and see it for what it was.
We need to acknowledge its legacy of apartheid and the remnants of that horrid system which still lives with, and sometimes within, us.
And then, we need to work together and embrace one another because a future awaits us and the legacy of this generation depends on the work that we do now.