Talking heads talk (full version) – 20 April 2013
I was recently invited to speak at the Africa Centre’s Talking Heads evening, during which I got to share my thoughts for 20 minutes with three groups of 3 people, and invite discussion around the topic. The opportunity allowed me to hone some of the thoughts I have harboured and not shared openly for many years. After the evening, I found myself writing more on the topic. It may be slightly long-winded, but here it is!
I came to my work of teaching Xhosa and promoting African cultural awareness through my passion and my calling to be of service to my community (nowadays, that means global society). As a result, whilst I have accepted a business model as a way of reflecting an exchange of value and of sustaining the enterprise, I have struggled with any notion of selling or marketing my products and services, unless it is part of an authentic creative or emotive expression. As a result, I am extremely critical of my arguments, which lean towards promoting what I sell, and yet I am torn as I genuinely have pursued this path as I believe in its power to influence our world for good, to bring the transformation of our society that so many of us crave to see, and too many of us fail to believe in. Because it unfortunately takes effort, discomfort, humility, sacrifice!
Here follows the essence of my philosophy:
We are going through a transformation of humanity. Compared to millions of years of life on earth of our recent and even previous species of ancestors, but even to the last 10000 years, the last 400 must surely be the most spectacular, and of those, the last 50 particularly, and the last 20 to the extent that the growth and rate of change seems to be exponential. We have been through an industrial and technological revolution, we have seen slavery and colonialisation throw different cultures, languages and religions across the globe, mixing all manner of diversity all over the show. We have seen humans master flight, and ultimately space travel and moon landings. We have for the first time seen our planet from space, and realized its fragility. We have seen the birth of the internet and cellular communication, both of which allow us to access vast stores of knowledge and communicate across the globe instantaneously (the kind of telepathy the aboriginal peoples could only have dreamt of, probably did, and have finally manifested). We have seen our own consumption patterns affecting the climate, which in turn affects weather systems across the globe. A bomb in one country effects foreign policy in another affects the price of petrol in a small town in an entirely different part of the planet.
We are truly living in an age of ubuntu or intense inter-connectedness and inter-dependence, its just that we are experiencing it more in an external sense, than in the romantic, internalized sense that we commonly associate with the term, that notion of humanity and goodwill towards others. Quite where this global transformation is taking us no one really knows. It’s all very impressive, and surely therefore amazing and an improvement, but we cannot refute or deny the tremendous amount of negativity and suffering that modern civilisation has inflicted upon people, cultures and the planet.
We seem too to have lost many of the jewels our ancestors developed and nurtured, at least as a natural part of our society and culture. They are still there but they have to be manufactured and not everyone is privileged to experience them. They are things like rites of passage, and initiation, most importantly within the framework of a community.
What has this loss in culture cost us?
Whilst some will claim these symptoms have always existed, we know that socio-economic, historic and political circumstances in recent times have led directly to many of today’s most horrific stats. For instance, there is ubiquitous violence against women and children, sex abuse scandals becoming the norm, grotesque acts of terrorism on all sides, oppression, widespread poverty and inequality, rampant drug abuse amongst the wealthy and poor alike, clogged prison systems, failing old world economies now that their exploitation is tempered, political corruption as a status quo, manipulative media and sociopathic corporations, fear, insecurity, climate disruptions and the resulting dog-eat-dog competitiveness, it doesn’t exactly look pretty.
Cultures previously renowned for their hospitality, respect and spiritual consciousness are now in the news continuously for grotesque atrocities. For these elements of modern society, we cannot blame anyone else except aspects of the human spirit, manifested through the western, colonizing powers and their systematic destruction of other cultures!
Meanwhile, we have South Africa going through its own transformation. The country the whole world has looked to in these last 20 years, as the place where the impossible happened, where miracles manifested, where people managed to forgive and accept, to tolerate and collaborate, where Mandela was freed, apartheid was ended and we had free and fair elections. There are not many countries that can claim such magnanimity of the masses, such generosity of spirit, not from the previous oppressors so much, who merely saw their time had come, but of the previously oppressed, the people who had suffered land disenfranchisement, slavery, colonialism, apartheid. These people allowed Nelson Mandela to be their voice piece, to lead us into an age where all could prosper and live in freedom and opportunity. But something has not quite worked. Why?
There are many surface level reasons, symptoms, explanations, etc, where we can blame government, and indeed our current leaders defy belief with their shameless disregard for the principles they supposedly fought so hard for, but that is not my concern in this article. I am seeking to highlight dynamics and social beliefs which existed before, and persist today which contribute to the environment which allows a corrupt government to continue to receive support from those they exploit and let down!
I wish to address the heart of the issue: our very notion of transformation.
When we speak of transformation in South Africa, it is always a movement from afrocentric, traditional, ‘primitive’ towards eurocentric, modern, ‘civilisation’. The default setting is to assume our western and modern ways are naturally better than any alternative. If we imagined successful ‘transformation’ we imagine black people getting white jobs, adopting white culture, speaking better English, working in better jobs, becoming middle class, becoming ‘land owners’.
Even the notion of transforming people from poverty to something better, the automatic assumption is that leaving poverty means leaving townships, which are social constructs and legacies of apartheid (and a symptom of our system worldwide), colonial exploitation, etc, but not back towards a traditional or rural cultural stability and prosperity as existed before! No, forwards towards the middle class culture so loudly trumpeted and accepted as the obvious answer to humanity’s lifestyle desires, regardless of its obvious unsustainability. Traditional, rural lifestyle is without much thought considered to be backward, unappealing, poverty!
I am not for a minute implying people should be expected to return to rural villages where erosion, droughts, poor infrastructure and shortage of resources are prevalent. However, I am drawing attention to the line and direction of our commonly held assumptions and beliefs, and to the options we therefore tend to ignore by default!
The underlying assumption we all make is:
“West is best, white is right!”
AND yet, the world looks to “black” South Africa as the people and the place that forgave its previous oppressors, who chose to forgive and live together to build a new country, a new nation. It’s the Mandela’s, Tutu’s etc who are admired, idolized and the source of inspiration globally. And yet no one looks to the culture and the people, who lie behind the humility of these men.
As a white male South Africa, of wealthy and privileged birth and upbringing, I should surely be the scorn of all non-white South Africans. But no, we have a country of people, who seem to be blessed with a tendency to judge people for how they treat others, the respect they show, but especially an effort to acknowledge people! I have found that my efforts to speak the language of Xhosa specifically, but other languages too, my willingness to hear and research history from a non-colonial perspective, to seek and acknowledge the wealth and value of indigenous cultures, but most of all my willingness to put aside my cultural arrogance and default superiority setting, has been hugely appreciated by people.
This process of acknowledging and appreciating re-humanises people, and Im conscious not to sound like it is white people who have the power to de-humanize or re-humanise people. Far from it, we white people have paid our own large cost for the benefits of unjust and inhumane systems and it depends on your values and priorities that may deem you to judge it a larger or lesser cost. Our very souls have been put in jeopardy by our collective greed, willful ignorance and continued denial. If you do not believe in souls, then let me say that if one is not burdened with a sense of guilt and shame at how one’s ancestors treated the ancestors of others enough to struggle to fully appreciate the blessings of one’s privilege, then you may be of the other ilk, those who have turned fully towards the void, and chase drugs, sex, material wealth, anything to give them a sense of escape or worth in the eyes of others, let alone of themselves, and yet still they dig themselves deeper into an ultimate despair!
So what we need is balanced transformation. The old notions of black or indigenous people being given access to resources, education and the resulting choice of lifestyle and career to pursue is a no brainer and this would mean a natural tendency for black folks to become more Eurocentric. And yes, people need to understand that this system is built and sustained by people working for what they get and contributing towards its growth!
Handouts do not work, nor do they empower, nor are they sustainable!
The move to Eurocentrism is already happening, and almost all peeps have learnt at least some English, adopted some of our cultural ways and lifestyle habits! BUT we ALSO need white folks as a whole to become more authentically afrocentric, more diversity literate, to get in touch with elements of indigenous culture that can allow us to experience and understand what ubuntu is. This would allow us to empathise, to get involved, to reconnect, to experience community, fulfillment, purpose, and yes, even genuine joy!
And yet many ‘good’ white people and others find many justifications for leading lives of relatively grotesque overconsumption, whilst fully aware of the struggles, hardships, etc of others. How can this be? It seems that we have an ingrained superiority complex, not necessarily by race or culture, but my ‘civilisation’. It’s the same default setting that non-technological societies aren’t worth much more than the occasional self-help book, or fantasy blockbuster!
So what would this balanced transformation look like? Well ultimately to become more acquainted with a culture, you need to learn the language, and of course learning the language acts as a form of initiation into a culture, depending on degree of involvement. It requires effort, discipline, humility, dedication, struggle, and ultimately achievement! Its effect on oneself is profound and transformational, and its effect on one’s relationship with people of that culture shifts too, firstly as they appreciate and respect your efforts to learn the language, and then as you earn their trust and admiration as you make good progress!
This is especially effective and pertinent when a member of the previous oppressors learns the language and ways of the previously oppressed, voluntarily, by choice, an action that indicates a sincere effort to know, to learn, to understand the ‘other’ and discover ultimately the immense similarities we share under the surface shell of culture or religion or language!
I believe passionately about the ability to communicate and empathise with our fellow South Africans being an important factor in this country’s future. I believe it will be a valuable experience for scholars who are still in a position to really learn Xhosa well.
There is a lot to be learnt about the human spirit by experiencing people in their older, earthier ways of life, and thus my focus is on village experiences and other cultural immersions, a way to economically uplift rural areas, whilst remaining culturally sensitive and empowering ALL involved!
You will need to watch our other videos and talks for more ideas and visions! Its still very much a work in progress.
Thank you for reading this!