When someone has grown up in – and been part of – a family that solves feuds through violence, and this has been passed down from generation to generation, how do they bring an end to the violence?
What if, over time, the family’s genealogical make-up has been complicated – as most families are – through various reconstitutions, as it integrates new members through marriage; new members who also bring their own pain and unresolved family legacy issues into the adoptive mix?
Whose pain should be attended to first?
Whose story is more deserving of attention than the others?
Do we ever stop, we South Africans, place our own pain aside a bit and consider the pain of the other? Do we consider their story, and how they contribute to our family feuds of today?
To what extent have we played or do we play a role in the pain of the other?
Going by recent spats in all forms of media, as well as inboxed private messages, parts of the Afrikaner part of our broader South African family remain with unresolved issues emanating, ostensibly, from what was done to them by the British.
Each time they try to bring these things up, stories of concentration camps, present-day farm murders from their perspective, festering wounds and other lingering pains, the rest of us shut them down. We opt, instead, to remind them of the apartheid pain they brought upon us over a sustained period.
We will not listen to their stories if they keep refusing to listen to us. They will not listen to our stories if we keep refusing to listen to theirs.
We’re stuck in a potentially unending game of ‘let the other blink first’, with potentially limiting impact on any success in building a united country. The stalemate is tedious and unhelpful.
There are also adult Afrikaner men, one hears, who were made to serve from relatively young teenage years in the apartheid-era South African Defence Force, also called the apartheid army for effect; for that is what it was.
Some might have enjoyed it at the time, but we will never know which ones, and it probably shouldn’t matter today.
Younger at the time and eager to prove themselves and to impress, they might have had a sense of belonging as they ‘shot at the Blacks’ and came back to relate their exploits.
Maybe it was even the in thing in those days, a macabre initiation ritual of sorts. They were told that their country was at war with the communists, terrorists, and more.
But many came out suffering from the inevitable Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), with no outlet made available to them to help deal with it. So, they remain there, ageing men, silently angry and perennially bitter.
Bitter at having been turned into monsters they probably would never have chosen to be, had they been given the choice when they were slightly older or better informed. This is pure speculation, of course; but please indulge me.
The Cape Malay and Coloureds
In the Cape, there are Coloured and Malay families whose parents were forcibly removed from homes they occupied during apartheid from places like District Six, Simon’s Town, Bishops Court and others. To this day, they still wait and hope for justice, even as their parents die off, one by one, and are unlikely to see any of this happen. Their cries remain unheard.
Many can still point out the exact spot or building where their childhood homes used to be, because some of the buildings still stand, yet remain inaccessible, as they’re either occupied by others or have been turned into heritage buildings belonging to the state; extensive red tape will not allow them to return.
I met one such pained South African during a Sunday morning cycle ride at the Simon’s Town harbour, a few months ago. I was busy taking pictures of the area when I noticed the smartly dressed Muslim lady contemplating the buildings on the hill above the harbour, tears in her eyes.
I had walked over to ask her to take a picture of me on my bike but, instead, decided to engage differently. I learned that she had been there with her daughter, who was busy in a breakfast business meeting.
She reluctantly accepted to come with her, following much persuasion by dear daughter, who wanted dear mother to deal with the pain once and for all, before it was too late. Her husband had already died.
Now in her early seventies, Fatima (not her real name) had avoided the place for more than 30 years because of the lingering pain it brought her.
She could still point out her family’s home and those of her childhood neighbours, including the local Moulana’s home, as the childhood memories came flooding back.
Stories of forced removals are not limited to the Western Cape, of course; they’re our South African stories.
But there are many other South African stories we quickly dismiss whenever the people bearing them try to introduce them into conversations, including those of some Coloureds who tell us that they were not white enough, during apartheid, and are not black enough in the post-apartheid era.
Africans were consistently forced to remain at the bottom of the heap and their pain is, historically speaking, relatively more recent, fresh, and anger inducing.
Broadly, it is a pain shared with Indians, and Coloureds who, at various levels, were all at the bitter receiving end of apartheid. There are convergences and divergences in their collective story.
Now, Africans can determine the political trajectory of our collective family journey; but no one can ever tell how history might turn in its long, slow journey.
One simply needs to place dipsticks at random points of human history across the globe to know that mother fate has her way of playing her hand.
Justifiably so, Africans feel pained by the refusal of many who benefitted from apartheid to at least acknowledge their pain. In turn, they will hear nothing of the cries of the former, or others who cry that they feel excluded for not being black enough in the post-apartheid era.
In the end, it is empathy we lack. Without it, this journey we share will forever be one of pain, humiliation, repeated pouring of salt into the wounds of the other, and shortsighted arrogance.
If we are to build together, we will have to acknowledge one another’s pain and stories – even if we neither share nor believe them – and accept that our history is one filled with violence. We have a choice whether to pass the violence to the next generation or to begin the process of stopping it.
None of this can never happen without compromise and empathy. Our past is what it is. We have it in us to build a better shared future.