Social cohesion and the parallel universes of racial identity

FORMER president FW de Klerk has not received immunity for acts and omissions in relation to the murder of the Cradock Four or the torture of detainees. African News Agency (ANA) archives

The debate of what is human and what makes us human has been long argued. For me, most recently, I engaged this conversation in J Bourke’s book ‘What it Means to be Human: Reflections from 1791 to the Present’ where she posits that the classification of ‘human’ was only constructed (by humans, might I add) so that there could be an ‘other’, an animal or ‘less human’. 

Much like the term ‘white’ created the other, ‘black’. Or the terms male created the other, female, the creation of “the other” is always deliberate allowing the classifier ownership of the centre, the privilege of being the “original”, the standard, the norm. relegating the ‘other’, less than, less human and/or animal to the margins. And, of course, if something is less human or an animal, well, it justifies all sorts of atrocities that we have witnessed throughout history. Humans as cockroaches, apes as forna, as 3/5 of a human being. You name it, we’ve said it. 

So, when we have De Klerk say that apartheid was not a crime against humanity, it may not be that he is denying the severity of the violent actions, oppression and atrocities meted out in this country, but could point to the belief that such atrocities cannot be constituted a crime against humanity, as the victims themselves, well, weren’t really humans (read: white humans).

In South African, white, black and brown citizens co-exists, share space, and engage, but always through a thin film that separates us. A thin film I call, and borrowing from the Netflix Original show, Stranger Things, the Upside-down: a dystopian and chaotic parallel universe that exists alongside the “normal” reality. Which side of the parallel universe one exists usually runs along race and class lines and fundamentally changes how we see and experience South Africa.

De Klerk just confirmed that this membrane that divides how different races experience the world still exists. That on one side of the Upside-down, violence occurred but it wasn’t “that bad” because they weren’t that human to begin with; that we are 25 years into democracy so it’s time to “get over Apartheid”. And on the other, the pain and violence of a system that still oppresses and disadvantages remains uncheck and unacknowledged; that we are 25 years into democracy but still “I’m sorry Mr. Mahlangu, the apartment isn’t for rent anymore”. 

I think the De Klerk comment, and the reactions on all sides of the race divide, once again illustrate white South Africa’s continued distancing from the South African social cohesion project. This distancing is fuelled by a continued lack of social education around our past (what is exclusion, power, diversity (identity) and privilege?). This lack of social education around our past gives rise to the parallel universe of the present where denialism, amnesia or numbing to the atrocities of our past and their impact on people’s lives today are not fully recgonized, which ultimately fuels an anxiety and dysmorphia about our future within this country. That B-BBEE is ‘apartheid in reverse’ (or reverse discrimination) and that there are no opportunities for us, so we need to get out of South Africa.

In my work around Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (or EDI), I seek to address the above three gaps both in the education and corporate spaces. Not exclusively talking to white people, but rather inviting us all to face our inherited beliefs and narratives that support the structure of the parallel universe. As a way to understand how to achieve social cohesion, I have developed the following acronym: R.A.I.D. For me, social cohesion is created when individuals and organisations:

·         Recognize that history has systematically and unjustly excluded groups of people from social, political and economic spaces;

·         Are Aware that historical structures and behaviours of exclusion are not easily dismantled and still exist in our democracy today;

·         Become Intolerant for this continued exclusion that continues to occur along historical lines of exclusion; and

·         Drive toward meaningful inclusion of those who have been historically excluded by focussing on behavioural structural change

RAID is the piercing of the membrane that separates our parallel universes. It is the opening line of our Constitution ‘we, the people of South Africa recognise the injustices of our past’. It is the tool that allows each of us to connect with and drive the South African social cohesion project for the betterment of all.

Roy Gluckman is a qualified attorney and director at Cohesion Collective, an Equality, Diversity & Inclusions consulting and implementation firm. He speaks passionately on all matters relating to Equality, Diversity & Inclusion.