South Africa in one of the most unequal countries in the world. We all know this. The majority of South Africans live under extreme poverty, in drug infested communities where teenage pregnancy; high school drop outs; gender-based violence in the form of domestic violence, rape and sexual harassment; alcohol and substance abuse; unemployment and crime; racism and high prevalence of HIV/AIDS  has become the norm.  Add to that corruption; nepotism within government structures; distrust of the police and trauma. It all looks hopeless. 

According to the most recent South African Race Barometer  [SARB] survey (2017) conducted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, only 1 in every 3 South Africans (35, 6%) have “quite a lot” or “a great deal” of confidence in the SAPS (police). In other words, only about a third of South Africans. That the majority of South Africans don’t have confidence in the police is quite alarming. The ideal situation would be when the majority of South Africans have trust in the police or any government institution.

The inauguration of Cyril Ramaphosa as the new president of the country brought hope to many of us. His ‘Thuma mina’ slogan has inspired most (if not all) South Africans in communities to believe, once more, in the ‘Rainbow Nation’ of Mandela that they once believed in. To believe that South Africans will one day live in a country that is free of all these social ills; a country where each and every individual can be prosperous; not judged based on the colour of their skin or gender; a country where it is safe for children to be children and they can grow up to be anything they want to be; a country full of possibilities.

For those of us who are passionate about community development, about social justice, it has brought a new challenge: how to make sure that in the communities where we work we don’t create ‘happy oppressed people’. That,  we don’t re-traumatise people, that we really address the issues boldly and create spaces for everyone to share their story – listen to someone else’s story and learn from it, that we do justice to the practice of justice. That it is not just another word thrown about carelessly, but one that has real meaning. This is a challenge that we face every day. Out in the field, talking with real people, it is not an abstract term. It is very real.

Working in communities like Carolina in Mpumalanga; Vryburg in the North West to name just a few, conversations with the youth around their communities, their state of living, their everyday experience, things become heated quickly. The trauma that they experience in their communities has become normal to them and they are desensitised to it. Many feel that there is no agency and are unable to change the circumstances of their community. They are hopeless and dismayed. They do acknowledge that they know or are cognisant of their human rights but are unable to exercise those rights. Conversations about consent and boundaries show that in these communities people feel that they have very little or no negotiation power within their relationships. Men in these communities feel that they are entitled to a women’s body and get angry if she feels differently. They claim that because they support them financially so they are entitled to their bodies. As a result of this, men are seldom held responsible for their actions nor do they willingly take responsibility for their choices.

The SARB found that 43% of female respondents report to feeling unsafe in their own homes nationally. Many factors can play a role in making a person feel safe or unsafe in their homes – such as intimate gender violence. The Gauteng Gender Based Violence Indicators Project tells us that 25.3% of women (in Gauteng) had an experience of being raped by a “man, whether a husband or boyfriend, family member, stranger or acquaintance”. 18% of women experienced “intimate partner rape on one or more occasions”. Against these statistics, 37.4% of men admitted to raping a woman, and 31% of men disclosed having raped a woman who was not a partner.

Racism is also very prevalent in these communities where white people still perceive themselves as superior to black people. This is still a problem 24 years down the line. No one can escape. Even celebrities are sometimes victims of racism as we saw recently in the case of Somizi Mhlongo [Somgaga] being referred to as a ‘homosexual kaferketjie’ by Lia Meyer on Twitter. Twitter was bombarded with people hurling insults and some protecting her [Lia] for this post. It was later stated that her account was ‘hacked’. What was re assuring about this post is that some of the comments were from white South Africans and they distanced themselves from statements like these saying that it is people like this who are keeping the country back.

Is this the South Africa we envisioned in 1994? Surely we can do better. Surely we can do justice to the people living in communities like these all over South Africa. Surely if we all take up the Thuma mina slogan- we can create a better future for South Africa. We must demand better out of each other as the people of this country and as persons to whom all of South Africa belongs, we must also demand humane and better leadership. We must help those who work in this sphere by actively participating in dialogues/workshops/seminars/debates etc. that talk about our country. 

Each and every South African citizen has a responsibility to help in rebuilding this nation. But I direct my appeal especially to those who benefitted and continue to benefit from the legacy of the past to come to conversations about dismantling oppression. In our work this is one of the biggest barriers we face in not, just, making “happy oppressed people’, but then having them talk among themselves. The legacy of our past means that those of us that are relatively well off, as a group, are also white. And that those of who are well off and white, therefore have no urgent need, compared to communities in deprivation as described, to engage with the ‘community’ to not only heal but to try to find resources, or a means, addressing collective challenges. And because of this, we don’t transcend barriers, literal and figurative, that still define us in all the ways it divides our nation.

We must also encourage civil organisations to continue with their work as they did before 1994 [those that were involved in the liberation movement] and challenging government to deliver on their promises. Talking and listening to each other on a human being level will help us to understand our fears about the ‘other’. Our national broadcasting authority has to give the stories of ordinary South African airtime on SABC.

We are not free until all South Africans are free. Aluta Continua!

Nosindiso Mtimkulu is a Senior Project Leader for the Sustained Dialogues Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation

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