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K Sello Duiker K Sello Duiker is the author of Thirteen Cents, for which he received the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for Best First Novel, and of The Quiet Violence of Dreams, for which he received the Herman Charles Bosman Award for English Literature. He has worked in advertising and in the media, and is currently working on a novel.
"During a recent residency in Holland I was disturbed by the assumption that most foreigners make, that black people are the obvious wrongdoers with regard to crime. At a bus stop in the Hague I was once singled out in a queue of about ten white people by traffic cops 'randomly' checking bus passes. The other passengers stood quietly, avoiding eye contact with me while the cops scrutinised my pass with particular relish."

A question of diversity

K Sello Duiker

Changed perceptions about our country

It seems like only yesterday when South Africa was still the ostracised cousin that no one on the outside wanted to speak about or openly associate with. There was a time when things were so polarised it seemed an automatic assumption to make that if you were black you had it bad in the country of your birth - which was true - and that if you were white you were likely to be an oppressor. A position, an accusation, that many white South Africans reluctantly carried with them. Wherever they went they somehow had to justify their remaining in the country and state their political standpoint regarding the regime of the day.

Ten years after the momentous first democratic elections, and the international world is still speculating about our country, but the fad seems to have shifted to the "new" South Africa, a country now stricken with violence instead of institutionalised racism. Since 1994 the blacks have been killing the whites - and even some blacks, shoot, rape and pillage; that is the first impression I seem to get from what is reported and written about us in foreign journals and newspapers. Any tourist visiting South Africa nowadays seems to be bombarded with a stringent list of do's and don'ts, constantly reminded that South Africans are violent and prone to crime, particularly black South Africans.

During a recent residency in Holland I was disturbed by the assumption that most foreigners make that black people are the obvious wrong-doers with regard to crime. At a bus-stop in the Hague I was once singled out in a queue of about ten white people by traffic cops "randomly" checking bus passes. The other passengers stood quietly, avoiding eye contact with me while the cops scrutinised my pass with particular relish. The incident seemed to suggest that the "swart gevaar" problem was still a concern in Europe and so I shouldn't have been surprised at how easily foreigners leapt at the opportunity to blame black people for any criminal activity in our country.

The upside of a downside situation
I'm not about to downplay the violence that has become an unfortunate reality of South African life, but clichéd as it may sound, it is hard to ignore the fact that we could easily have been caught up in a civil war. Most of those overseas observers who now get stuck on the local violence had expected just that. The history of our country could have gone the route of some African countries, who many years later are still ravaged by the caprices of war. So forgive me if I sound a little too optimistic, but I don't think things are nearly as bad as the rest of the world would have us believe.

A violent and crime-ridden country can have an upside - if such a thing is possible - for I believe the situation in the country has forced me not take anything for granted. Going out at night has become something I plan strategically, security being foremost on my mind: like where to go and where to park that's safe.

There seems to be a misconception that the township has become unsafe and that if you venture there with your car, you do so at your own peril and risk getting hijacked. If anyone had to see the flashy cars that leave the Rock, a popular bar-cum-disco in the heart of Soweto, at four on a Saturday morning after a well-spent Friday night, that person would be forgiven for thinking he or she was in Melrose Arch tucked away in leafy suburbia. The same can be said about downtown Johannesburg when it comes to life on a Friday night. Take 115, a club on Anderson Street. Most of its regulars hike there from the Northern suburbs. They are a mixed crowd, hard to please and hungry for a good time. They seem bored with their Bold and Beautiful existence and want something real, something to make their hearts race a little - other than chemicals and the effusive house music that have become a regular diet. For many young people it has become strangely fashionable to go out in downtown Johannesburg, usually a ghost town after five, from Monday to Thursday. Fickle though club culture may be, I'd like to think it's a sign of the changing times and my generation's attempt at making sense of a violent history by claiming back no-go areas as legitimate spaces. It's a way of celebrating the diversity that makes South Africa unique. I think we're moving away from simple dogmatic assumptions, like the township is chaotic and the suburbs peaceful. If anything, I think our suburbs are just as susceptible to crime and violence as our townships.

In the early years after 1994 we would often joke in the township that the Reconstruction and Development Plan effectively meant stealing from the white man. With time and the steady exodus of the burgeoning black middle class from the township to the suburbs, the joke has been turned on its head. Now it's a case of stealing from those who have - irrespective of their colour. And that is healthy - in a warped sort of way.

Education - the heart of the matter
To me the challenge is not only that of containing the violence but also of ensuring continued cultural diversity and "self-determination". In a country with eleven official languages one cannot take one's own lingo and culture for granted - others are also vying for attention and demanding space and support. The inevitable question is whether the different cultures are going to be amalgamated into one melting-pot like in the USA, with one language pushing all others out of the way. Is Western culture ultimately going to impress itself on us by way of English, in a country where unofficially English is already accepted as the dominant language, even though it is the mother tongue of fewer than ten percent of the population? Do you give your children a good education in a private English-language school, at the risk of their being alienated from their home language?

During the turbulent '80s thousands and thousands of students suffered dysfunctional township schools and there was a general feeling that the struggle's directive to render the country ungovernable was being executed at the expense of the youth's education. Between the police brutality that forced multitudes into detention and the relentless cries of toyi-toyi on the streets of Soweto, school was of little consequence to many youths. As a result numerous black students failed their matric examination and were not reabsorbed into the education system later, owing to age restrictions on entry to secondary schools, introduced in the early 1980s. Hence the notorious lost generation that post-1994 South Africa now has to face.

The private provision of education in South Africa grew in response to government's unwillingness and inability to provide black learners with a sound education. Sympathetic to the growing crisis in black education, the South African Catholic Bishop's Conference took a brave step by defying apartheid educational legislation when they enrolled black students in Catholic schools during the early '80s.

During that dark era, parents who could afford it sent their children to private schools and the government turned a blind eye. Other than boarding school, it was the only way to get a decent education if you lived in the township. I was part of the first batch of guinea-pigs that commuted between the township and the suburbs daily. For much of the '80s we, the Model C type buppies, felt tormented and apologetic about getting a good education while other children lamented by roaming the streets as a result of school boycotts. In the township, friendships with other kids who didn't go to private schools were hard to forge, if not impossible. The sense of dislocation and alienation pushed some private school kids into drugs and delinquency in their desperate attempts to get street credibility and be seen as not "selling out" to white culture. Another writer summed it up nicely when she commented that to check on the successes and failures of that first generation of Model C black kids one only has to look at captains of industry today. The evidence would suggest that they are not from private schools. But the second generation of buppies seems to have inherited a more serious problem.

These days the phenomenon of coconuts - blacks that have completely assimilated white culture and cannot speak their mother tongue - seems to indicate that Model C schools still have a long way to go in providing a well-balanced education that takes other cultures and languages into consideration. I suppose ultimately it's a case of trying to protect your own culture while having to operate successfully in a society which cannot resist the values and demands of the West - with its glorification of individuality, self-expression, capitalism, globalisation.

Colonialism and crossing borders
Earlier this year while in Holland and with the momentum of the Olympic Games building up, I was asked about how I felt about being part of the Commonwealth. Of course my first reaction was that South Africa was reintroduced into the Commonwealth only a few years ago. All the preceding years we were the tainted distant cousins of the family, labelled and loaded with that baggage wherever we went. So suddenly it was like finding out about a long-forgotten extended family who I never even suspected would again welcome us into their midst. Besides, there is still history between us. And involuntarily I feel that awful word that everyone who is keen to see the Commonwealth fail, creep up in my thoughts: colonialism. And perhaps that is what the question is really about: How do I feel about the new relationship that the Commonwealth is trying to encourage among all the former British colonies?

Reconciliation is a good thing, even cathartic. In South Africa no one will ever forget the grieving image of Bishop Desmond Tutu breaking down in tears during the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing, horrified and overwhelmed by the truth rearing its sometimes terrifying head. Or the police officer who coolly demonstrated in front of a shocked panel how he would torture his victims into submission by suffocating them. Who can forget the revelations of how gruesome murders were strategically planned in the minutest detail over a casual braai at Vlakplaas, the men laughing while drinking beer? The stories were endless and the inhumanity of the details bone-chilling, but the confessions were part of the process that we had to go through to make sense of and overcome a brutal history.

Uncomfortable as the process of revealing the truth was, though, most people could at least agree that it was a necessary step in moving forward. Perhaps that is how I feel about the Commonwealth. How are we (because there can't be an "us" and "them" if we hope to make this work), peoples of the Commonwealth, dealing with our history? Is there a sense of reconciliation and a real effort to encourage understanding and create a deeper sense of the commonwealth of humanity?

Frankly, it's a question too big for me to try and answer, so I won't. I can only respond by recalling the little I have seen of that process of reconciliation - even in countries outside the Commonwealth, such as France. When the remains of Saartjie Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus who was obscenely paraded in Europe as a freak at the height of the colonial era, was recently returned to South Africa after long negotiations with the French, there was an exhilarating feeling of having been vindicated and triumphing over history: that this poor woman could finally be afforded some dignity by getting a proper burial.

But I'm more interested in what it means to me to be part of the Commonwealth. What options has it opened up for me as a young writer?
For one, it means that I can travel throughout certain parts of the globe and experience and enjoy other cultures. I am reminded of the value of travelling and seeing the world through the eyes of another culture. My five months residency in Holland opened my eyes and mind in a similar way, Holland, ironically, having been the first colonial power in this part of the world.

What has this invitation meant to me? It's been an opportunity to write, do readings, participate in panel discussions, talk to other writers and step away from South Africa and see what the world thinks of us and ponder what I think of us. And how accurate or inaccurate perceptions of South Africa have been and are, to discover the most glaring perceptions that people have formed. This residency has been an invaluable opportunity; certainly, I have become much more aware of how diverse South Africa really is, and that diversity has impressed itself on me without my fully realising it, making it easier for me to meet and commune with people from other parts of the world.

In Amsterdam the presence of people from other countries is inescapable and not always comfortable for the locals. How the Dutch and the rest of Europe are trying to deal with foreigners and xenophobia interested me greatly because here we are struggling with the same issues. The stance which the Dutch seem to encourage is one of tolerance: you should accept that your neighbours with their handful of kids are from Bangladesh and speak another language at home. You should accept that in some cultures women stay at home and raise children and that in other cultures women cover their heads.

But are we ever going to move beyond tolerance? Is it ludicrous, even naïve, to suggest that we might ever go beyond mere tolerance and appreciate, even admire, each other's cultures? That seems to be what the real challenge is in South Africa.

Without arts festivals, residencies, exchange programs, scholarships and to some extent international sporting events, what other opportunities are there for young people to travel legitimately into another country, explore another culture beyond business? Without it being a political thing about seeking asylum? Not to mention the threat of terror imposing constraints?
It seems to me to be getting harder and harder just to go anywhere. So I welcome the opportunity to have met Brazilians, Iranians, Surinamers, Antillians, Gambians and an Irishman from some pokey part of Dublin, because it's not part of my everyday reality in South Africa and the chance does not readily present itself.

Looking in from the outside, and out from the inside, has allowed me to consider my place in the country and in the world; perhaps to begin writing with a broader audience in mind, touching on issues around the larger world we inhabit, but not losing sight of what is specific and special about home.

LitNet: 18 October 2004

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