In South Africa we didn’t have the luxury of easing into the year – for us 2016 exploded into life, sparked by racist social media posts followed by a backlash that has us angry, confused, pained, despondent and some crying out for leadership.
Leadership is a fascinating concept, a nebulous concept at times and at times a concept behind which to hide for those who are uncertain about how to contribute.
Now I’m no leader, I’m just a man from Soweto who has opinions but at the end of it all I am human with experiences (good and bad).
In the year 1999 I arrived on a mine in the Free State as part of a six man consulting team tasked with turning around a mine heading towards bankruptcy and closure.
We had six months to formulate and initiate the implementation of a strategy that would save over 3,500 jobs.
Back then mines were a world where the alpha male was supreme and at the top of the food chain was a management team comprised primarily of middle-aged Afrikaner males.
Invariably they were strong-willed individuals who would never give an inch for fear of being deemed weak as perceived weakness opened them up to attack and possible loss of their power and privileges attached.
Me being a fresh faced black man in his early twenties, was assigned one of these “mine captains”, tasked with overseeing implementation of our turnaround plan in his section.
This was a man whose exposure to a black man was limited to the black males who laboured on the mines, men with limited or no education, men who had been subjugated by a system that ensured they accepted a hierarchy that was race based, men whose progress and continued employment were dependent on him.
Now here he is faced with this black whippersnapper, articulate, brimming with self confidence, a black man who didn’t fear him and had the audacity to treat him as an equal.
He didn’t quite know how to react to me but over hours spent walking side by side, kilometres underground, we slowly established a relationship of sorts. Initially he was reticent, standoffish and rude but he had orders from above to cooperate.
In time he couldn’t suppress his curiousity about this black man, who was the antithesis of everything he had believed about black people for over 50 years.
Over time the wall he had erected between us began to crumble, we began to engage on a human level, starting with cold detached professional interaction, interspersed with strained humour as relations gradually thawed.
He began to open up, telling me about his time on the border with the South African Defence Force, his past membership of the AWB and his brutal assaults on recalcitrant black mineworkers.
I found him repulsive at first but my curiosity about him (and my love for life stories) made me listen and keep my judgements to myself.
Over time we debated politics, we talked about the ANC, we debated religion as pertains to racism, we discussed Nelson Mandela, we squared off about the “swart gevaar”.
We talked about how human needs transcended racial lines. Over this journey we learnt from each other, I got a better understanding of Afrikaner Nationalism and he got to understand black people a lot better, he got to see that black people weren’t subhuman.
It is my hearfelt belief that we both grew as humans.
I left that mine having gained a friend of sorts. He was a man who had embarked on a journey where each step further confirmed that his past beliefs were wrong, were based on misinformation, ignorance and fear. He had to come to terms with having wasted years filled with hate, he was now unburdening himself.
The thing about him is that he wanted to learn about black people, he was willing to introspect, he was yearning to be a better human. And unwittingly he was educating me as well.
Fate had thrown us together, fate had given us an opportunity to learn, educate and grow. More is the pity that we didn’t have more time together, but we used the opportunity afforded us.
The point I am attempting to make here is that improvement in race relations isn’t the purview of leaders, it is our individual responsibility.
After all you don’t interact with leaders…on a daily basis you interact with average South Africans.
That we as South Africans are talking about race is a positive sign. It’s an opportunity.
That we will disagree is a given, this is a most difficult and emotive conversation that will make us question teachings, our beliefs, our actions and our value systems.
Understandably some amongst us hold the view that we are tired of “teaching” about what is acceptable and what is offensive but many still have hope and energy.
Some may be confrontational, rude, arrogant and blatantly belligerent but even within their utterances there are lessons to be found.
I can only do it in my little sphere of influence, others have to do it in their own little sphere and eventually these spheres will intersect and interconnect.
One’s sphere may include social media, where one’s words reach a broader audience and can travel around the world in seconds.
Ultimately it comes down to the individual.
We all have a choice to make, do we want to swim against the tide and hold on to outdated beliefs or do we want to open up to new thinking and be part of a future where hate is trampled upon. A future where understanding is built, where empathy and tolerance are fostered.
This ranks amongst the toughest of human challenges but humanity is capable…