Thursday, February 18, 2016

Do Something

Given enough perspective, all of our worries are temporary. We are floating on a pale blue dot in a infinitely vast black ocean. Our worries don't matter. Our worries are also the only thing that matters. It is very annoying when someone shows you that someone else's issues are worse. Our response to the vastness is to focus. To care. About something. Something that matters to us. To get passionate, and dive into the nit and grit affecting those we love. I am all for that. But realising that you are not a unique snowflake, that you can learn from history and perspective, that our gut responses can cloud issues... can lead us to asking more beautiful questions.

I lived in Smuts Hall at UCT for 3 years. As part of my 'Save Marshmallows' strategy, I had decided to respond to the vastness by focussing on the community at Smuts, and my studies. When I was at university, there was a post-struggle political apathy. People wanted to crack on with life. Life beyond Apartheid. UCT had been a place of political struggle in the past. When I was there, one guy got onto the Student Council because a bunch of his mates secretly put up posters of him without a shirt on all over campus. Apathy. We didn't want to struggle. We wanted to build friendships, and a residence seemed like a good place to start. About 400 people living together. Eating together. Playing sport together. And when exams forced them to... studying.

Smuts Hall, UCT

There were racial tensions. You don't wave a wand and start again. People did still form cliques of friends from similar backgrounds when they joined into flats, but they were living next to each other. Sitting on the same grass. Sharing meals. There were still joint dances. There were still drinks together. Braais together. We had a 'Free Speech Board' that would get very heated at times. We had a dining hall that would have passionate discussions. We were figuring stuff out.

Building Friendships

The hall had stained glassed windows. They weren't all finished originally. They had celebrated the landing of van Riebeeck in 1652 (as the Dutch set up a supply station on the route to the east). Bartholomew Dias erected a Padrao in 1488 as the Portuguese looked for a sea route to the land of Prester John (Christian kingdom of Abyssinia) that was cut off from Christendom by the Muslim lands. The Hugenots arrived in South Africa in 1688 after French Protestants were evicted from their homes in the battles of the reformation. The British arrived in 1820 after the fall of Napoleon obliterated Dutch strength and left the British with a vision of a 'civilising mission' (an intellectualisation justifying colonisation). Another window depicts the Union of four separate countries in 1910 imposed by the British after the South African Wars (Anglo-Boer, Anglo-Zulu etc.) and the joining of Transvaal, Natal, the Orange Free State, and the Cape Province. An attempt to force the federation idea that had worked in Canada on Southern Africa. Australia also brought its colonies together in 1901. There was a one idea fits all understanding of liberalism. Liberalism at gunpoint.

Smuts Windows

But four windows remained... and 1994 came. And the majority of the country had been ignored. Subjugated. Should the windows be removed? Instead four windows were added

A long history of struggle. Depictions of the slave economy that drove the Cape Colony for two centuries. The defeat of the British at Isandlwana in 1879 showing the strength of the resistance against colonialism. Scenes showing the police baton charging civilians in the 1970s on the UCT campus. The Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. The death of Hector Peterson in 1976 during the Soweto Riots. AK47s. Petrol Bombs. Tyres used to hang around people's necks and burn them to death. Freedom was hard fought. People did things that dehumanised them.


The next window celebrates the birth of hope in 1994. Mandela. Long queues of people voting in a Government to give life to a constitution designed by a long process of consensus building to create a new society. New representation. A new flag. New relationships.

The next window depicted Africa raising its horn. The pre-colonial kingdoms in the Limpopo Area that used to trade with the East and interact with the Muslim world right down the east coast of Africa to ancient Azania (now part of Tanzania). The ruins of the cities of Great Zimbabwe. Spindles and tools from the African Iron Age. Drums and musical instruments celebrating the pre-colonial sub-continent.

Africa Rising

The final window celebrates the San People who were in South Africa by at least 44,000 BCE. Before the land migrations from Nigeria and Cameroon. Before the sea migrations from Europe, Asia and other places where people who had once left Africa returned home. There are images of hunting, animals in trance, religious beliefs and stories. 

South Africa's history is complex. It is not separate from the history of the rest of the world. Borders are new and temporary. I am only starting to learn about the interactions with the Muslim world before, during and after the arrival of the Portuguese. I know little about the steady migration South over thousands of years. I am reading two books that seem to overlap heavily. One is trying to understand the conflict in the middle east. One is looking at the history of Africa. As one thread starts unravelling, it pulls on another. Unwinding our past is a long project.

'The Fortunes of Africa' Martin Meredith & 'From Babel to Dragomans' Bernard Lewis

It hurt seeing paintings from my home burn. I have been told that group photos were burnt too. I didn't see them in the flames and hope that it isn't true. I prefer the approach taken with the windows. A raw, honest, concerted effort to understand our history warts and all. To attempt to look at it from the perspective of others. To share stories. To genuinely attempt to build a society that draws on the best bits from all sources.

#Shackville #RhodesMustFall

But we have homework. It can't just be about art and hope. We can't ignore the vastness so much that we only look at our issues. We can't look to government to change things. South Africa has a strong constitution. The United Kingdom has a strong constitution. The United States has a strong constitution. There is some structure in place. If you want perspective, look at Homs. Look at Sudan, Somalia, Central African Republic, the Congo. That is what happens when things descend into violence. Things descend into violence when nothing is done. In a liberal democracy, there is no one to blame. When things go wrong, everyone needs to collectively take responsibility.

And do something.

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