Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Befriending your Percy

I grew up in Westville. More than 5km away was far. The beach, at 14km, was a rare treat.  The 'enemy' was Pinetown, Glenwood, DHS, Northwood, Maritzburg... and the people with money at Kearsney, Hilton and Michaelhouse. Then I started to care about sports teams. The Banana Boys and Wildebeests ,were re-nicknamed the Dolphins and Sharks. The same teams 'the enemy' cared about. Natal trumped Westville. The enemy was Transvaal, Northern Transvaal and Western Province. Then the 1995 World Cup happened, and all was forgiven when you pulled on a green jersey. Now the enemy wore yellow, black or white. Even Percy Montgomery, with his flowing Disney Prince blonde hair and white boots, was forgiven and later idolised.

As South Africa embarked on the process of Nation Building, the tools of identity building were pulled out of the bag. New Anthem. New Flag. New Money. Representative Sports Teams. Various things that could help people 'forgive your Percy'. The idea of a 'Nation State' is Apartheid at country level. A Nation is a distinct ethnic or cultural group that inhabits a specific territory. Where one group own a 'homeland'. The same concept of Self-Determination that saw the League of Nations (Post World War I) and United Nations (Post World War II) being formed, with the laudable aim of preventing further war.

Part of this 'self' determination involved forced population swaps so that people lived in their homelands. The India-Pakistan (displacing about 14 million people) and Greek-Turkish (about 1.6 million people) exchanges are two of the most traumatic examples.

The idea being that a Nation would have a 'the people' - who looked the same, spoke the same, believed the same, and shared a common identity. Add some competitive vigour to that and you have the underpinnings of modern racism.

We are all local somewhere. I may have left Westville, but Westville will never leave me. I have also lived in Cape Town, on the campus of the University and in Harfield Village. I have lived in Bryanston, Johannesburg. I have lived in Putney, London and Westbourne House, Chichester. I now live in Burford, just outside Oxford.

We can only have a limited number of deep relationships, and those relationships will form our identity. Our identity is local. Rather than identifying with the abstract idea of a Nation, I think we can consciously build an identity that stretches us. Rather than finding yourself, you can build yourself.

The concept of 'Six Degrees of Separation' suggests we are only six relationships away from anyone. It is really challenging finding common ground with someone six steps away. No shared religion, language, interests or behaviours. We just won't understand each other. But I do believe we can work at making Six become Five, or Six become Four. One step. Two steps if we are brave. A step is not finding common groud, it is building common ground. We can increase the level of understanding a little, by consciously choosing to spend more time with people who understand things we don't. Learn a language. Understand a sport. Share a belief. Listen. See. Grow.

We can make the world a nicer place by befriending our Percy.

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