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Jonathan Jansen in Johannesburg, South Africa.

What got me onto this line of thinking was a fascinating pair of books that I just finished reading, one by social psychologist Claude Steele titled Whistling Vivaldi. He retells a story of the discomforts of a black man when he walked through a white American neighbourhood and observed the racial fears of white pedestrians; body language stiffened, couples walked more closely together, and eye contact was studiously avoided. Then he noticed that, when he whistled melodies from Vivaldi, the white folk relaxed and became more comfortable with the passing presence of the black man. Fascinating. Steele's book is about what he calls stereotype threats and how to overcome them.

The other intriguing book on this theme is by Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson titled The Cosmopolitan Canopy in which the author reports on a study of social spaces and how white and black Americans encounter each other in the middle-class shopping malls compared to streets through rough neighbourhoods compared to downmarket shopping centres.

There is a lot of civility to go around in the middle-class spaces; here people are comfortable with each other, and the social rules allow for greeting and even the exchange of light banter between strangers. But change the setting, and the relationships stiffen.

There is a lot of this going on in South Africa as well. A white group walking through Soweto in the dead of night would be scared witless. But call the occasion the Fifa Soccer World Cup or the Super 15 Rugby Finals, and the rules of encounter change so that small and large groups of whites venture easily into black homes on weekends.

Over the years I have observed such unconscious space management among white and black students at several South African universities. Without any seating arrangements being made, black students who are strangers to each other gravitate towards racial blocks in the university classroom, and the same for white students. When you point this out to either side, they first express surprise that this is noticed, and then come the defensive parries: "We feel more comfortable with people from our own cultures or who speak our own languages."

Of course the students in these uni-racial groups are themselves often from very different cultures, but in this country culture has become the more comfortable substitute in our language for skin.

We all understand how racial mastery, myth and memories implanted in our minds over centuries continue to afflict us even when the legal barriers to normal human interaction have been broken down. We are not reacting to the present; we are carrying the burden of history. We are not bad people. We simply do not know how to overcome the present past. But there is hope.

"Would you join me for worship at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem tomorrow?" asks a friend.

I sat to consider this otherwise normal request from a fellow South African. I smiled, hopeful of our future, for the person asking me to go to church is a devout Muslim. The space he planned to enter was evangelical Christian, a familiar setting- theologically if not culturally- from my childhood upbringing in the Cape. The idea of being invited to church by a Muslim was a special South African moment.

How did my Muslim friend overcome centuries of racial and religious brainwashing? It starts by recognising our interconnectedness. Our identities are not unchanging racial essences inscribed by the divine. This was the ultimate lie of apartheid's ideologues. We come from each other's bosoms. We are shaped and defined by each other. That is why we miss each other, and miss home, when we leave this country. I have witnessed how hard we try to connect in Afrikaans or isiZulu in faraway lands, just to remind ourselves of our common heritage.

Our transformation continues when we realise that by breaking through our ethnic and faith entrapments we are not "giving up" anything. My friend is not less Muslim because of his openness to Baptist worship in Harlem.

The critical ingredient is courage. Our tribal or herd instincts in this country are still very strong. We look around, so to speak, before we step across those invisible lines that still separate us by race, ethnicity, and religion. The more adults who cross those lines without fearing the charge of "kaffir boetie" or "coconut" by the tribalists around us, the easier it will be for our children to be human.

 

Jonathan Jansen is Honorary Professor of Education at the University of the Witwatersrand and Scholar-in-Residence at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Jonathan Jansen is Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State. He is the Honorary Professor of Education at the University of the Witwatersrand and Visiting Fellow at the National Research Foundation. Jansen also serves as an Independent Non-Executive Director for Advtech Limited.

Contact details

O: (012) 420-3513

 

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