For Nelson Mandela’s birthday, and because I’m reading Thula Simpson’s Umkhonto We Sizwe: The ANC’s Armed Struggle, thinking about and respecting the lives of everyone who stood against apartheid, those whose names are known or unknown, remembered or forgotten. Thinking that the aim of the struggle was peace, and how we’re not there yet. Thinking that peace without justice isn’t good enough, but neither would be justice without peace.
The first touchstone is Haile Selassie’s 1963 speech at the UN:
Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned … Until all Africans stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men, as they are in the eyes of Heaven; Until that day, the African continent will not know peace.
I think that’s right. It’s a two-part “philosophy”: an underlying guiding premise that there are higher and lower degrees of human being, which are delineated by racial difference. Both parts are lies. We have to know it’s a lie, and say so. Until we get that, entirely, and abandon it “finally and permanently”, Bob Marley is right: “everywhere is war”. Without also exposing that noxious foundation, all the necessary political, personal, social, theoretical, legal and institutional anti-racist decolonising work will continue to founder. We need a true foundation.
A second touchstone is a memory from Johannesburg in the late 1980s, when we stayed next to Patterson Park in Orange Grove. People coming from the busses and taxis in Louis Botha Avenue would cross the park on their way to and from work in Norwood and beyond. One morning, before sunrise, I lay in bed listening to passing shouts, laughter, and soft conversation in language that was opaque to my ear. It suddenly occurred to me – and I’m still embarrassed what a blinding revelation this was – that they were conducting their lives completely without reference to me and my world. I burst out laughing, and then I put my white man’s burden down.
I was reminded of this at a philosophy café last year, when the participants (all persons of pallor) took up the vexed question of what they were supposed to give up for the “new South Africa”, to whom, and how, and how that would make things better. One woman proposed that maybe it wasn’t so much the stuff we had to give up, but our attachment to a particular identity. I think that’s right, and again, at the philosophical level: at the heart of what we take humanness to be. White people – especially the educated, liberal middle/upper class – are not the centre of the universe. Really, lay that burden down. Black people are fine. They know what they’re doing. Just like the rest of us.
The third touchstone is how we get it right, and what’s involved with that. Because we actually do get it right, right here, right now. Every day, people simply get on together. As co-workers, classmates, teammates, friends, lovers, parents and children, neighbours, or strangers sharing a moment on the street or in a shop, black and brown and white people in South Africa are relating with each other as “free beings”, equal in each other’s eyes “as they are in Heaven”. Even in these nasty times, amity and goodwill is also evident. It can’t be denied, but it can be dismissed. Why do that? Let this evidence count for something; let it be factored into our ideas of possibility. Our realistic hopes.
Which, fourthly and finally, brings to mind Mary Oliver’s Swan. The poem asks if you have seen the swan on the black river at night, seen it rise into the air in the morning (“an armful of white blossoms”), heard its “fluting and whistling”, and seen it as a “cross streaming across the sky”. Finally it asks,
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything? And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for? And have you changed your life?
This is how change happens at the foundational level of belief, the level of life and loving. The practical level of philosophy, I mean. And I’m not talking about “white” or “black” people here, but each one of us, in ourselves. Can we learn to notice, and help each other to notice, the minute particulars of the lives and worlds around us? Not generalities, not assumptions, but real immediate undeniable contact. It can hurt, sometimes so much you can hardly bear it. And then you finally figure out what beauty, and suffering, is for. You change your life.