South Africa’s dis­jointed, grey iden­tity

A cul­ture of hav­ing to phys­i­cally adapt to a new en­vi­ron­ment, and peo­ple, is in­her­ent in our iden­tity, writes Kae­den Arnold

CityPress - - Voices & Careers - . Arnold is a grey South African

As the year draws to a close, I would like to re­flect on the trans­for­ma­tion of our so­ci­ety from black and white, to the di­verse spec­trum we have in 2017; coloured not only in rich hues of in­di­vid­ual brown and na­tional green, but equally in dis­jointed shades of grey.

Hav­ing only ex­pe­ri­enced South Africa as a “ben­e­fi­ciary of democ­racy”, I have wit­nessed how our young coun­try has strug­gled to form an in­clu­sive iden­tity, fur­ther pro­tracted by what waits for us af­ter the 2019 elec­tions.

The nar­ra­tive and sym­bols for so­cial co­he­sion pro­vided to us through Arch­bishop Des­mond Tutu, Pres­i­dent Nel­son Man­dela and TV ad­ver­tise­ments are ones of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, non­ra­cial­ism and good times. Even in ab­sorb­ing these ideals into our col­lec­tive con­scious­ness, we know some­thing isn’t quite right with our coun­try. Just as there is no sin­gle thing that will “fix” South Africa, equally, there is no sin­gle prob­lem that ex­plains our current ten­sion.

To come to peace with this cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance, I be­lieve many young South Africans have de­vel­oped a third cul­tural iden­tity to cope with the strat­i­fi­ca­tion of so­cial ex­pe­ri­ence.

The con­cept of Third Cul­ture Kids (TCKs) was coined in the 1950s by Amer­i­can so­ci­ol­o­gist Ruth Hill Useem. She de­vel­oped her the­ory along­side her hus­band while they were liv­ing in In­dia, ob­serv­ing their chil­dren ad­just­ing to a new en­vi­ron­ment.

TCKs are chil­dren who spend their de­vel­op­men­tal years out­side the cul­ture of their birth. The first cul­ture is that of the par­ents or home en­vi­ron­ment, the sec­ond that of their ex­ter­nal en­vi­ron­ment and the third the com­pound­ing of the two.

Am­pli­fied cul­tural in­puts re­sult in TCKs shar­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of be­ing phys­i­cally mo­bile re­gard­ing liv­ing lo­ca­tions. They have a greater propen­sity to be mul­ti­lin­gual and more cul­tur­ally sen­si­tive. How­ever, they strug­gle to form a self-iden­tity and of­ten feel alien in places that should be de­scribed as home.

I wish to use this frame­work to un­der­stand the peo­ple at­tempt­ing to par­tic­i­pate in our na­tion building project.

One nar­ra­tive in our coun­try’s his­tory is of phys­i­cal dis­place­ment – coloni­sa­tion, Mfe­cane/Di­faqane, the Great Trek, the Group Ar­eas Act and “so­cial mo­bil­ity”. A cul­ture of hav­ing to phys­i­cally adapt to a new en­vi­ron­ment, and peo­ple, is in­her­ent in South African iden­tity.

Even within cities, our class in­equal­ity means that mov­ing from Alexan­dra to Sand­ton can be akin to in­ter­na­tional travel. The legacy of spa­tial apartheid largely re­in­forces the sta­tus quo.

Aside from mo­bil­ity, third cul­ture ex­pe­ri­ences play out in a num­ber of are­nas. Think of the need to have white and tra­di­tional African wed­dings, code-switch­ing in con­ver­sa­tions, no paid leave for ukuth­wasa (be­com­ing a spir­i­tual healer), the proud but gauche ren­di­tion of singing our na­tional an­them with­out know­ing and/or ac­cept­ing its mean­ing, the hol­low­ness of read­ing the motto on our coat of arms: ke e:/xarra//ke. Con­sen­sus is grey in South Africa.

Young South African angst is re­flected in re­search con­ducted by Pro­fes­sor Joleen Steyn Kotze on born frees study­ing at uni­ver­sity. She notes that “stu­dents’ re­al­i­ties are built on sin­gle sto­ries of ‘the racist’, con­tin­ued ex­clu­sion and stereo­types. Their sense of na­tion­hood, of be­ing one, is very frag­ile. Their po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity is full of con­tra­dic­tions: in­te­grated, yet sep­a­rated; united, yet un­rec­on­ciled; free, yet op­pressed; equal, yet un­equal.”

The 2015 SA Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Barom­e­ter re­port by the In­sti­tute for Jus­tice and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion con­tains some telling sta­tis­tics about our so­cial co­he­sion. Two-thirds (67.3%) of South Africans have lit­tle to no trust in peo­ple of a dif­fer­ent race group; and 61.4% of the South Africans sur­veyed said race re­la­tions in the coun­try had stayed the same or worsened since 1994. Just over half (55%) said they pri­mar­ily as­so­ci­ate with peo­ple who look and speak like them, 64.6% said a united na­tion was pos­si­ble and 71% said they de­sired a uni­fied coun­try.

We don’t trust oth­ers, but want co­he­sion. We seem­ingly have to wait for a sport­ing event to unify us. As a na­tion we are a mixed-race 23-year-old, birthed by colo­nial­ism and de­fi­ance, clothed in a pro­gres­sive Con­sti­tu­tion and grow­ing up in a ne­olib­eral word.

As with any break from a sin­gu­lar nar­ra­tive, we have a nat­u­ral ten­dency to re­treat into iso­la­tion; seek­ing out like-minded groups.

West­ern pol­i­tics cur­rently pro­vides al­most weekly ex­am­ples of the bat­tles for na­tional iden­tity. Equally, the xeno­pho­bic out­pour­ing in South Africa’s metropoli­tan ar­eas ear­lier this year of­fered an­other dis­play of how hard liv­ing with con­tra­dic­tions is.

The de­scrip­tion of “alien­ation” for many uni­ver­sity, cor­po­rate or so­cial spa­ces is en­light­en­ing in how our third cul­ture doesn’t al­low us to feel at home. It speaks to the com­plex ef­fort South Africans make to in­ter­pret our diver­sity. Poor adap­ta­tions to this dis­so­nance re­sult in the piti­ful no­tion of “I don’t see race”.

Per­haps the el­e­ment within all third cul­tures is the at­tempt to es­tab­lish a new set of norms. These are ei­ther pro­gres­sive adap­ta­tions that un­seat the sta­tus quo or, pos­si­bly, a re­sponse to a real or per­ceived loss. The loss of dig­nity, land, his­tory, com­mu­nity, priv­i­lege or ac­cess af­fects us on a hu­man level. Un­re­solved, it runs out our colour.

As South Africans, we should not be cyn­i­cal – we have over­come so much. Adapt­ing to a third cul­ture can be both novel and en­rich­ing. But it re­quires an ac­knowl­edg­ment of dis­com­fort and a will­ing­ness to be tol­er­ant.

Cross-cul­tural iden­ti­ties have strong lega­cies within mi­gra­tion stud­ies, so­ci­ol­ogy and lit­er­a­ture. Our pro­gres­sive Con­sti­tu­tion asks us to reach for the ideal of an in­clu­sive so­ci­ety. But we are not there yet. South Africans have de­vel­oped a third cul­ture to make sense of our com­plex so­cial struc­ture. Our blood is green; our skin is grey.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.