The Black Sash marked its 61st anniversary on 19 May with a panel discussion on "The Kind of South Africa in which we wish to live", held in its national office in Mowbray, Cape Town. The four panellists were Professor Njabulo Ndebele, Alexandra Hotz (member of #Rhodes Must Fall), Craig Makhosi Charnock (founder of Ubuntu Bridge) and Sibongile Mkhabela (chair of the Black Sash Board of Trustees).
Bongi Mkhabela welcomed the audience to what should be "a meaningful conversation that we will remember". Di Oliver outlined the conversations within the organisation which had inspired the meeting, discussions among the trustees, all women of diverse backgrounds who had learned to work together and trust one another. National Director Lynette Maart welcomed particularly the young people in the audience, who included school learners.
Njabulo Ndebele welcomed the presence too of the older generation, at what was intended as an inter-generational discourse. He recognised that there were things in our society which must fall, but also good things which must not fall – first and foremost the Constitution. "I would like to live in the kind of society in which the Constitution and the rule of law are respected". The Bill of Rights within the Constitution, has the capacity to make us all equal before the law, yet we have to recognise the structural embeddedness of inequality and of racism. That inequality is evident in conditions in the townships, but there are many aspects of township life that should be part of the future: the first is the ability to speak many languages. People were dispossessed of much, but in living together in the cities and the mines with people of other culture, they gained this skill which the future needs. The second is the energy and determination to build a new kind of economic system, growing out of the strength of the people themselves.
Bongi Mkhabela asked "Who are 'the poor'? In my spirit and my soul I find it hard to define others as 'the poor'. Why should economic status define people?" She spoke of the strength of those who may be formally uneducated but carry the heritage of culture and language into the next generation. Young people are formed by their families and communities, as the students of the 1976 resistance were brought up by their leaders – the YWCA, SASO, BPC, FRELIMO. Those who will build the future are those who will say "I am an African", regardless of whether they are black or white.
Alex Hotz pointed to the gap between the generations, recognising the tensions of the 40-years-ago events in Soweto, but saying not much has changed for black young people who face racism and violence. She had been studying law, but had now been interdicted from being on campus, and said she had recently been expelled. Wanting to find a way to build the South Africa she would want to live in, she recognised that young people have things to learn from the past, setting up street committees and enabling young and old to work together. However she could not see a way to reconciliation while decolonisation, redistribution, and land allocation were the priorities. There should be 'no bandage on a gaping wound'. She said conversations needed to be uncomfortable and unsettling, and 'We can't protect people's feelings'.
Craig Charnock sketched the background to his belief that there is a global culture of exploitation, corruption and environmental destruction, of which South Africa is a part. Although he had studied at a privileged school and university, the rural village where he had learned to become a sangoma had been his best education. The world is flawed, yet regards itself as civilised, and expects black people to become part of that 'civilisation'. Like Ndebele, he stressed the importance of language and culture, through which the greatest transformation can be brought about. He argued that all school children should go through 'language immersion', long before they are allowed to go to a university.
A lively conversation followed as the audience responded. Comments ranged from a wish to be able to abandon racist labels, to the need to learn from the previous generations, and to the ways in which we all fail to respond to problems around us (illustrated by deaths from AIDS and poverty). Many questions were asked about where we go from here, how we are going to get it right, how to strengthen the right to education. "What I want is for people to walk in any community and not be afraid". It was announced that in Durban there is a plan for 1000 people to sleep on the streets, in an action of united citizens to defend the constitution. A visitor from the USA spoke of the need for transnational solidarity, with redistribution going across boundaries.
The members of the panel had a brief final word in reply:
Ndebele: Learn to know and trust those who seem different. Many valuable projects are hidden behind the 'noise' of daily news. We are on the way, but we need a structure.
Hotz: Focus on the reality of on-going historical inequality and socio-economic injustice.
Charnock: Overcome fear, which leads to competition. Build relationships as humans and develop a consciousness of unity.
Mkhabela: Despite all our good works and intentions we are too disorganised and divided. A movement of some kind is required.
CONCLUSION: The challenges ahead:
To learn – language, cultures, one another's hopes and dreams
To avoid superficial dialogue, and to speak and specially to listen truly.
To support and encourage those who are brave enough to blaze new trails.
To take action, even small, which leads one into deeper commitment, giving up something.
To recognise the social and economic inequality that traps us all into injustice.
To live the future we want, even if some of our choices are limited by history, seeking ways that are alert and sensitive to the needs of others.
To unite and to grow the energy and to build the movement to transform South Africa.
Black Sash Trustee