Khuluma Workshop

I've spent two of three days at the Khuluma Workshop - it's a sort of voluntary challenge day for any staff of UCT that wish to attend. I've been to plenty of diversity workshops and leadership camps and what have you before, and although there are some elements of this experience that recall those, Khuluma has been quite different. In our class of 16, I think we have 2 white men, 3 white women, 3 Black women, 1 Black man, 2 Coloured men, 5 Coloured women. They are from various staff offices and schools. The facilitators are a Black woman from Soweto and a white woman raised in Kenya and Uganda by British parents. They are both very very good. Embodiment of gentleness. Embodiment of authority.

First of all - when the question is asked, "Relate a story of a time when you experienced discrimination":

A Coloured man related the forced relocation of his family from a neighborhood which was reclassified as "white".
A Muslim Coloured woman related being ejected from "white" beaches by the police and threatened with arrest.
A Coloured woman related the story of her green-eyed Coloured boyfriend who was able to "pass" or "go for white" and purchase a house in a white area. This necessitated getting the signed permission of everyone in that neighborhood for him to move in.

And that was just from my small group.

And when the question is asked, "Relate a story of a time when you discriminated against someone":
Initially, I was the only person in my group who had a story. I don't think there's been enough time and dialog going on for lots of people to think about that way. The history is so one-sided.

Today (the second day) we talked more about the history. I had read about some of the laws and some of the resistance in Nelson Mandela's autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom but there were far more laws than I knew of, the system was more insidious than Mandela's book expresses. I assume this is due to Mandela's famous spirit of forgiveness and effort toward Reconcilation. It is amazing to hear first hand what it was like. And it's not like going once a year to meet the 1906 Earthquake survivors at a special ceremony, it's not history. Everyone you see on the street who is older than about 10 has memories (scars) of life under aparteid. This includes the whites too - whether actively involved in "The Struggle" or not. What was terrifying for me to realize is how the first 20 years or so of aparteid were basically barely different than the segregation laws in the US. Where the ZA National Party made laws after that - many of them were identical to the unwritten laws that governed the life of American blacks prior to the Civil Rights Movement. I went into the workshop planning to be an observer and feeling somewhat naive. But what I heard started to sound uncomfortably familiar.

We were divided into white and non-white groups today - the term "Black" here is used both for genetic Africans and as a general term for "People of Color" - I didn't realize before that this is how UCT achieves its "50% Black" statistic - but that's another story.

To be sent into another room with the other white people was a horrible shock. After spending 1.5 days really digging into the experiences of my new friends and really being touched by their stories - to be sent out felt like redrawing the lines in the sand. The other person who was really troubled and had difficulty leaving the room was a white man in his mid-50s - like other white males he was conscripted into the South African Defence Force at 18 and sent to the Border wars - he lashed out against the commanders for what he was being asked to do and was imprisoned by the government.

As the white group we made a list of how the legacy of aparteid had hurt white South Africans and the country as a whole. Many items on our list will sound familiar to Americans as well -
-the "Pale Male" syndrome where white males feel rage over being disenfranchised, but a survey of the positions of power still shows extensive control of economy and media by white males.
-fear of non-whites as bringing crime, incursion into neighborhoods, "property values"... living in fear
-white families separating as white people left ZA (thinking of white South Africans I've met in US... all arrived circa 1995)
-Hard to form new alliances of real trust - now racism has gone "underground"
-whites afraid to give anybody feedback/criticism at work - overplaying of the "race card"

We are not so different after all! I could have made 75% of the list about America.

What WAS different - is the reaction of the Black/Coloured group to our list - many people were genuinely surprised, and even terribly sad and hurt - to see the extent of the fear among whites -
I think the communication has been so ABSENT between communities that many people never thought about the motivations behind white racism and resistance to change. Nobody tried to justify those things of course - but I think for some people present it put a human face on the "white menace". One Coloured woman came to tears to see that Transformation was coming at so great a cost for some people, as a white woman related that her sons had left the country in 1995 and made homes in Europe - never to return.

Tune in tomorrow after the session on WHAT WE CAN DO AT WORK

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