Monday, May 25, 2009

Dispatch: Witnessing the Contradictions

I don’t remember a specific moment when I learned right from wrong. Clearly I learned it, over time, from my parents, grandparents and teachers and others, but I don’t remember a single conversation where I was sat down and told right, wrong, good, bad, moral. Moral. That word has so many connotations. In the last several years it seems that and the word values have been co-opted– people talk about “values education” and whether or not our leaders and politicians have the right values. Often that word “values” is directly associated with things like abstinence education, prayer, republicans, but whose values some people ask? Whose values are we talking about? Whose values are we supposed to follow? And how do we develop our own? Who helps us grow them, who nurtures our values and beliefs when we are young and helps us to get to the place where we can make our own choices, to follow our own consciences. How do we become the kind of people who step back or walk home when a crowd of friends is looting a shop instead of diving in to grab chips and 5 kg of rice? To not act simply because “my friends were doing it.” To feel shame or sadness at seeing someone’s humanity being stripped from them. And to put that before one’s own hunger?

The one word in my mind lately is contradiction. When I set out to do this film, I had four categories in my mind – the victim, the perpetrator, the bystander, and the resistor. It turns out that these categories are somewhat fluid, that the 16 year old who tried to stand up identifies as a bystander. That the perpetrator didn’t act out of hatred for foreigners but for other reasons. That the perpetrator is ashamed of his or her wrongs, says the violence was wrong, and admits that the pull of wanting to join friends and of one’s own stomach is powerful, but also offers that there are more disadvantages than advantages to having foreigners in South Africa.

Luyalo’s story is unique. He saw his Zimbabwean neighbor bleeding on the street and he and his father brought him into their home. This was a risk and the only story I have encountered where a young person stood up amidst the chaos to help someone. I am sure there are others but this is the only one I have found, after talking to over 100 youth who live in areas where looting took place. Why was this a risk? “My friends might think I’m against South Africa because I help those people [foreigners], but I’m not against them, they are the same as us.” One’s immediate assumption then might be that Luyalo feels it is good to have foreigners in his community and in his country. “They bring opportunities, they sell us things at good prices,” he said, affirming my assumption. But when I probed further I got a different answer. Having foreigners in South Africa, “its bad and right. Shopkeepers can stay, but people who bring disease and take low salaries should go.” So its 50, 50 according to Luyalo. Those he perceives as helpful can stay. Some foreigners are okay, others are not. It doesn’t depend on where they are from, it doesn’t seem to be fear of the other completely, perhaps more those he perceives as a threat or who could cause problems must go. Again, so much contradiction wrapped up in this young man.

Sometimes it is the contradictions of this country that become illuminated for me. And sometimes the words of the young are unnerving. I recently conducted more interviews at a suburban (privileged) boys school. I heard sympathy for foreigners and talk of foreigners who come here illegally or bring and sell drugs. I heard stories from boys who participated in the relief effort and aided refugees and boys who wanted to stand up but were afraid. Some of what I heard disturbed me. The boys are 15 and 16. They are boys.

One said to me:

“When foreigners come they do little things (like selling goods on the side of the road) to get money but South Africans take it so easily, most people who were mobbing are hijacking people instead of buying at a shop. We had a hardworking Zimbabwean domestic worker. Now we have a South African and she doesn’t work as hard. Just the work ethic from foreigners to South Africans is such a big difference…Its just another point of how South Africans value other people’s lives. It has the highest crime rate in the world. People are hijacking. No South Africans find jobs, they just hijack people and have food for a month.”

I have heard this sentiment echoed out of the mouths of many young people, both in the suburbs and in the townships. Not the criminal, hijacking piece. This boy was the first. But I have had young people in townships tell me that members of their community do not take initiative, do not create jobs for themselves like foreigners do. I have also had one young boy tell me that, “Black people don’t know how to work. They think that money floats into their hands.” I never know what to do with these statements and sentiments and generalizations and I am invariably still surprised to hear them, but I share it here in contrast to the above and as something for you to contemplate. The boy above, of course, has little to no exposure to the people he is stereotyping. Then again, we usually don’t.

And here are a few other thoughts I found interesting:

“The scariest thing for me wasn’t that a guy [foreigner] was being hit, but it was the people who were walking away from him and not paying attention.”

“The first time I found out [about the xenophobia] through my dad because our domestic worker came and said there was unrest in Mandela Park [township]. I didn’t think much of it, it seems far away, you think its not coming to Hout Bay. One morning on my way in the car I saw guys attacking another guy with a panga and that’s when I realized. At first it doesn’t seem real, you don’t think much of it but then it is shocking how people value people’s lives and say, “they are foreigners, they mean nothing.”

“I didn’t know how far the xenophobia would spread and what it could turn into. You began to worry about your own safety. You wondered would they come to your house? Next thing foreigners are kicked out then it could have been White people attacked and killed.”

“We tend to make reasons why this is happening. White South Africans were also worried. My family got passports ready because if they could attack their “brothers” what is stopping them from attacking us, we were worse to them in apartheid. White people tend to live in their own perfect world and tend to think it won’t happen to them, what life is like for blacks and coloreds is happening (like poverty or violence). I talked to my friends and my domestic worker and I asked them how long has this hatred for foreigners been around and my domestic worker said that her mother and father hated foreigners and I asked them why and they couldn’t give a reason and I think they were just waiting for an excuse.”

“All I know is that foreigners have rights. But if you look at first world countries and all the immigrants they have and the strict control they have and look at us, we are third world, we have bad hygiene and water and we have weak border control. We let everyone in and we’re third world and can’t cater for them. If first world countries are so strict then we should be too.”

I am troubled by some of this and saddened by the massive divide in this country. But I believe it is important not to judge, and certainly not too harshly. To remember that these -- the boys who speak above, the other young people I have talked to, the perpetrators, the bystanders, those who stood up, are all kids. Kids with massive, perhaps disturbing, preconceptions of other South Africans, kids who have learned to fear, kids who have learned that they are better than others, kids who are convinced there is a difference between stealing and taking when they are looting, but yes, kids. Kids who are still learning and can still be taught, who will grow and change as they experience life and encounter new people, who are each still looking for and finding their own moral compass.

The working title of this film is Where Do I Stand? I don’t presume to ever try and understand where all of these kids come from nor all of their baggage and I don’t wish to make them think exactly as I do. But I know where I’d like them to stand – or at least near – and I am making this film to help them get there, or help them start thinking about it. And perhaps it is as much a question now of what we as adults, teachers, parents, friends – of what you do -- to help them get there.

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