“Can everyone who cried raise your hand?” That was the question last Wednesday morning that started my post-screening discussion at Rustenburg Girls Junior School.
The next questions were all rooted in one -- Why? Why did this violence happen? Why did people use violence instead of just talking to each other? Why didn’t they attack White South Africans who are also really foreigners here? Why was the government so slow to react? Why did the police use violence? How did foreign policemen feel? How did Black policemen feel against Black people? And more and more from these 6th and 7th graders. Two girls suggested that the xenophobia attacks could be seen as part of South Africa’s growth as a democracy and now that they are over, the country and people will learn from them so the violence won’t happen again. Sadly, in some places, it already has.
Some of their questions were easy, some were hard, and how to explain unanswerable complexities that we adults have not figured out, well that is a constant challenge.
These girls were 150 of thousands of students across South Africa who watched Where Do I Stand? last week in honor of World Refugee Day, June 20th. Shikaya (the NGO I partnered with on this film) and I partnered with UNHCR to create the 100 Schools Doing 1 Thing on 1 Day campaign, asking schools to show solidarity with refugees by screening the film. Monday turned into the whole week and 100 schools became 115, running the gamut from rural and urban, private and public, and wealthy and poor.
One of the first replies I got to my email about the campaign was from a principal in Soweto who had seen Where Do I Stand? at a film festival last year. I don’t often share feedback directly, but this email articulated the impact of documentary in a way that is hard to describe. He wrote:
My school (Moletsane High) will be part of 100 schools. Since I saw your film it has inspired me to be involved. Last month, police in White City in Soweto were closing all shops owned by foreigners without reasons. They also arrested a lot of Pakistanis and Somalians. I approached Moroka police station commander. He informed me that foreigners who own shops were increasing the crime by not banking their money. The criminals were targeting their shops because they bank in their shops. The other reason was that they are having a lot of fake money. After hours of discussions he agreed to give them their shops’ keys because we were able to demonstrate that crime and civil matters are different. We managed to assist the poor Pakistani to operate their business. Once more thank you very much for the film that changes lives.
I heard from Elliot again last Friday. He screened the film to almost 200 students on Monday and invited local Pakistani residents to join. The outcome, he said, is that learners want to start an NGO to make sure there is a good crèche for foreign young children in Soweto and they also want to conduct workshops to educate people about foreigners in their community.
Another principal used the screening to set off a week of activities in the school supporting refugees. He noted that, “Every single pupil was engrossed, and what made it even more powerful was the fact that they could recognize the sights and sounds of their own city and see that it is taking place on their doorstep.”
Another, from KwaZulu Natal commented, “It’s been a very sobering and eye-opening experience for many of [my students]. Most of our girls do live in this sheltered bubble and it’s very important that they are aware of what other youths their age experience in this country.”
My colleagues at Shikaya went to several schools last week. I made it to four, starting with two screenings on Monday at a high school and a middle school – about 500 students.
At most screenings there is a moment that throws me. Sometimes it is the sadness of a question or the pain or hatred of a comment; sometimes it’s the raw confusion or the incredible insight of a young person. Sometimes, it is simply that I just don’t know what to say … or how to say it.
On Monday, one boy asked how I thought Mandela, Sisulu and Biko would feel about Black South Africans using unemployment, poverty and the history of apartheid as an excuse for violence. Strategy #1 for a Challenging Question – throw it back on the student. He said it didn’t make sense to him, he thought they would be disappointed. He also seemed a bit angry with the perpetrators, at Black South Africans, that they would think this history and their painful past could excuse the violence.
I agreed, I said to him, I think that they would be deeply saddened. But it made me think of a comment made by a girl in the film who says she doesn’t understand how people who were victims could do something like this to others and the idea at the heart of his question -- whether just because people are victims, they won’t turn into perpetrators. It often comes up in these conversations after my film, with adults and young people. I find that most young people are flummoxed by this – it is so hard to understand how these people who suffered so terribly at the hand of apartheid could turn on others. How could people who were victims of apartheid treat others with such hatred and violence? I hesitate always to answer this question because it is so complex, because I don’t want to sound as if I am defending the attackers if I say that being a victim doesn’t mean you won’t be a perpetrator, and it is still hard for me to get my head around.
I imagine that it’s something that has been studied a lot – victims turning into perpetrators, on an individual or a broader scale. Just because people were once victims does that then imply they will always remember that moment and never turn on others? While many want to believe that, in fact, I think it is often the opposite. In the back of my mind, I thought of Israel; how the violence in Gaza and the West Bank is being perpetrated by some people whose families were victims in the Holocaust. That is just one example. I am not sitting here, writing, attempting to take a stand on what is happening in the Middle East, it’s just something that occurred to me – something that I didn’t speak, in part because these were high school students, in part because this was a private Jewish school, in part because I didn’t want to open Pandora’s box.
On Thursday, my conversation with 11th grade girls took a surprising turn when one student explained that she knows that xenophobia is wrong, but she isn’t sure because her grandmother tells her to stay away from foreigners, that they are bad people, and she knows that her aunt is in jail because of a foreigner. “Xenophobia is wrong but foreigners have really hurt my family,” she added. Across the aisle, a classmate, a friend spoke up, “I am from Zimbabwe,” she said, and then talked about what it was like when she first came to South Africa. Her journey took her via Britain, different from her compatriots who traveled across the mighty Limpopo River, but nonetheless easy for adjusting.
I pointed out that the girl probably had many friends and classmates at school who are foreign. “It’s different when you know people personally as opposed to them just being others,” noted another student. The first girl continued, “If I was in a room full of them and I was the only South African, I would be scared because they are different, they have different manners and different ways of doing things and … (here I should have taken notes.) I stopped her there and repeated what she said. I know that she has studied apartheid and the Holocaust in school so I pointed out that what she just said has been repeated countless times to justify discrimination and prejudice elsewhere, including South Africa and Nazi Germany. But I didn’t want to shut her up or alienate her so I tread carefully. Her teacher also spoke, which was brilliant because often in these situations teachers stay quiet. He spoke in a more frank way than I was comfortable doing and for that, I thank him.
It’s a difficult line -- I want her to recognize the extremes of what she is saying, to learn that her grandmother is wrong, to honor and live by what she first said -- xenophobia is wrong. But I grew up in a house where I didn’t have to challenge my parents on political and social issues. And I imagine it is quite hard to do. I remember reading a book about Wilhelm Verwoerd, the grandson of Henrik Verwoerd, widely regarded as the architect of apartheid, and his work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I told her about him as one example of someone going against their family and what they were raised to believe. But I acknowledged in the same breath that going against your family is not easy to do.
So I mainly challenged her to question -- to question her grandmother and her family, to look outside, to figure out what she alone believes and to stand up for that.
And she’ll get there – I hope.