A Christmas song for justice

(Taken as an excerpt from the Sojourners Blog, this new hymn is a prayer that the church will work for justice as our gift to Jesus)

(Also, the cover photo above is the image of a nativity scene without any Jews, Africans and Arabs or refugees)

A New Father, Awe-Struck
MUELLER 11.11.11.11 (“Away in a Manger”)

A new father, awe-struck; a mother so mild;
A stable; a manger; a dear, newborn child—
God, as we imagine that family so blessed,
We sometimes forget they were poor and oppressed.

A woman—considered to have no real worth—
Said, yes! She would bear your own Son here on earth.
We hear her bold singing! Her faithful words soar:
“God humbles the rich and God lifts up the poor.”

We hear in our own day the cries of the poor;
We see in Aleppo the terror of war.
In women and children and men who must flee,
We glimpse, Lord, your life as a young refugee.

When some say that only the wealthy have worth,
O God, we recall where you lived here on earth.
May we in your church serve the poor and distressed;
For, working for justice, we give you our best.

Carolyn Winfrey Gillette

Biblical references: Luke 2:1-20; 22-24; Leviticus 12:6; Matthew 2:13-18; Luke 1:46-55; Matthew 25:31-46 and Micah 6:8.

Tune: James Ramsey Murray, 1887.
Text: Copyright © 2016 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved.

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A reflection on the Izwe Lethu Worship Night

It is with great hesitation that I am writing these words. I fear that the words I have selected to use here are completely inadequate to describe what happened at the Izwe Lethu worship night and would somehow end up misrepresenting or misinterpreting the power of what took place – in us as we were together, but also in the hearts and lives of every individual present. But because I feel compelled to testify to the faithfulness of our God and the courage of the people, I offer these unsatisfying, imperfect words as to why I think the evening was so undeniably profound.
The evening was largely unstructured with everyone contributing freely to the worship space by reading scriptures, sharing quotes by theologians and political leaders, sharing powerfully emotive poetry, and as well as sharing raw stories with deep vulnerability and authenticity. And yes, we sang songs in lament to our God who comforts and rescues and loves and saves (my goodness we sang!).

I have not asked permission to share any of the personal stories we listened to on the night because I do not want to be disrespectful towards those who told their stories with such courage in those sacred moments. What I will say – no actually what I MUST say – is that I felt (once again) completely overwhelmed by the vast amounts of pain people carry at this time. It was gut wrenching to hear how hurt students felt by the judgemental words and actions of people they have trusted and even considered “family” as their involvement in #feesmustfall has developed. It is important to remark here that it was very clear, as the stories were being shared, that involvement in #feesmustfall was not random, but rather it was birthed out of a place of deep conviction and faith. What also became clear was that many of the students in the room felt deeply betrayed by people in positions of power, and in particular, my heart shattered at hearing how often it was church leaders that the students previously considered their “family” and, who by all accounts, seemed to be the very ones they felt betrayed by.

I found myself thinking that even in the face of that betrayal, that pain and hurt, my presence as a white person and a church leader, was welcomed by so many black people and students in the room. For me personally, it was an incredibly humbling moment – an immense privilege to have been present and to have had the opportunity to sit with and share in some of the pain and the brokenness – even if at times I felt it was totally undeserved for me to have been there.

In that space we listened deeply and were present fully, because we all shared a commitment to justice and we all recognised the human experience as something unique and diverse for each person and race group. The evening was not neatly structured and “hygienic” in terms of what was shared, but the willingness of people to run towards God amidst their struggles, to be simply and deeply present, to be real and vulnerable, and admit that we do not know (or have to know) “the best way” to do all of this, created fertile soil for a powerful engagement with each other and our God.

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And finally we could perhaps say that what made the night so profound was that after the emotion and the pain was shared: God “showed up”. Actually no. What really happened was that our eyes and hearts were opened to see God being already present and at work amongst us in the most powerful way. Why? The Bible makes it clear that God is especially present amongst those who are in pain and who are marginalised. And the tangible presence of God amongst us confirmed this.

That night, we all left reminded of and reaffirmed in the truth that we are human beings created in the image of a God who cares. We left re-humanised. Hopeful. Humbled.

Jana Niehaus – Izwe Lethu

Black blame (a poem)

Black Blame

they asked us to
shed our skins

the words they spoke
were sharpened old knives

they never saw us,
only filled rooms with words

we do not work hard,
we could have worked hard,
we should work hard.

black legs dragged white manacles,
a staggered black step,
that told a tale,
the tale of black bodies.

they asked us to shed our skins,
to fit into their white costumes,
white words,
white world.

they asked us
to shed our skins
to fade the graves of
Biko,
Mahlangu,
Hani

to retell our
parents’ rendition
of their scars.

they asked us to
shed our skins,
breaking links,

told us we
hallucinated
our black conditions.

told us to
look to our black hands,
for our gratitude,
for our wealth.

that our
black dreams
were never darkened

they asked us to
shed our skins
because white Justice
was what we needed

for even though
our words,to them,
were bitter bubbles,
wild misunderstandings
we were told to
shed our skins,
hold hands and
rise above it.

we were told to,
shed our skins
on soil that was familiar
to the souls of our black feet,
for faded rainbow footprints.

black legs dragged white manacles,
that told a tale.

– Pearl Khumalo

The tale of black bodies (a poem by Pearl Khumalo)

 

Not by coincidence,
Not by mistake

Black bodies
Overlaboured
Underpaid

Black skins recited dissent
Cried for approval
Their noses, disappointments,
Too round, unsophisticated.

On their beleaguered legs
They carried the weight of their fallen hopes,
While they wore their complacent smiles.

Black faces, dangerous faces,
And therefore guilty before arrest,
Guilty before trial,
Guilty before.

Not by coincidence,
Not by mistake.

Black bodies resided amongst the open sewers,
Amongst reconstruction & development programmes,
Amongst dirt.

Not by coincidence,
Not by mistake.

That black voices had no sound,
No weight,
No merit.

Not by coincidence,
Not by mistake.

That black stories were blotted,
Revised and rewritten.

That black wealth was signed off,
On foreign paper,
In a foreign language.

While black bodies,
Overlaboured
Underpaid.

Not by coincidence,
Not by mistake.

The black elitist’s rift,
Black puppets with consolatory toys,
Blind to the black masses.

That the black puppet danced to the rhythm of the white puppeteer.

Black crocodile tears,
Run from the eyes of the black apathetic.

Consoled by interim hashtags,
And half-hearted posts and papers.

Not by coincidence,
Not by mistake.

That white wealth continued to exclude,
Black bodies in education,
Black bodies at work,
Black bodies in existence.

Black bodies continued to drag their bodies,
Into reiterated dark skins,
Into heavy hopes,
Into another day.

Not by coincidence,
Not by mistake.

– Pearl Khumalo

I’m a white christian women & this is how I became a feminist

I was one of those “bossy” girls. In my privileged, white Durban North family, I was the oldest of three daughters and inevitably my little sisters were expected to follow my lead. I still maintain that my leadership style created an adventurous and lively childhood – I was a benevolent dictator with a great imagination. Although I had never heard the phrase itself, my parents modelled an egalitarian marriage – equal partners both within the home and beyond.

Assuming leadership positions during my girlhood was natural for me. In my all-girl high school, during my formative years, I simply went on to do what I was both passionate about and skilled at doing – having strong ideas, and telling people about them.

In fact, I only found out that feminism was a “thing” in my twenties, blissfully unaware that my life was not the norm. I then left the sheltered world of liberal white suburbia in pursuit of my education and my calling. So, where did I discover the belief that men are superior to women?

In the Church.

As my faith matured from a familial obligation into a personal spiritual pathway I had intentionally chosen to follow, I just assumed I would serve my faith community with my gifts of leadership and communication.

But no.

Women can lead and teach – only other women.

Women can lead and teach – only children.

Women can lead and teach – only if they’re married.

God had supposedly created me in His image, but apparently I needed a man’s oversight to express that design appropriately.

 

As a teen in a group of young Christian surfer friends, I was often told the saying: “Boys are dogs, but girls are dog food”. Well I guess that means I’ll have to stop wearing a bikini so you can keep your thoughts pure.

When I was hired as a youth pastor at the age of 27, I was asked, “Is your husband going to help you?” No, because he has no interest in working with teenagers and he didn’t interview for the job.

When I was applying for my Master’s degree, I was interrogated, “But what if you have a baby?” I’m sure I can read and breastfeed at the same time, but thanks for checking.

 

I had always believed that the local church, when working healthily, was the hope of the world. But how was this story of Jesus “Good News” for women? Or black people? Or anyone who wasn’t a white male, for that matter?

I’m not an academic, or even a theologian. I am a storyteller, and the objective of my stories is always that they would bring transformation on the journey – spiritual, personal and communal. Thus, wrestling with how I could authentically live as strong female in the context of Protestant Christianity was a journey that would consequently change the story of my own life forever.

Much has been written on gender roles and faith by people who are smarter and more articulate than me, but allow me to share with you the story that set me free to call myself a Christian feminist.

Whether you believe the first chapter of Genesis to be a Hebrew poem handed down orally for generations, or a literal account of the origins of life, consider the Biblical context of humanity’s origins:

“So God created human beings in his own image.

    In the image of God he created them;

    male and female he created them.

 Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it.”

Genesis 1:27-28

 

In that ideal state,

In the context of blessing and the refrain “it was good”,

Before creation was distorted,

God gave a dual mandate to both men and women. They must be fruitful. They must govern.

This was God’s mandate to humanity – to both male and female. However, after sin entered the world, the consequences of choice resulted in a splitting up of this dual mandate. We find singular burdens instead of plural blessing.

Man becomes a slave to the earth; “governance” becomes his burden to bear.

Woman becomes a slave to childbirth; “go forth and multiply” (childbearing, the domestic home life if you will) becomes her burden to bear.

This is not God’s original design, but a distortion of God’s goodness and a consequence of sin.

In my opinion, the way this manifests today is that men are absent from the home and family life, as they are burdened with the labour of work. Women are absent from governance as they are burdened with the responsibility of home, the labour of childbirth. I believe we find this physically, emotionally, spiritually. I would suggest that this theory is at root of most of society’s gender inequalities.

Both areas of life are the worse off for the loss, as I think we can all see. The home suffers not for the lack of leadership, but the lack of partnership and engagement from men. Areas of governance in both Church and (often to the shame of the Church) to a lesser extent general society suffers because of the lack of partnership and engagement from women.

So where is the “Good News?”

The Story of Jesus is one of redemption – putting things back to the way they were meant to be. Restoring the goodness and oneness that humanity was designed to embody. For the church, and for all Christ-followers, redemption and restoration of God’s Kingdom calls for partnership once again in both arenas – that men will take ownership of their role in the family, and women will take ownership of their role in the governance of society. If this partnership is not reflected in Body of Christ, then how can the greater creation be redeemed to reflect how God intended things to be?

Along the way, I have learnt to acknowledge that our theological frameworks have immense consequences. No one “just does what the Bible says” – we all interpret through certain lenses. And if we do not question these lenses, we run the risk of expressing the design of humanity rather than the design of the Triune God. Examining our hermeneutics, or interpretation of Scripture, is critical.

Today, I can thankfully say I am a more conscious and vocal feminist because of my faith. I am married to a pastor who believes not only in women’s rights but in their power as well. I lead and preach in a church that encourages all believers to express their gifting, no matter what their gender is. I am also doing my best to raise my two sons in the way of Jesus.

How did I become a feminist?

In the Church.

 

For your consideration:

a) How were your theological frameworks and presuppositions were formed?

b) What are their historical origins?

c) Who has shaped your beliefs on gender?

 

Jess Basson – Izwe Lethu

The male difference: izifebe and amasoka

I’m a rural township boy. I’m defined by that reality, and because of that, as a black person in this country I grew up oppressed and disadvantaged by the system. Yet as a male in this nation, beyond the reality of my blackness, I was hugely privileged. I did whatever I wanted and whenever I wanted. I remember my uncle asking me when I would bring my first girl home to “shag” so that I could prove to him that I was a “grown up man”. In fact, we were taught to prove our manhood by “hitting it” (excuse the language, but it’s the honest truth). I remember growing up with my sisters and seeing them being beaten like slaves just for not coming home on time. When this happened they would end up being accused as “hoes” and “skanks”, and we saw this as kids and assumed it was normal and it taught us as young boys that girls should “know their place”. I bring all of this up because I want to deeply challenge these patriarchal realities in my own life and in society.

Isoka is an idea of manhood designed for men, for the benefit of men. Isoka is a man who can express himself better in front of women, it’s a man with good fashion sense and ultimately the “smooth operator” who can get with a lot of girls. Isoka is what every man wants to be called in society. They are the “players” and the “Casanovas” of our time. In fact when we call a group of men amasoka it is normally to give them a status of manhood that few can achieve. The ones who then can’t achieve this status are referred to as izigwadu. They are the men who struggle to get with girls. They represent the group no one wants to belong to at all. So in growing up I clearly knew the difference between isigwadu and isoka, and the moment I realised I was becoming part of a group known by everyone as izigwadu, I ran like the wind. Why did I run? Because I knew that it was the amasoka who not only dated whoever they wanted, but they also slept with whoever they wanted. The truth of this is a reality clearly acknowledged throughout society, yet it is also a reality that is seemingly positively reinforced by the same society.

Now izintombi (meaning women in isiZulu) is in fact a word with intrinsic value in it. What is intrinsically hidden in the word is that izintombi refers to women who are virgins (the word is obviously different to intombazane, which just simply means “a girl” in the neutral sense). Intombi is praised for something totally different to isoka. Intombi must keep away from men, and if she’s ever seen in a compromising position with a man, then the whole community knows about it. A woman who is caught sleeping with a man (other than her husband) is beaten and labelled as “isifebe”. Isifebe is a loose girl who can’t control her sexual impulses. I remember one of my sisters coming back home from seeing her boyfriend (which was actually “not allowed”) and yet when she was punished, the words that were thrown at her were: “usuyafeba ke manje? Wena nondindwa” (“you are fooling around now? You are a whore”). This word, unondindwa (meaning: “a whore”), is another word used to label a “loose woman”. Yet this is where the problem lies: both isifebe and undondindwa are derogatory words used for women who are “sexually immoral”. Note that they are completely derogatory. There’s nothing appealing about being called these names. Yet men are never unondindwa or isifebe in society, men are simple amasoka. The negative and positive values places on these different words is important. Do you see the big difference here?

My privilege and dominance was formed in this terrain of society which consequently ingrained a patriarchal mindset in me that said: “it’s allowed for men but not allowed for a women”. I could go see a girl at any time of the day and no one would say a thing to me at home or anywhere in the community. I could even sleep around and have many girlfriends and yet no one would call me isifebe or unondindwa. In fact, people literally envied me by praising me with the name: isoka. Imagine the psychological effect of all of this? Being taught from a young age that it’s okay for me to “look at that booty” and thus objectivity women’s bodies.

Males are privileged from a young age in black communities. They are taught to just be themselves, but girls are taught to be everything other than themselves. If a girl expresses her sexuality she’s then told “uthanda amadoda” (and it’s obviously even worse if she gets pregnant, which for a woman, is almost the equivalent of being labelled as a murderer). Women are given a standard of humanity to live up to which is measured against societal norms which oppress them in so many ways. Another way of understanding the realities of male privilege and the supremacy of manhood is by looking at it in light of white privilege and white supremacy. In South Africa, black people have to learn to live in the white world or be cast out. It’s a world built by white people for the benefit of white people and all their ways of life. Yet if I can understand (and agree) with this then I must surely be able to understand what it means for women to say that our society is built by men for the privilege and benefit of men and that women just have to fit in and oblige.

As black men we have to face white privilege and white supremacy every day. So surely, black men should know what it’s like to struggle to “fit in”, to be obscure, to exist in a world that wasn’t built for you, to assimilate to an already established culture of living which is against everything that you represent? Black males should know what it’s like to be in pain, to be oppressed and voiceless, to be told we’re over reacting about “these issues”, to be constantly told that “surely it’s not that bad”? When white people live in their own privilege it affords them the opportunity to never have to experience racial oppression – that’s why they often don’t get it when we talk about it. Yet now (as black men) we do the very same thing to our women! It must stop now! The fight against patriarchy should be a struggle that men (especially black men) should fight shoulder to shoulder with women! Black men fight against the supremacy of white bodies over their black bodies, yet we ourselves are part of a system where female bodies are slaves of male bodies. It’s a system where men are almost god-like and women are confined to ideas of what these god-like beings want them to be. How can we want to win the fight of emancipating ourselves as black people from white supremacists who walk on black bodies every day, and yet we leave out the struggle of our women who walk with us in the very same struggle against white supremacy?

Now if you are a man, you’re probably asking yourself what can you do to be part of dismantling this patriarchal system. As a man you can start by admitting that you live in a society that has made you superior on the very backs of female bodies. Confess that you were raised privileged as a man to the disadvantage of women. If you can confess this, then surely we can start fighting towards emancipating ourselves from this god-like maleness for the sake of a more just and equal society.

Madala Ngubane – Izwe Lethu

NB! This paper is based on personal experience as well as personal insight. It is in no way explaining the lived experience of all black people and it is also not meant to depict Zulu culture and Zulu tradition as something negative in and of itself

The male oxymoron

The word patriarchy carries with it so much history, pain and baggage, and in the midst of all this fragmented complexity, we as black men exist in a strange paradigm: we exist both as victims and perpetrators. What I mean is that we’re primarily victims of racism in society but in equal measure, we’re also perpetrators of patriarchy. To explain this further, let me simply say that we as people are the products of our communities. It is almost impossible to perceive being anything different from what we are because of everything that shapes us as people. It is essential for us as men to understand this underlying factor so as to better tackle the main issue at hand here.

Everything in society is somewhat patriarchal in expression: from our cultures, to our religions, to any of the other numerous activities directly influenced by our societal norms. It is almost impossible to find spaces where patriarchy isn’t rampant and obvious. Even in women’s conferences patriarchy sneaks through and sets its own agenda. Some of our very own liberation movements (which have been set up specifically for the struggle of women) have been deeply captured by patriarchy. For example, The ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) recently revealed the depths of its own patriarchal identity crisis when four brave women stood up in protest against male domination and rape culture at President Zuma’s IEC address. What should have followed should have been unwavering support and solidarity for these brave women, however, these ladies were later scolded by the ANCWL and man handled by security – all in defence of a man: Jacob Zuma. Dololo care about black bodies. It is everywhere.

From a young age we as men are nurtured in the ways of patriarchy, both directly and indirectly. It’s in the small things, such as the expectation on women to cook and clean for the family even when the male siblings are around doing nothing; it’s evident in the expectations on women to blindly follow a man’s leading without any questions; and it’s most deeply evident in our society’s unchallenged standardised gender roles.

In this regard, the recent Olympics provided a great example of such subtle (yet at the same time obvious) patriarchal undertones through a simple headline. A female gold medalist was described in the headline merely as someone’s fiancé. Her entire achievement was described through her relational connection to a man who had nothing (or very little) to do with her victory and hard work. It seems innocent enough, but upon further inspection this is a clear example of a women’s role and value before the world being primarily defined through a man. The opposite would never happen, not even by mistake. Thus, it is male domination like this that has led to more and more women spelling the word women as “womxn”. The statement is a powerful one: women will no longer be defined by men, not even in the English spelling of the word.

So as men we live this oppressive reality out everyday; in fact, as a man, I would actually identify myself as a recovering sexist. Everything around me has taught me that women are there to please me, serve me, and satisfy me. Everything has taught me that women are defined by the roles they play in relation to me. Everything has worked to create this abusive society that women have to daily survive in. In fact, as a black man, I recognise that even in my Zulu culture there is a practice called ukuthwala. This is a practice whereby a man basically kidnaps a woman he wants to marry and keeps her until she accepts the proposal (this is in practice still in many forms today). Now even if many of us men do not actually practice ukuthwala, we still find so many other ways to kidnap the bodies and identities of women so as to make them our own.

The problem is that most men refuse to even acknowledge the existence of their own male privilege. If we do not accept the reality of this patriarchal privilege and openly confess to it, then the work to dismantle our patriarchy will be all the more harder. But what does dismantling patriarchy look like? Well it’s both in the small things, such as taking notes in a board meeting instead of a lady always being expected to take notes without complaint; and it’s in the big things, such as being radical enough to call it quits on one’s career as a man for the sake of being a stay at home dad so that one’s wife flourishes in her respective career. It’s the breaking of gender roles (which is both individual and systemic in nature). It’s refusing to accept a higher salary than our female co-worker who does the exact same work as us. Society has undervalued women enough! It’s in the calling out of our friends at braai’s and on social media for their patriarchal tendencies. It’s in the space of being open to correction and criticism, being aware that our own male privilege blinds us deeply. It’s being comfortable, as men, to no longer be the dominant voices in a room.

The problem with patriarchy is that it is so ingrained into our male social psyche that it is almost like having an existential crisis, in the sense that to challenge it is to challenge the very lenses by which we see ourselves and the world. It requires a deep unlearning of so much of what we thought was right and acceptable as men. Yet it is because of how deep it goes and how oppressive it is to women that we as men need to aggressively reject these notions internally and externally. We need to continually listen and engage when women speak out. As the old saying goes, “evil prevails when good men and women do nothing.” These words should haunt us as men. Our sisters, mothers and daughters will remain being oppressed by us as long as we actively and passively perpetuate the problem of patriarchy.

Patriarchy must fall!

Ntobeko Mzolo – Izwe Lethu

The invisibility of Whiteness

I have come to realize that colour blindness uses “whiteness” as the default key and mimics the norms of fairness, justice, and equity by “whiting” out differences and perpetuating the belief in sameness and equality. The denial of power imbalance, unearned privilege, and racial discrimination is couched in the rhetoric of equal treatment and equal opportunity. The pretense of not seeing colour is motivated by self-deception. To be colourblind not only denies the central importance of racial differences in the psychological experience of people of colour (racism and discrimination), but also allows the White person to deny how his or her whiteness intrudes upon the person of colour. White teachers, for example, frequently admonish their African American students to “leave your cultural baggage at home and don’t bring it into the classroom”. They have little awareness that they bring their whiteness into the classroom and operate from a predominantly white ethnocentric perspective.” i(West, 2010)

Over the past few months, I have found myself engaging in and listening to conversations with diverse groups of individuals on issues relating to systemic forms of oppression that exist in society, due to historical systems such as colonialism and apartheid. Within these conversations and dialogues, the stark lack of involvement of white people has become apparent to me. Of the few that have engaged in these conversations, some have left offended or been unable to handle the realities that emerged in the dialogues. In reading literature and engaging in one on one conversations with white people, I have realized that for white people, whiteness as a system or ideological construct is often mistaken to be a direct attack of the white individual. Secondly, in contrast to people of colour, white people do not experience perpetual racism in its various forms and the inequalities that are a consequence of the oppressive systems of colonialism and apartheid. The urgency of dealing with racial hierarchy and white supremacist systems is paramount. White people do not currently see these oppressive systems as their struggle, even though it should be something they fight against. The marked absence of white people engaging in dialogue with people of colour is disheartening as people of colour desire to build a new society where oppressive systems and hierarchy are dismantled, however the invisibility of whiteness prevents this.

Whiteness does not refer to skin colour. Rather, it is a social and political construct resulting in a learned behaviour that is based on an ideology of beliefs, values, habits and attitudes that result in unequal distribution of power and privilege based on skin colour. It represents a position of power, where the power holder defines the categories, which means, the power holder decides who is white and who is not. Whiteness is relational, in that it only exists in relation or opposition to other categories in the racial hierarchy produced by whiteness as whiteness defines itself. It is a state of unconsciousness, in that it is invisible to white people, and this perpetuates a lack of knowledge or understanding of difference, which is a root cause of oppression. It shapes how white people view themselves, and places white people in a place of structural advantage where white norms and practices go unnamed and unquestioned. Whiteness is a set of normative privileges granted to white skinned individuals and groups; it is normalized in its production and maintenance for those of that group in such a way that its operations are invisible to those privileged by it, but not to those oppressed by it (Henry & Tator, 2006)ii

The spirit of Ubuntu (umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu or “I am because we are”) is a core value to African people and in general white people do not think in terms of “we”. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of society as individuals. Whites are often not directly affected by racial oppression even in their own community, so what does not affect them locally has little chance of affecting them regionally or nationally. They have no need, nor often any real desire, to think in terms of a group. They are supported by the system, and so are mostly unaffected by it. Therefore white people in general decide to vigorously defend their own personal non-racism, or point out that it doesn’t exist because they don’t see it. Due to the complexities and invisibility of whiteness, white people and people of colour in our context, are not having a discussion about race. People of colour, thinking as a group, are talking about living in a racist system, whilst white people, thinking as individuals, refuse to talk about and instead protect their own individual and personal goodness. In doing so, they reject the existence of racism.

There is an urgency for white people to begin to rise in this struggle to dismantle the oppressive systems in our society in South Africa and globally, by engaging in these important dialogues within groups and individual conversations, and by beginning to challenge the status quo. In order for engagement to happen, there is a need for individuals to grasp the concept of whiteness in its totality.

Would you be quick to listen and acknowledge whiteness as a system of oppression? Or would you, like most white people, stay silent and let it happen?

Robyn Curran – Izwe Lethu

i West, Wendi, “The “Invisibility” Of Whiteness: A Study Of Racial Identity Of White Faculty In Predominately White Colleges And Universities” (2010). Capstone Collection. Paper 2388.
http://digitalcollections.sit.edu/capstones/2388

ii
Henry, F., & Tator, C. (Eds.). (2009). Racism in the Canadian university demanding social justice, inclusion, and equity. Toronto, ON, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

In the middle: words from a white Afrikaans Christian woman

As a Christian, and also as a privileged white Afrikaner woman who, with my husband, has made a decision to move away from the dangers of comfortable suburban living, and make our home amongst people who are very different from us, I have been very aware of the precarious space I occupy. When I open my Facebook account (nowadays with an increasing sense of dread rather than one of excitement), many of my friends are crying out in deep pain that #blacklivesmatter, posting desperate calls for change and for white people to leave behind their ignorance and privilege… and yet other friends…post pictures of their latest sighting in a game reserve, the view from their holiday apartment, their meal at a fancy restaurant or perhaps an inspirational quote with pink flowers about loving people. There seems to be this ever-growing gap and increasing polarisation. I feel overwhelmed with the sheer vastness of the separation between people in our country, and I am still regularly startled at my own ignorance and lack of understanding. I am so aware of the fact that I am in this space for a reason. When I feel overwhelmed like this, I know it is probably a good idea to figure out what God is doing in that particular place and time and, in doing so, join in rather than try figure out my own way. So here is what I have been doing to create space for understanding, listening and ultimately a joining in with what God is doing at the moment. This is what I am choosing to do as I figure out what it means to be a Christian within the context of my Afrikaner whiteness and within the context of my womanhood:

 

  1. I have come to admit and acknowledge my own racism, privilege and ignorance. Living in the city I come face to face on a daily basis with the stereotypes and racist attitudes that have been existing in me for years. It has been said before, but I will say it again: just having black friends, “loving people of colour”, knowing the words to our national anthem and being involved in charity work, does not mean that you are not racist. Racism is deeply entrenched within us as South Africans. I have to own up to the fact that I still get more nervous when I encounter a black man alone at night, than when I do a white man. I have to admit and acknowledge that racism existed and still exists in many subtle ways in my life. I have to admit that I am a beneficiary of apartheid. I have to acknowledge that so much of what I possess now has become “mine” at the cost of the oppression of others. This is a reality I have to face.

 

  1. I have to ask God to bring deep transformation in my own experience of and participation in racism and reconciliation. Phileena Heuertz said, “To the degree you are transformed, the world will be transformed.” As much as structural, systemic change is desperately needed in this country, it will be futile if our hearts towards people of other races and cultures and economic classes are not transformed. I believe that this deep transformation will also bring us to a place where we could become people who can imagine alternatives to our current situation beyond what the world has on offer at the moment. I believe this transformation happens as I learn to abide more and more in God. I believe this transformation happens as I do the necessary and difficult work of dismantling my limited understanding of God as a white male. I believe this transformation happens as I start understanding what the Good News really is and how this impacts radically on politics, economics, social policies and not only on individual hearts and lives.

 

  1. I have to admit and acknowledge my own compliance with white male dominance by consciously and unconsciously submitting to being dominated on so many occasions. Someone once said that 80% of the atmosphere in a room is determined by the person perceived to be the most powerful in that space. Every time I perceive the white male in the room as the most powerful person, I agree to that person defining the atmosphere, which very often impacts on my definition of my own role and value in that space. I learned from a black woman double my age who has worked as a domestic worker most her life that living with faith means that we live not to be noticed or acknowledged by the powerful white male in the room, but by God alone.

 

  1. I am learning how to avoid responding from a place of fear or guilt. These feelings can so easily become toxic to my own well-being and cannot bring any real freedom or life to anyone around me.

 

  1. I have to make a choice every day to avoid apathy, indifference and ignorance. I have come to realise that making a choice to turn away, to pretend that I do not know better, or think that it does not involve me comes at a cost – an immense cost to others, our country, generations to come, the mission of God to save this world, and therefore also myself. I have had to learn that responding responsibly does not mean remaining silent. I am learning from Jesus how to respond in ways that are filled with prophetic imagination and are subversive – challenging the status quo without falling into the traps of empty or aggressively superficial activism.

 

  1. I have to remain aware of my white fragility (and that of other white people around me). This fragility was and remains to be a huge eye opener for me. The propensity of us white people to take up space in racial conversations, to cry in the face of narratives about racism and thereby shift all attention to ourselves, our defensiveness and our habit of rationalising issues, as well as our lack of capacity to talk in robust terms about racism and racial incidents are just some of the signs that reveal just how fragile we are when it comes to facing up to our own racism (so if you are white and you feel defensive about what I have just said about white people, you have pretty much confirmed your own fragility). I personally find this a very challenging, but a very necessary work to dismantle, as I continue occupying my space in the gap.

 

  1. I am working towards acquiring a proper knowledge of the the history of our country and what it means to be African. Slowly it dawned on me over the last couple of years that my understanding of the history of our country is at best inadequate, corrupted, dishonest and grossly misconstrued. Reading biographies and articles about our history is slowly helping to clarify my understanding. I am still not sure why reading Steve Biko has not become compulsory reading for all South Africans. I have to unlearn and relearn South African history. I have made a decision to stop blaming others for my lack of knowledge and understanding of what had happened here in the last hundred years, the last three hundred years, and the time before that. I have needed to learn about the TRC and the lack of interest of white people in the process. I have needed to learn who Robert Sobukwe was. I have needed to learn why Nelson Mandela is a hero in some people’s eyes and a “sell out” in others’ (I think I get that now…). I am learning something about what it means to be a good Afrikaner when I read about Beyers Naude, or even Brahm Fischer. I am still figuring out if I can say with authenticity, “I am an African”, even though I was born on this soil.

 

  1. I am making a point of avoiding judging people. As Brene Brown reminded us in her TED talk when she quoted Abraham Lincoln’s speech from years ago, it’s the critics who are sitting in the cheap seats: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.” I choose not to sit in the cheap seats, but to go down to the person fighting the fight, sit with them, hear their story and cry with them before I feel I can get anywhere close to judging their position. This includes the inclination to lecture the wounded and police the pain of those who are suffering. I feel the one word I will always need to hold on to as a white Afrikaans Christian women is to STOP and LISTEN. Don’t judge, don’t defend, don’t lecture, don’t police, just LISTEN. I have also learned the importance of listening to those closest to the pain, rather than those interpreting the pain. Media, politicians and non-profits very often have different agendas driving their stories and colouring their lenses.

 

  1. I need to hold on tightly, and in faith, to the belief that there is enough for everyone in this world. Our God is a God of abundance. Matt Anslow, in an article on Walter Brueggemann and abundance, makes the following statement:

 

“But the peculiar thing, at least from a biblical perspective, is that the rich – the ones with the abundance – rely on an ideology of scarcity, while the poor – the ones suffering from scarcity – rely on an ideology of abundance. How can that be? The issue involves whether there is enough to go around – enough food, water, shelter, space. An ideology of scarcity says no, there’s not enough, so hold onto what you have. In fact, don’t just hold onto it, hoard it. Put aside more than you need, so that if you do need it, it will be there, even if others must do without. An affirmation of abundance says just the opposite: Appearances notwithstanding, there is enough to go around, so long as each of us takes only what we need. In fact, if we are willing to have but not hoard, there will even be more than enough left over.”

 

I am learning how to be a steward of God’s abundance in this world. I refuse to give into the temptations of hoarding and entitlement which ultimately all lead to a gospel of scarcity.

 

  1. I have had to make a decision to let my actions speak louder than my words. Social media can be filled with so much noise and people are selective in what they choose to expose themselves to – we simply block what we do not want to hear or see. Rather than simply stating what I think and feel on social media or in a blog, I want to live a life that leads people to imagine an alternative reality – one that disrupts the dull hypnotising drone of the status quo. Not by my words, but by my life, I want to criticise the dominant narrative of capitalism, consumerism and individualism. I want to live the kind of life where Jesus and His rule is made fully present in the world around me. I want to embrace the holy ground we are standing on and see things as my God sees it.

 

So this is me. In the middle. Very far from where I have once been, but still having a very long way to go. Hoping to stand in the gap with arms stretched out as wide as I can to reach past the huge separation and bring hope, life and freedom in the name of the God I serve.

Aluta Continua…

Jana Niehaus – Izwe Lethu

 

 

 

 

 

The privilege cuts deeper than we think

Rage, sorrow, despair, resent, desperation, hate, confusion. These are some of the words that come to my mind as I grapple with the state of the nation over the last 12 – 18 months. I also have this image in my mind where the chaos and unrest we see in our streets perfectly mirrors what is taking place inside the collective psyche of South Africans. We are a deeply wounded people; this is neither new nor surprising considering our history. I have watched, listened and contemplated, albeit from a distance, as sparks of discontent have kindled a fire of hate blazing with the flames of racial tension. Every now and then these flames escalate into an inferno of violence.
Let me be clear about one thing, white privilege is rampant in South Africa right now and this has been the case for the longest time in our history. The value of black lives are totally ignored to the extent that black bodies are viewed as mere cogs which drive the machine of white monopoly capital. I am firmly on the side of those who stand and fight against the continued disregard for black lives and those who fight for the aspirations of black people to define themselves in our society.

The purpose of this piece though is not to articulate what the problem of South Africa is or has been – because we should know by now what the reality of the diagnosis is. I fully understand that the burden of South Africa’s history has left a deep scar in the lives of both black and white South Africans. As Fanon clearly articulated in his book, The Wretched of The Earth: “…violence (and by extension hate) is fatal for both the perpetrator as well as the victim”. The psycho-social impact of close to 400 years of violence and hate can be clearly seen in the architecture of the physical spaces which are occupied by blacks and whites in South Africa. However what most of us fail to recognise and remedy are the inner spaces of people’s souls where prejudice, racial hatred and fear continue to reside.

Our history has left us with a legacy of treating those who do not look like us with suspicion (at best) and hate (at worst). This is a significant stumbling block on our journey towards a reunited South Africa. If our intention is to eradicate white privilege and all the mechanisms which maintain it then we have to rethink how we engage with each other. If our intention is to forge a common South African identity then it is compulsory for all of us (blacks and whites) to own our histories. It is a huge disservice and insult to all those who gave their lives to the fight for liberation for us to forget what South Africa was pre-1994.
One of the major challenges with the current discourse around race relations in South Africa is that it has been tainted by dishonesty and selfish agendas. It is dishonest of white South Africans to not be willing to confront and acknowledge their role in South Africa’s ugly history. The majority of white South Africa is ambivalent about the source of their privileged status in South African society. On the other hand though we are plagued by a class of dishonest black leaders who stir up hate and prejudice against white South Africans for their own selfish gains.They muddy the waters making it difficult for the citizens on the street (regardless of colour) to engage meaningfully and constructively with each other.
Imagine being in an abusive relationship with someone and the act of leaving them is the only solution left, but the very act of of leaving the abuser is made impossible because it would only bring further hurt to you. This scenario is similar to the conditions in South Africa. Black and white inhabit and share a home and have been in an abusive relationship for over three centuries. In order for the relationship to work both parties have to be honest and open about their past, declare their positions and interests and finally commit to actively and sincerely building a future which will bring healing and closure – and which will ultimately empower both sides.

Its time for honesty, accountability and repentance; we all know the challenges and issues which hold South Africans back from embracing each other as equals. The time for denial and political gamesmanship is over, its time for South Africans from across the colour lines to take responsibility and play their part in the reconstruction of the South African psyche!

Mjo Zungu – Izwe Lethu