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The elephant in the room

Tough conversations lead to reconciliation



Over the last few weeks, South Africa was rocked by xenophobic attacks with tragic consequences. More than 60 people were killed, with reports now stating that about 21 of those people were actually South African citizens. More than 20,000 people have been displaced, and thousands are still suffering in hospitals from their wounds. However, a sense of peace and calm has fallen over the country, with many people expressing sadness and disappointment over what has occurred.

South Africa has many fine qualities; one of its greatest is an uncanny ability to forgive. Many will remember the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the late 1990s. During this time, people who publicly admitted to committing human rights violations during the Apartheid era were granted amnesty. This exercise was important to victims and their relatives because the greater public would know what had happened to their loved ones, and they would see some form of penance from the former rulers. Some argued that reconciliation with former oppressors was at the expense of rewards and justice for the victims, but the exercise was eventually accepted. South Africa set a model for forgiveness that has not been replicated successfully anywhere since.

It is this spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation that has settled over South Africa in the last week. "The Rainbow People" have joined together to launch a massive media campaign against xenophobia. Talk radio airwaves have been dominated by discussions about xenophobia from educational, humanitarian and political perspectives. The South African Broadcasting Commission has run numerous public service advertisements denouncing xenophobia. Many South African celebrities, politicians, athletes, poets and performers have participated in these ads. Television programming, including children's programming, has included the topic. Newspapers covered the topic with zeal, running photos of the hateful crimes. Most South Africans with whom I have been in contact have raised the issue in general conversation, denouncing xenophobia and insisting that it must end.

This is what is interesting about South Africa. A country that is about 14 years "removed" from Apartheid is willing to discuss its challenges publicly. There is no "just get over it" or "why are they mad?" South Africans discuss issues of race, class and gender publicly and frequently. Unlike America, they do not tiptoe around these issues for fear of upsetting someone or to protect the conscience of former oppressors. A friend of mine in Durban recently sent me an e-mail asking how I was doing and "How is the Xenophobia?" I thought to myself, this would never happen in the United States, at least in my world.

Don't get me wrong. Conversations about racism, classism, sexism and the political economy happen back home. Complicated discussions seem to happen mainly in academic spaces, not in general conversation. While the greater population discusses these issues, it typically becomes an "us against them" shouting match on some Sunday morning talk show. In South Africa, the bagger at the grocery store that I frequent in Grahamstown asked me my thoughts on the xenophobic attacks. The clerks in the bakery wanted to talk about it. A wealthy retiree in Kenton-on-Sea raised the issue. My colleagues at the rural school with which I work wanted to talk about it. A stranger in a boutique brought up the issue.

I believe that South Africa has mastered early on what Americans have not -- an ability to have tough conversations in everyday life without letting it separate them. Ironically, it is the public discussions of what some would argue are private matters that lead to reconciliation.

It is when we do not talk about these matters publicly that we have a society that appears to be harmonious on the surface, but is highly fragmented and disaffected underneath. As long as we do not talk about it, then it will not exist, which in my mind, is the furthest thing from the truth. Some would argue that it is a drag to talk about these issues every day. As someone who studies these issues on a regular basis, it can be. But I would suggest that if indeed these are issues that many face on a regular basis, then these issues are something that should be discussed regularly.

I liken it to a relationship with a friend or a lover where a discussion about an issue needs to take place but has not. Every time you get together, there is an elephant in the room that is not discussed. Eventually tension builds to a point where a discussion erupts, typically in the form of a shouting match or volatile exchange. Compare that to the times when you have had a discussion about an issue when it needed to happen. Even if the outcome is not what you wanted, there is a form of calm that replaces angst, because now everything is on the table. The ability to reconcile from the latter is much greater than the former.

South Africa was in an uproar because of conversations that did not occur -- like how to incorporate millions of people into an already overly stressed infrastructure. Now that these conversations are happening, many are able to reconcile their differences and move towards a united country.

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