When you are a young South African – one of the so-called “Born Frees” – living in what the world calls a young democracy it’s important not to forget to keep looking over your shoulder to see where you came from. We can’t forget that although we are a new South Africa we have very old roots.
In keeping with a series of talks and discussions on the concept of contemporary South African communities the SAWIP student team gathered together to watch a documentary which provided stark reflection on some of the issues that growing up in a young nation forces you to consider.
The film, called 7Up, looks at a number of children with different cultures, race and socioeconomic class across the country as they experience day-to-day life at the ripe old age of 7 in 1992’s South Africa. It follows them in subsequent films as they progress through to adulthood and provides candid unfiltered interviews along the way.
I’ve done a little bit of work in paediatric healthcare during my studies and I can say that there is a kernel of truth in the old adage that children have a way of speaking the truth, even if it’s not at the most opportune moment. The kids in this film may not have had perspective on the history and context that led up to the important political events that were surrounding them as South Africa found its democratic footing, however much of what they said reflected on the lived experience of their parents and guardians. Fears and prejudices had been passed down like old clothes, too dirty for their parents to wear anymore. Others longed for different lives and loathed the colour of their own skin.
There exists something that for lack of a term I want to call the tragedy of inheritance. In South Africa we do not simply inherit our parents wealth or property. We also inherit their past. We inherit their ways of interacting with other people – people with different languages, people with different skin. Minds can shift and opinions can change but there is always something beneath the surface – a guilt, an anger, a pain. Kids have a way of picking up on this.
At a previous session on multiculturalism, at which we had first seen parts of the 7Up film, the facilitator had called for us to “hold lightly onto our identities” and to thereby recognise the fluidity of being a South African. When presented with viewpoints that are out of our scope or stories that don’t fit into the narratives that we tell about ourselves it’s easy to say “That’s not me!” or “I want no part in that!” yet sometimes it’s important to acknowledge that we are not blank slates, we have a past and unless we are aware of that we won’t know what parts are worth keeping. Our identities can be both/and and not simply either/or.
It is a truth worldwide, but perhaps one more clearly silhouetted in the South African context, that we are shaped by the people we meet. Cultural identity is not immovable and unchanging, we as individuals have the power to define it. Yet we cannot sever the ties to our history completely. We are, after all, our parent’s children. Nowhere is this more clear than in watching young people grow up.
How do we then have sympathy and how do we be kind to each other when everyone brings so much more to the table than just their own stories?
I say we have to be honest and claim all those parts of ourselves. We have to say that what happened to South Africa was not “normal”. We are not “normal”, and maybe that’s okay.