Today would’ve been Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday, it coincides with my 199th hike up Table Mountain joined by Elliot (from Langa) and Raquel (Switzerland) – this makes it 100 days that I’ve been joined by people this year. My gran was Swiss and if she were alive – would’ve also been 100 today.
Life’s synchronicity is beautiful.
His first seed planted with me
I was thirteen years old when Nelson Mandela visited our school and spoke to us. The youngest boys always stood in front which that day, was our blessing.
I was too young to fully take in the message he gave us, but thankfully able to go back into our school’s magazines archives the sentence ‘his message to the young boys was that the privilege they enjoy carries responsibility.’ Reminds me 25 years on.
Being a white male in South Africa means there’s a dark past attached to you. My journey to come to terms with that and what it means hasn’t been an easy one. As recently as five years ago, I thought ‘I didn’t personally benefit from Apartheid.’ And thought I was kind of ‘in the clear’ if you will.
This was an uneducated thought rooted in ignorance.
It took a woman by the name of Dr Jackie Naude (author of Finding the Rainbow) to come to Distell and provide a transformation workshop to begin to change this. She provided and open forum discussing a painful past from an objective point of view in a safe environment. The first time I had a detailed explanation of our past in this manner.
Understanding what the British did to the Boers (Afrikaners) by putting women and children in concentration camps (yes that’s right, the British invented this); The Afrikaners rule and desire to never be subjugated again, creating apartheid through to the release of Nelson Mandela and how he, somehow, managed to stave off a full blown civil war – a horror I can’t even begin to comprehend.
I wasn’t just understanding how we got to the present day, I started to understand how I benefitted from a system purely because of the colour of my skin.
I started to understand I was privileged.
My Journey with Privilege
I understood that one of the biggest problems with BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) was the communication around it and that it wasn’t a call to immediately thrust previously disadvantaged people in to high positions; but rather an opportunity for business to understand the previous injustices and to work together with government to rectify this over a period of time.
This is a contentious issue but effectively, business buried its head in the sand not truly understanding the requirements.
White privilege is a phrase that makes most people feel guilt or shame. I know I felt very uncomfortable so avoided public talks about it and if it came up, tried to defend myself that I personally hadn’t done anything wrong.
This is not something to defend.
It led to a profound understanding I live with today and where one of 365 Ubuntu Climbs pillars was born:
Just because I’m not personally responsible for someone else’s suffering; doesn’t mean I can’t be part of the solution to help them.
Mandela’s Deaths Impact
I was driving on the highway past the airport, a profound sadness came over me as I heard it on the news. A quick gaze right and my eyes were met with a sight I’d seen every day twice a day for two years: shacks.
We’re not doing enough…I thought.
I started thinking about the 5 000 staff at Distell and I imagined every staff member donating R10 a month – that’s R50 000… then I realised our Southern Africa offices pay R50 per person for parking; not exactly an amount that hurts your pocket. Using that amount it quickly rises to R225 000! In one year: that’s R2.7 million.
And we think we can’t do more to help others?
On the rest of my drive took questions like who builds homes? How do I find them? And who do I speak to? All rolled around in my head.
Simply sharing this idea with colleagues over coffee’s where I got my first break – ‘you should contact Habitat for Humanity’. And so, my relationship with them was born. Distell human resources department didn’t bite, but the Corporate Social Responsibility department, with whom I’d built up a relationship thanks to my work with the Sunflower Fund – did.
They got involved and built two houses which, both times, I was away on business unfortunately.
Opportunities to Think Differently
The Jacob Zuma protests in 2016 made me question how the protests were being conducted, because I saw them creating more of a divide in our country. I asked (didn’t assume) why weren’t black people joining in? A quick response around a tragedy here called Marikana, a mine where 14 miners were shot (unarmed and running away) in the back, again opened my thinking.
There were no protests organised then.
It hit home the hypocrisy around what marches were organised and that the marches against JZ were only because whites were affected by his actions.
I was seeing how its not always what we say, but sometimes what we don’t say that can be as damaging. This made me realise another painful truth on my part.
I’d never spoken to any black person (friends or colleagues) about what life was like under apartheid.
To understand today you must understand your past. “YOUR” as in country not personal. That means talking to people with alternate views and experiences to your own.
Those were some of the most heart breaking and difficult conversations I’ve ever had in my life. I appreciated all of them taking the time to go back and open wounds to share the madness and atrocities they experienced. Its why I wrote ‘South Africans – It’s time to Wake Up’
It wasn’t about trying to make things better for them; it was about opening my eyes to understand why certain protests happen now.
You might not condone an action like burning tyres on highways, but you can understand where its coming from. Instead of replying in ignorance, I now have a conversation with compassion.
None of us are in control of the privileges we are born into.
Was everything easy for my parents? Definitely not. But this is where my false sense of entitlement came from – I compared struggles without fully understanding the varying degrees of struggle.
Struggles of life are vastly different to the struggle against oppression.
Privileges come in many forms and I’ll never forget driving with my mom as a youngster and a man was in a wheelchair working tirelessly up a long hill. He was grimacing, and my mother pointed out how grateful we should be. That, as well as his determination, have stuck with me to this day.
It’s another form of privilege I have and why before every walk I take a moment to be grateful for what I have – my legs that work and are strong enough to hike Table Mountain every day.
Privilege is a word that makes people feel uncomfortable. It’s a word that today implies guilt and shame.
I used to say: ‘can’t we all just stop living in the past and move forwards together’ and now I try put myself in the shoes of those that have been oppressed. How would I feel 24 years on and nothing changed?
Its easy to want to ‘just move on’ when you’re on the right side of privilege.
Instead of feeling guilty or uncomfortable that I have privilege – I now think about how I can use it to empower others.
I can’t change the past; but I can change how I think today to make a better future for all.
It’s not about taking responsibility for Apartheid. Its about taking responsibility for the privileges it afforded me.
It’s amazing what can happen when you decide to stop carrying around negative baggage and decide to recycle it into something useful instead.
His Legacy’s gift to Us All
Together with all the freedom fighters, they gave us a South Africa to be proud of. We almost had a civil war – and came through peacefully. That should be celebrated every day.
We have the most amazing constitution in the world. Be proud of that.
The people of this country have endured some of the biggest atrocities in the world – and their spirit was never broken and are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met on three continents. Just look at how we blew the world away in 2010. The smiles in this country are unparalleled.
You don’t believe we can make a difference? Go to www.365climbs.com and make a R50 donation and challenge everyone you know to do the same – and I promise – I will show you how wrong you are. Your contribution is invaluable.
If this project changes 8 000 peoples lives and each of those go forward and changes another 10 people, and then those people another 10 and another 10 then in 5 generations we have the power to empower 800 million people. That’s fourteen times our current population. You think you can’t impact 10 lives? Join us and be a part of that.
I want a phenomenal country for all that live here. Not just a few.
Imagine if you were living in poverty and got a helping hand out of it.
Asking questions is one of the most powerful forces for long lasting change. I speak from experience.
Instead of making social commentary about what happens in this country – I invite you to ask better questions and then: seek out those who can answer from their experience and not from their opinion.
I hope to see you on the mountain soon.