To Come Back from Qunu
Herman Wasserman | December 17th, 2013


I do not have a background in the struggle. Unlike the many people who over the past week shared their stories of their personal interactions with Nelson Mandela during the struggle, my only brief meeting with Mandela was as a journalist for the Afrikaans newspaper Die Burger, which he visited despite the editor, Ebbe Dommisse’s ongoing demonization of the ANC and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As a white South African I have lived with the shame that it was the White State that imprisoned Nelson Mandela. I grew up in the illusion of white suburbia while the country burned around us, and was taught to fear the threat of the Other. As a child, I wasn’t told about Nelson Mandela, yet his movement changed our lives and the future of my children. Which is why, Sunday morning at 5 a.m., my wife and I woke our children, put them in the car and made the four hour journey to Qunu.

Of course we did not have accreditation to attend the main funeral event, so we headed for one of the public viewing areas. We expected throngs of people, traffic jams, people wrestling to find space. What we found was a small gathering of people around a big screen. Now and again a small group would stand up and join the singing, like when Jacob Zuma led with Thina Sizwe.

But, overall, there was a quietness about the day. People strolled slowly from their homes towards the viewing area, goats and cattle grazed around, some hopeful entrepreneurs tried to flog a can of Coke, a T-shirt or a cap with Mandela’s image. There were almost as many journalists roaming around in search of a quote as there were viewers sitting on the plastic chairs around the screen.

Almost immediately after we arrived, however, we were pounced upon by journalists – from Telesur to France 24 to CNBC Africa– asking us to explain ourselves. Why did we come all the way from Grahamstown and not just watch the event at home? How do we feel as white South Africans about Mandela? Do we see ourselves as victims in a way? What does Mandela mean to our children? Can you speak to the camera in Afrikaans?

We wanted to watch the ceremony, wanted to be a part of the group of mourners, to give tribute to a leader who also freed his jailors, to paraphrase Barack Obama’s speech at the Johannesburg memorial service. But we do not yet live in that ordinary country, and perhaps today that was the testimony we were called upon to give – that, thanks to Madiba, it is all of us that are free. That the history we look back upon is not only the history of the ANC, the history of black South Africans, or the history of the banished and the imprisoned. The history we came here to be a part of, belongs to all of us.

As the ceremony ended, my kids couldn’t contain themselves anymore, and wandered off to go and play some distance away from the viewing area, spontaneously making friends with two black kids that were just as bored as they were. They ran around on the green grass, behind them the spectacular backdrop of the green valley and the big white marquee where Nelson Mandela’s body was being carried out to his last resting place. And for a moment I found the meaning of Mandela in this ordinariness, the laughter of children, the grazing of cattle, the chatter of people from the village.

As we walked back through the dusty streets of Qunu after the service, the familiar sight of rural poverty was around us, and the contrast between the modest dwellings and the rented cars and expensive 4×4’s parked on the sidewalks outside them was an example of the stark inequalities that continue to characterize South African society. And it reminded us that, despite the victim discourse of many whites (and not only the crazy rightwingers who believed that Mandela’s passing would unleash a mass killing of whites), white South Africans by and large still find ourselves on the affluent side of that gulf between the rich and the poor. We have benefited greatly from the transition to democracy.

It is precisely because their lives have remained comfortable that many whites could make a cuddly patron of Mandela without confronting the revolutionary part of his legacy. It is true that Mandela’s almost unbelievable capacity to forgive ensured that racial reconciliation is the legacy he will be remembered for. But for too many whites this became a get-out-of-jail card that absolved them of the responsibility to find ways of contributing to the eradication of apartheid’s enduring legacies. This is the humbling power of forgiveness that caused – in the historian Albert Grundlingh’s words – a ‘traffic jam on the road to Damascus’ among many white South Africans. But too often Mandela has been reduced to a fridge magnet saint, a T-shirt hero that did not pose a challenge to business as usual. This is the sanitized version of Mandela that made possible the corporate arrogance of Woolworths to dress singers as shelf packers to stage a flash mob while singing Johnny Clegg’s anthem Asimbonanga. (And why many of those that shared the clip on Facebook would probably not know as much about Steve Biko, Victoria Mxenge and Neil Aggett who the original song also pays homage to.) This reduction of a revolutionary to a safe, cuddly saint is why newspapers over the past week were brimming with advertisements of big corporates paying tribute to Mandela, in a country where mine workers get killed for demanding a living wage.

And yet, and yet, I find it difficult to agree with overly negative assessments like those of Slavoj Zizek. There is no doubting the sea of poverty and inequality in which so many South Africans remain adrift. But as we critique the pernicious effects of neoliberalism and attack the current ANC for moral insolvency, let us not forget that the country my children are growing up in is vastly different from the one in which I became an adult. They now live in a country whose founding principles are that of freedom, human dignity, and equality, instead of fear, conflict and hate. They don’t know war, bombs or uniforms. At school they share classrooms with children whose parents I would not have been allowed to play with forty years ago. They can paint the South African flag on their faces and cheer for the Boks, the Proteas or Bafana without thinking about it twice. To invert a cliché: the present is a different country.

But it is not different enough yet. At school my children are still more likely to learn to care about the dangers facing the rhino than seeing for themselves the precariousness of life for children on the other side of town. They may live in a country that is now formally non-racial, have a few black friends and they may know the words of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, but they remain ensconced in the comforts of a life where education, health care and security are privatized. In some ways, theirs is light years away from my childhood. But in many other ways, twenty years after democracy, it is not.

Nelson Mandela’s funeral service reminded me of how little Xhosa I can understand, how little I know about Xhosa burial rituals, how much I still have to learn about the history of a struggle that is too often presented as that of black South Africans and too seldom understood by white South Africans as the trajectory that led to our own liberation from prejudice, hatred and fear. White South Africans like us will have to challenge ourselves (and be challenged by the media) to cross the many divides that still mark South African society, learn to listen to different stories, speak other languages and participate in social and political life rather than emigrate inwards to our suburban homes.

Driving back through the heartbreakingly beautiful green hills around Qunu, past the awe-inspiring Amathola mountains, I hoped that one day my children will just live in an ordinary South Africa. One in which white children attending a funeral in Qunu won’t be newsworthy enough for TV cameras. But I know that for this to happen, we will have to move beyond reconciliation, wonderful as it is, to social justice, to equality in all its dimensions. There are many rivers still to cross. I am asking myself again: what can I do, what can I contribute? And as they grow up, I will encourage my children to ask the same question of themselves.

We are all islands/till comes the day/we cross that burning river

On 15 December 2014, we came back from Qunu. The next day, 16 December, was Reconciliation Day. Soon enough, however, this season will pass – and then we will need to get back to work.

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Herman Wasserman

Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University in South Africa.

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37 thoughts on “To Come Back from Qunu

  1. Totally relate to this. I hope I can cross some of those rivers and make more of an effort to be a more interactive South African person.

  2. Well articulated. The sad thing is that we have ‘progresed’ from racial divide in the apartheid regime to a class divide in the ANC regime. There are many black people (i’m no exception) who exist in an insulated bubble. It’s only when our comfort zones are threatened that we remember that economic freedom is still within the grasp of a minority in this country. To quote a pastor whose teachings I’ve always seemed to find prophetic “One day the tide will rise & our high walls will not be able to keep it out” it’s a sad & scary thought & outlook, but if we do not act radically it will be our reality.

    • Even better articulated. Again the question begs – what can I do to make a difference? 47 million questions like that an perhaps there us a defining answer to the challenges that lie ahead.

  3. Did you answer your own question! No and why not? If someone as erudite and in touch cannot answer the question posed in the last paragraph then it is a question aimed solely at making you feel better for asking it and shifting the responsibility to some others. I think you think you’ve done your bit by writing this article which was great up to this last bit which is a ‘cop-out’ and an emotional manipulation, like the posts which show a poor animal video and then ask for a donation….

    Perhaps that’s journalism today, just to ask questions and not suggest possible solutions… well the questions are very important of course! But why not give your solution, or will that detract from the question? I’m sure you do have some ideas….

    • @Clive, well said. As I said in a earlier post, if you and your children just walked the Township and Rural Village streets once a week for a few months, you will find the answer. If, like our media comments we sit back and ask, “What can we do?” for are responsible for the lack of transformation.

      • Cedric and Clive, your comments are mean spirited and miss the point. Journalists do not provide solutions. Do a little research into the nature of journalism.

      • Hi Glen, I have researched journalism from the other side of the fence. The question that is posed is posed by journalists as a general comment. My wife and I have walked the streets of the Townships, live as part of a community in a native village, and my response to the question, “If white South Africans walked the streets of the Townships and Rural Villages, you will find the answer”, is of no interest to a journalist.
        “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
        I took the one less traveled by,
        And that has made all the difference.
        Vary few journalists take the road less traveled. Why? As society we avoid this direction, and therefore the reader does not wish to hear about the road less traveled from the journalist.

    • Clive, this question is far from a “cop-out” and I don’t think it requires a solution to be spelled out on your behalf. Expecting an answer is the cop out.

      I think that the point is that each individual South African needs to ask this question in a deeply honest, reflective way. Perhaps for the author, the answer is writing pieces like this, teaching his children to ask the the same questions. Perhaps for many white South Africans the answer lies in confronting privilege and deeply ingrained ideas of prejudice that are not easy to work through on public platforms where any old troll has a say. It is unlikely, anyhow, that this sort of question will elicit an immediate response of any worth. The question is about reflecting and figuring out the best way, on an individual level, of contributing.

  4. Herman, great article prof. And the last question i believe is directed to all South Africans whether you live in the surburb, township or village. The question is simply, what can I do to contribute to South Africa being a better place for all who live in it? Thina, well put. Clive and Cedric, I dont know what the hack you two are talking about.

  5. I read this article yesterday, I was not gonna coment to it but until just few minutes ago… Having experience wit varkie full of racial hate hey.
    you know I’m so Fuken Pissed by motherfucken White Boer full of racial discrimination.
    From today I so hate every Fucken White individual and I don’t think that gonna change anytime soon.
    After almost Twenty years from so called “Democracy” but today some other white varkie called me a Kaffir. I did not knew what to say to him but I told him that “KAFFIR is jou Ma se puss”

    • Well, thank you very much, Kheo, now you have dragged a civilized discussion to a level where it can only wallop at the bottom of the pigsty, wit varkies of te nie.

  6. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Reading this article reminded me of post-Obama America, where some suggest racism/discrimination no longer exits since he was elected president.
    There are yet very many rivers to be crossed in South Africa. May the country Madiba envisioned in the ideals he was prepared to die for, continue to rise.

  7. Well articulated I wish people like Steve Hofmeyr can read this article. God knew that people will question colour, each and every person has a purpose. Nelson Mandela’s one was to show us we are the same, we were all born free by the creator why oppress one another. Its up to you how you can contribute to the poor, by offering your time help refurbish schools, donate school uniform around your area, it all start there get involved. Donate money to build community halls, for art, music and other things where kids can find themselves. I think most important show love, a smile can even break anger, a smile can give hope, government will never reach all of us but we can reach one another. God bless you and Merry Christmas to everyone!

  8. Interesting indeed… I appreciate the mature debate that followed this article! These are conversations we need to have as South Africans. The sad reality is that, most white South Africans are not willing to come on board so to solve problems of this country of ours. All they do is complain as if they are playing major role in reconciling with their fellow countrymen! As a black person in this country, you work 10 times harder than a fellow white man who has the same or less qualifications as you and get paid 50 times less than them! As long as most of our fellow white countrymen behave as if nothing is wrong with social responsibility, this country is bound to end up in flames!

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