Charlayne Hunter-Gault, of public broadcasting fame, spoke on Jan. 20 at the university in Asheville. Her life has included experience of the struggle for racial equity and justice in both this country and South Africa. Her message, in large degree, was that Americans need to get and stay engaged for mutual benefit in what goes on in other countries, notably in Africa as a whole and in South Africa.
I find that an important message, for it is true that Americans generally are too little aware of issues in other countries, while people there are perhaps too inclined to look to this dominant culture for lessons lived and learned here, then either to admire and imitate or be aghast at what we do.
I remember in Cape Town in the early ’60s, taking radio comfort (we had no TV and, of course, no internet) from news of events and particularly of victories here. I remember singing “We Shall Overcome” and “This Land Is Our Land” with us and our own country in mind. Americans later joined in the international effort to support the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, one of the 20th century’s monster formulations, the embodiment fully in government and culture of racial hatred and discrimination.
And of course, Americans had fought one of those extreme versions in World War II. Yet my experience is that we here become so preoccupied with our own version that still threatens to devour us today that we look elsewhere too little to understand and learn from the experience of others.
My concern is that, even today, one of those monster variants could overtake us and become America’s reality. It could happen amid trends toward mutual isolation within our separate cultures and nations, together with the rise afresh of violence in support of white supremacy. The idea that some kind of institutional apartheid (note that, using its correct Afrikaans pronunciation, derived from Dutch, not German, this can usefully be transliterated as “apart-hate”) can become mainstream in policy here seems alien to American values.
But current events call that into question, and I believe we need to pay attention. Comparisons have been made to Germany of the ’20s and ’30s: Could progressive Germans then have seen the signs of what was to come at a time when they could still ask questions and raise policy issues without yet drawing the full wrath of the state onto their heads? Do we need to be similarly alert?
South African political and governmental institutions under Cyril Ramaphosa struggle now to overcome the recent post-apartheid era under Jacob Zuma, when corruption flourished, grossly undermining efforts toward eliminating the huge, stubborn effects of the apartheid years. Here we could usefully look at that country’s remarkable constitution for ideas needed to augment our own cherished document, itself remarkable for its era. But we need also to take note of the ways those who choose can undermine such a constitution. It wouldn’t hurt to find ways to support that country in dealing with such efforts there.
We must not lose sight of our own such battle, but surely we can only gain from achieving mutual awareness of the current struggles in both countries, and others, in small ways and large, to move to a higher plane in human living: a plane where differences only highlight and illuminate our essential similarities and bring out our underlying unity, instead of leading to conflict and destruction of one another.
Despotism and forces of anti-democracy have arisen in this time throughout the world. That can be discouraging. But it is also an opportunity to stand together to promote rising above such discord and animosity to deal effectively in new and inventive ways with such issues as wealth inequality and the effects of changes in climate, as well as the residual elements of our divisive histories. That takes mutual awareness. We desperately need to learn from and listen to each other without seeking to impose our own views, not only within our own communities but in a spirit of outreach between our countries.
— Ann Karson
Editor’s note: Karson, who grew up in South Africa, notes that she has been an American citizen since 1978 and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.