Ideas·Us & Them

Eyes on the back of our heads: Recovering a multicultural South Africa

Journalist and activist Sisonke Msimang speaks at a former prison complex in Johannesburg which once held Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. She pulls down the old binarism of black versus white to make way for a truly multicultural South Africa, one that welcomes other African migrants as it embraces its own racially diverse past.
Sisonke Msimang

Journalist and activist Sisonke Msimang speaks at a former prison complex in Johannesburg which once held Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. The setting is apt: Sisonke believes that post-apartheid South Africa has become imprisoned by its own past — a past which whites cannot recall and which blacks cannot forget. With both a mischievous sense of humour and sharp historical analyses, she pulls down the old binarism of black versus white to make way for a truly multicultural South Africa, one that welcomes other African migrants as it embraces its own racially diverse past. As she says: "We are learning to scan the wreckage of our history and mine it for gold. To look for the connections between us, even as we walk with our eyes firmly fixed on the horizon. We are moving ever more sure-footed, towards making a South Africa in which we all belong." **This episode originally aired June 26. 2017. Part 2 of this series airs Friday, August 3.


5 years ago
Duration 3:59
Recovering a multicultural South Africa

Diversity as a diversion

"Too often, the immediate preoccupation is with ensuring that white South Africans still feel welcome. So we get seduced by the fragility of whiteness, distracted, preoccupied by the nervousness and the anxieties of white people. You see the white genocide web sites, [and] the panic, so we privilege the fear [and] feelings of white people. And whether we're soothing them or excoriating them — still we are talking about them, often unthinkingly. So 'diversity' becomes a way to reassure whites of their place in an otherwise black country."

Diversity as a necessity

"In South Africa, multiculturalism is built into our bodies. But unlike other settler colonies like Australia and Canada and America, we are a majority black country. So we don't have to lie about our mixed blood and our complex ties to one another. We don't have to pretend about a non-existent cultural purity. We don't have to act as though we are grateful as hell... for the brutality and genocide that were wrought by colonialism. That we can be honest and serious about what multiculturalism has meant in our context"

What's needed now

"We have to create a South Africa that isn't always turning towards whites and whiteness as a point of reference. I want to live in South Africa in which diversity is a real and strong word, not this liberal mealy-mouthed kind of thing that it too often it is. I want to live in a South Africa where diversity and multiculturalism denote belonging."

Sisonke Msimang
Sisonke Msimang is a writer and storyteller whose work appears regularly in The New York Times, The Guardian, Newsweek and a range of other international publications. She is currently the Programme Director at the Centre for Stories. Sisonke has spoken at The Moth and on the TED stage, and has worked on social justice for many years. Sisonke has worked for the United Nations on gender and human rights and served as the director of the offices of the Open Society Foundation in Southern Africa. In 2012 Sisonke was a Yale World Fellow. In 2014 she was named as an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow and in 2015 she was awarded a Ruth First Fellowship at the University of the Witswatersrand. She also serves on the boards of directors of the International Women's Health Coalition (IWHC) in New York, Africa Check in Johannesburg and serves on the board of trustees of the Graca Machel Trust. 

Paul Kennedy's South African Diary

Paul Kennedy
My overnight flight landed in Johannesburg far too early on a Sunday morning. I was now on the other side of the planet, where the world seemed upside-down. Water swirled counterclockwise down the bathtub drain! But somehow everything suddenly started to make sense. Perhaps a state of low-level confusion was a perfect mindset for the launch of our international tour for "Us and Them", in which IDEAS set out to explore the many meanings of diversity.

I grabbed a cab for the Museum of Apartheid, where I then spent most of my first afternoon in South Africa happily getting lost in a wonderful temporary exhibition about Nelson Mandela. (Note to reader: there's an excellent online digital documentation of the entire show currently available at the Apartheid Museum website (just scroll down to the prompt marked "Other Exhibitions", and then click where you see "What's on Now"). It was an emotionally powerful crash course on the man who almost literally made modern South Africa. Historic photographs and artifacts, old newspapers and videos revealed the enormous complexity of the miracle Mandela achieved; and how much his life, and his country's evolution, are woven into the unbelievable diversity of South African society.

Before leaving the museum grounds (which are oddly situated right beside a busy amusement park), there was time for a brief visit to another art show, where I saw stunning photographic portraits of anti-apartheid activists. There were installations examining many painful differences between then and now. But what sticks with me most was the title of the show itself: "CAN'T FORGET/CAN'T REMEMBER". These four words were the most frequently repeated statements during Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings convened all over South Africa. Many witnesses, predominantly white, testified that they couldn't remember the ugliness of what went on. Others, usually black, declared they could never forget. READ MORE...

Us and Them: Diversity, Division, and a World of Difference is a five-part series featuring talks presented in South Africa, Israel, India, Germany, and Canada -- all countries dealing with the reality of a diverse population. The series is produced by CBC IDEAS in partnership with The Laurier Institution. The talks were recorded in the spring of 2017, and originally broadcast June 2017.

**This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey, Greg Kelly and Paul Kennedy. Video by James Cooper.


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