Although I returned to the USA twenty-three years ago, my experiences and relationships in South Africa are still very much an important part of who I am now. The Apartheid regime that governed the country was still in operation when I arrived there in January of 1989, and the signs of its potential demise were only simmering underneath the appearance of Afrikaner control. The changes came about quickly, however, and Nelson Mandela was installed as the first African President of South Africa in 1994. I recall the day of his election vividly, as I sat glued to my TV watching scenes of Africans and Europeans (mostly Afrikaner and British) standing in long lines together–Africans patiently awaiting their very first opportunity to vote in their own nation of origin. The awe in the announcer’s quiet voice was obvious, as he stated “Today, PEACE broke out in South Africa.” Like our own nation, however, the peace was not a permanent characteristic. But it was a dramatic beginning.
I felt concern for my country only days after getting home just before Christmas in 1995. Had it only been seven years since I left? This does not seem to be the same country where I used to live. In fact, I noticed many unsettling events that reminded me very much of Apartheid South Africa. How I hate to report that over the next 23 years those similarities would grow in number and severity. I cannot escape the knowledge that while the histories of the two nations are widely different, the root causes of their worst similarities are exactly the same: (1) Blatant, deep racism; (2) A belief that God chose white, male property owners as the elite of the earth; and (3) Greed, for both wealth and power.
Granted, these false beliefs and the self-serving actions that accompany them are not unique to our two nations, nor to the four-century long histories they possess. They are not even universal in either country. But they are as old as time, for as primitives we humans feared others who were different from ourselves and believed in strengthening ourselves (in many ways, such as land, weapons, etc.) for the purpose of protection from the outsider. Along the way, fortunately for civilization, some groups began to understand that human beings were all one race, and our different languages, appearances, lifestyles and mores were mere expressions of the many possible ways of being human.
The Zulu, for example, use the word Sawubona as a greeting. I was told that the word was translated as “I see you,” but the Zulu explained to me that there was a deeper meaning: “I see you, and I recognize that you are a human being just as I am.” Now, I have unashamedly used this example as being evidence that the Zulu (and many, many Africans like them) had a precious understanding of what it means to be human in a human world. Which is true, and this particular greeting was used when I was greeted by many Zulus, and I saw and heard it used to many others who were not Zulu or African at all.
But like all good values and habits, there is a downside. What if the “other” is a stranger, or a member of a tribe with which my group is not in good standing? What if they belong to a group of oppressors, who have colonized my country and taken over its resources and governance, and killed my people? What if they just look and sound different, and I am afraid of them?
We humans are not completely civilized. Our primitive fears of the stranger, or the other, lurk in our subconscious. They arise fully established when we feel threatened. But if we are to accomplish our own growth as human beings, we still must look at any other human being and deliberately state with all the empathy and honesty we can muster: “I see you, and I recognize that you are a human being just as I am.”
Just as I am. Made from the energy and stardust of the universe, and imbued with the Spirit of our Creator, to grow out of our primitive fears and beliefs, protect the planet we all depend upon for our lives, and work towards peace with those other humans. To look people in the eye and see that Spirit within them and know that born in their place and time, we would be no different. To make sure that we do not take more from the earth than can be renewed, and that we stop fouling our own homelands to the detriment of its inhabitants. To remember that we all descend from the same roots in Eastern Africa millions of years ago, and underneath our differences we are the same human family. To build, instead of tearing down. To share, instead of hoarding. To speak with civility and respect to all, and receive the same treatment. To be thankful for our home planet, our neighbors and families, and our own lives. To nevertheless welcome the stranger, protect and care for widows and orphans, and work to empower others to become what they were meant to be, rather than punishing them and destroying any chance they might have to be a productive human person.
In other words, to REALLY look at the people we come in contact with, and to be present to them. To show respect, and eschew arrogance, as well as ignorance. To grow into a civilized world, respecting the lives and rights of all and whenever possible, to help others to do the same. To be worthy of the category HUMAN.