Thursday, March 3, 2011

I do believe there is hope for South Africans and the racial tensions

This is what can be achieved if politics is not allowed to abuse a situation and allow the racist agendas to supersede the human needs and wants!

Behind the Reitz apology

Jonathan Jansen: The tension was unbearable. This would be the first time since 2007 that the four former students and the five workers would meet face-to-face, and this at the scene of the tragedy, the university campus. We all knew that Thursday 24 February 2011 would be a long night.

True to custom, the four boys - now huge men - were there on time, waiting. I studied their eyes and their body language. You could feel the nervous tension emanating from their bodies with their reserved hand-greeting.

So far they had managed to stay out of the public eye, except for the endless replays of the video footage of the entanglement where what appears to be a series of games played by students and workers turned out to be a racist attack on the black staff as a means of protesting racial integration in the campus residences.

But now, after long and complex negotiations between the three parties involved - the university, the former students and the staff - an agreement was reached to settle the matter out-of-court.

The dinner arranged might or might not happen in Room 16, where family and food awaited the outcome of the drama down the corridor in the Rector's seminar room. This seminar room was the site of many difficult dialogues during my 20 months on the campus; it was also the room where the historic meeting between Julius Malema and me took place late in 2009. If that room could talk .

There was a snag. One, then two, of the women workers wanted to first meet alone with one of the boys. This was risky; what if something went wrong, a private confrontation that could demolish months of hard work by the three sides.

When we heard the request it was clear that this was to be a glorious moment. The first woman wanted to meet with the boy whom she knew longest, and whom she expected to defend her dignity among the other boys. She wanted to know how he could let her down. She wanted an explanation before the bigger meeting with all nine participants.

I cannot imagine what pain these two engagements brought, but I remember leaving the room, with one of the workers crying. I called the psychologist to join them.

Then the big meeting in that seminar room. I thanked the three groups for coming together of their own volition, and for recognising the limits of legal remedies for complex human problems. Should they come to an agreement, there would be one more hurdle to cross, the public apology the next evening. They should prepare emotionally and spiritually for that intense exposure to a mixed audience of sceptics and supporters, and the searching cameras and lights of the local and international media. Then it would be over, and they could get on with the rest of their lives.

We agree to limit media exposure, given the intense emotions, fragility and vulnerability of the former students and the workers.

I leave the room, and the workers, the former students and the university representative (also to read an apology) are alone. We sit outside, praying. It is quiet, a sense of serious exchange. But when will they finish? It goes on and on and on. We look for food as the night drags on. Is this going to work?

Then, suddenly, bursts of joyous laughter, like that of a mother finding her child after months of anxious searching. I open and close the door; they are standing, but still talking. Finally the door opens from the inside and everybody is smiling. Hugs and greetings all round. It is finished.

We walk into Room 16, where the families are waiting. One of the women grabs the hand of one of the boys as she walks in; "that's my husband over there, go and greet him."

There is something here I do not understand. The media images of four white boys instructing and dominating five black workers makes no sense. It is clear throughout that the women, in particular, have absolute control over the boys. They listen when the women speak, and they do what they are told. There is a complexity here that must still be unravelled.

A stark cultural difference is evident in Room 16. The four boys came alone, their families and new wives and girlfriends stayed away; they would have to take this final journey alone.

The workers brought their families, young and old, and it becomes clear that they also wish to speak, to say how they felt about what happened, but especially to welcome the boys into their families.

I feel the goose-bumps rise and fall with warm, endearing statements around the table. "You are still our children, and we love you," says one of the workers. "We are so sorry," says one of the boys, "and we wish we could have talked much earlier."

An older woman stands and sings a familiar African song of thanks to God. There are tears. One of the boys adjusts the tie of the black male worker in the video, the one often overlooked in stories that speak only about the women in the Reitz saga. The students sit among the workers, eating together, occasionally leaning against one another as if to remind the other of their new togetherness. The reconciliation is complete.

The wounds remain, but now they will heal faster.

"We realise this is not only about us," says one of the workers the next evening, "but about our country."

Original story