Saturday, 28 June 2008

Second Chances

It is human to err and every human being deserves a second chance. As true as this statement is, it is also true that another very natural human trait is not being able to forget and forgive. And why even go down to forgiving and forgetting, even if someone’s actions have not had an impact on our lives we still would like to have the authority to judge an individual. We all have a right to our own opinions (even those of us who do not live in a democratic set up). however, do we all have the authority and the required evidence to judge another human being? I am not sure.

An eye opening experience on forgiveness and moving on was my recent trip to South Africa. Coming from India, I had always very naively assumed that to some extent I knew about discrimination. Yes we have caste based discrimination in India, we have socio-economic discrimination in India and we even have gender based discrimination in the form of reservation for women in universities, government offices etc. (I find that extremely inane). However, the discrimination that existed in South Africa under the apartheid regime was akin to sentencing an innocent to the electric chair. No amount of pleas or evidence screaming out the innocence of the convicted could change the verdict, simply because once made the decision was final. Over and over again the jury would err on the wrong side and could not care less. Human life held no value unless you had the right skin color. Even as I am typing this I am not sure that my comparison actually brings out the brutality of the regime. If I am being totally honest and maybe politically incorrect, then I would say that apartheid fell just short of the Nazi rule in Europe. It was not that cruel or drastic but was almost there. And now I am wondering if the extent of harsh treatment meted out makes one form of discrimination (caste base, apartheid, religion based, gender based etc.) more pardonable than the other. I don’t think so. The base principle in itself seems to be bigoted and fractured.

Anyway, coming back to apartheid. While in Johannesburg, a very dear friend recommended that I visit the apartheid museum. In his words, at the museum, even as a South African he learnt a lot about the history of his own country and saw reality in its bare form as he had never seen before. I was intrigued and hence decided to spend a couple of hours at the museum. And boy, was that an experience! I was emotionally drained at the end of my three hour tour through the displays and the screenings.

My journey into the museum began in a gradually narrowing corridor, which made me feel as if someone was closing in on me and curtailing my movements. The passage led me through to turnstiles where I was supposed to use a randomly allocated pass at the entrance. This pass would decide if I was designated a white, black or colored and hence I would then need to go through the allocated gangway at the reconstructed railway platform (I was a designate white and hence lucky I guess!). Coming out of the gangway I entered the zone of my new adventure. Slowly I passed exhibits that helped me determine how the Europeans had discovered South Africa and settled there. This initial bit was truly fascinating. Next came how the Afrikaans (naturalized Europeans) had gained control in the country thanks largely to the discovery of gold. Subsequent were descriptions, illustrations and displays of how the Afrikaans power and superiority complex led to one race brutally subjugating another race to inhuman ways of life. Blacks (as the African natives were designated), coloreds (Asians originating from countries other than India) and Indians were required to carry a pass book along with them which listed all the details that a passport today would have and in addition specified the holder’s employer, employment details and the times at which she was required to be on the premises of the employer. On way to work and on way back, there were check points where the legitimacy of the trip would be verified with the pass book. If during the daily duration at work, an employee was found out and about in the streets, she was liable for a fine and would also be imprisoned. While tolerating this inhuman treatment, blacks (and the other non-whites) were paid less than a tenth of what a white person earned doing the same job. Blacks were not allowed to hold jobs senior than the whites. In fact blacks were not allowed access to education that would help them develop skills to be able to rise through the ranks in any organization. English was a prohibited subject in the black schools. Food that was made available to the blacks was rationed and of lower quality. It is enough to say that it was almost as if the blacks should have bowed to the whites for being given a shot at trying to survive. The whites were truly Gods and the blacks had to accept their wish as a holy command. Children died of malnutrition, the sick died due to lack of medical facilities, elderly people had no hope and those who were in their youth had to live by the book to support their families. Even animals in the South African jungles seemed to have more freedom!

None of what I have just said was told to me by any one person. It has all been evidenced by displays of the then existing legislature and screenings of television footage. The final bit of the museum is dedicated to the struggle fought to free the country from the glitches of this merciless governing policy. Here there are MK Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and the likes awakening people to their own beings. It shows a young Mandela talking about the need for an armed struggle despite the African National Congress having been found on the Gandhian principles. This section made me think of the Indian freedom struggle as there are a lot of parallels between the two fights, the most important common factor being Gandhi. Finally when I walked out of the museum I felt as I if I had just lived through severe despair, found hope and then gained freedom. I really was gutted in some senses.

Carrying this experience with me I went to Cape Town, which I have to say is an absolutely gorgeous city. It seems to be God’s own land (more about that in another post maybe). People in Cape Town are more open and relaxed than those in Johannesburg and it is also a safer city. This gave me the opportunity to walk about and befriend the locals. I found myself interacting with blacks, whites and colored from all walks of life. They all had their own family histories and stories from the apartheid era. However, not one of them seemed to be bitter about the past. There was an enthusiasm in every single person I met to make most of the new opportunities and build a new life. They all wanted to forget the past as if it were a bad dream. This holds true even for the man who gave us a tour of Robben Island (the place where Mandela was a prisoner for over 10 years), who before being a tour guide of the place was a political prisoner there for fifteen years.

The most humbling interaction, however, that I had was with one of my hotel drivers. While discussing apartheid he was more factual than emotional. He did speak of the atrocities but did not seem to hold on to them. In fact, in his own words, his attitude towards apartheid is this, “I cannot live life looking at the past. I have to be able to forget what happened and focus on what can happen. My life is half over but my children and grandchildren have all theirs to live. My experiences should not prejudice them but educate them. Hence I am ready to forget and make a new beginning.” This came from a man who lost his grandfather to a heart attack caused by the whites razing the old man’s ancestral home, without any reason or warning, in front of his eyes. This comes from a man who saw his grandfather die in front of his eyes and saw his grandmother reduced to poverty within a matter of hours and being widowed in the next few. This comes from a man who has bought the same plot of land on which his late grandfather’s house stood so that he can construct a new one for his mother. This to me in all sincerity is true forgiveness.

Yes we all do deserve a second chance and we would like to beg for one when in need. But how many of us can be this magnanimous and forgive an entire generation, forget all our sufferings and only focus on how we can improve the future? How many of us can truly forget when we are wronged and move on? When we cannot forget easily, how can we expect others to do the same? The entire nation of South Africa I think is an inspiration in that respect. The people there taught me what it really means to let bygones be bygones. I hope they can really build the success story they have set out to. A country like that deserves to thrive.

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