I have repeatedly watched the clip of CNN journalist Van Jones, pondering on air, his response to the news that Donald Trump was the president-elect. He asks the question, “What do we tell our children? We teach them not to be a bully or a bigot, we teach them to do their homework and be prepared?” As the tears welled up in his eyes, my spectacles misted up and my heart beat was broken by my own questions and my own inability to answer questions from my children about South Africa.
I often say I grew up in the ANC. The truth is I grew up under apartheid. There is a space for my generation of South Africans. We were not all born free, but we have given birth to a new generation of South Africans affectionately known as the born-frees.
It has been a singular mission of ours to raise our children to appreciate their freedom, understanding and acknowledging the past, to make sense of the complexities within which we live.
None of us is ever free of the responsibility of being free. There needs to be a constant dialogue with growing children about how and where and what and who contributed to this great country with its challenges and opportunities.
It is a compelling and unique story with hundreds of different versions. All opinions and experiences are valid. You have to navigate your own chapter and make choices to support your happy ending. You should share your story. We live in an age of political correctness, pussyfooting around the white elephants in the room (no pun intended). We need to fearlessly ask questions, have difficult uneasy conversations and know that as we have something to say, we also all have a lot to learn.
I got politically interested and involved very late, at the age of 17, in 1985. By this time we had left our private school in solidarity with the government schools who were protesting, boycotting, uniting against apartheid in unprecedented numbers and strength on a national scale. It was a time of danger, dynamism, unpredictability, section 29 detentions without trial, but the certainty that we were at a point of no return.
My regret is that I didn’t do more, I didn’t take more risks, ask more questions, be curious and active in pursuing a future we created. I wish I had enrolled more people among my peers to work in their circles of influence. Many people were working against the system, but more of us could have done more sooner.
It was also a fearful time. Reaping the benefits of our freedom came with great excitement. Voting for the first time at the same time as my parents and generations of South Africans standing in long, swirly queues around the country was laced with sweetness and sadness.
The opportunities included our hard-won world-standard Constitution, claiming a space to stand as proud South Africans and an air of confidence, sure that we were now in our promised land. A land for all who live and work here. There would be safety, comfort, equal opportunities, redressing imbalances and inequality because we were a proud people ready to do the right stuff.
Soon, our 6-year-old son came home from his model C school in 2000 with a question that came up from a discussion on the playground. “Mom, are most criminals black?” My shocked and simple response was, “Black people are in the majority in South Africa, so I guess they will also be the most of anything.” His childlike retort was, “So why are most of the children in my class white and why are most of our neighbours not black?”
This conversation has never stopped in our home. Giving a context to everything that comes up against the lessons we teach our children is a big job. Doing it without passing on our own baggage is a challenge, but keeps us in the conversation as we raise four born-frees to think and choose and act as South African citizens.
Explaining why the police of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s worked for the apartheid government and were the enemy of anyone who opposed the system, and then that post apartheid it was okay to trust the police because they were there to implement the fair non-racial laws of a new dispensation.
In 2016, as police brutality became exposed through the media, independent reports from friends and family, the explanations are varied and as a parent I find it hard to conclusively tell them anything.
It was therefore with association that I watched and understood Van Jones’s question to America: “What do we tell our children?” in response to the election of Donald Trump.
I too wonder most days what do I tell my children. I told them we were free, we were equal, people had access to education, to Parliament, to leadership in business, to entrepreneurship, that our president is democratically elected, that even though there is no black and white in the rainbow, it is our responsibility to make South Africa great, where we are, with what we have. I look around and my greatest hope is that we all keep talking, asking questions, and listening to the answers even if we don’t like what we hear.
For many years I have explained the role of the liberation struggle to our life here, to the lives of millions of others and how our history is also contributing to what is happening now. It is getting harder and harder as our children grow up for us to hold the integrity of a tumultuous, traumatic and long struggle for freedom in South Africa.
This is however, our esteemed history, we were there! Now we are here and there are many conversations that have to happen to keep our children open to varying opinions, but grounded in the battle that was won and the war we are in to keep our Constitution, our country and our people free of corruption, destruction and we definitely want to guard against re-racialising our country.
Racism is the easiest trapdoor to fly through when answers are not obvious or require some thinking and doing. By focussing on what we want, our ideals, our promises to our parents and our commitment to our children and theirs, we will find what to say to them.
The only way forward for me is accepting that our democracy is in a young contestation phase, this is democracy in action. To avoid regrets and hindsight it is valuable to be tuned in to the history through which we are living.
When we teach our children what the right questions are, they may come up with new and better solutions.
Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn