The Colours and Nuances of Reconciliation
I never thought about the colour of my skin. My social circumstances never imposed skin colour as an identity, I was simply born this way and that was that. I think about the identities imposed on me by the time and place I was born almost daily, social circumstances compel me to do so. The fact that I am white means almost nothing for my sense of self, but the fact that I was born in Serbia, that I have all the markings of Serb national identity is almost a daily preoccupation. The problem with these identities is much like that of skin colour: I don’t have to feel like a white woman, or a Serb woman, for others to perceive me as such.
I’m supposed to go to Zagreb to promote a collection of stories about reconciliation. I travel with all my identities, apart from my skin colour, which is unimportant on this occasion. At another time, last year, in South Africa, it was important, and the fact that I was a Serb was of little interest to anyone. Where violence was committed in the name of my national identity, it matters. Where violence was committed in the name of the skin colour that matches my hue, it matters.
- Can I touch your hair, I’ve never seen hair like that? – a woman at the Cape Town market asked me. Our hair is similar, as is our eye colour and the colour of the palms of our hands. The difference is in the largest human organ – the skin. Hers is darker than mine. My hair and her hair have the same genetic code – where I live, it is not very common, but it is not too far out of the ordinary either. Where she lives, my skin colour is much rarer, found in less than 10% of the population, while my hair fits in with the majority. And yet, she says she’s never seen hair like mine. Her and me have a multitude of common identities, the identities I find vital: that I am a woman, a human being, those we share. She not only sees, she feels our difference. I don’t care about the differences, I care much more about the touch of another human being as their fingers rustle through the strands of my hair. We look at each other, I see satisfaction in her eyes at having found a similarity. Well, yes, my hair and hers feel the same to the touch. Then why does she ask and claim to have never seen hair like mine, when I’m sure she touches hers every day and it’s practically identical?
Is it the same with all other identities?
Including the one I’m taking with me to Zagreb?
Will I see in someone’s gaze over there the happiness of recognition? Or will my accent, my place of birth, the definition set in my passport be more important for how others see me? At what point do we recognise and approach each other because we see similarities, and when do we begin to notice differences? When do the differences between us become so important that they lead to war, violence, oppression, discrimination? At what point do differences that cannot be noticed when we look in each others eyes become important? Would the woman from Cape Town have noticed that there was a difference between me and my friend Davorka, and how would I have explained that that difference, invisible to her eyes, is enough to produce hatred in some? Who fights for equality, against discrimination, for equality in everything, and how? Am I, with all my identities, doing enough and am I doing it right? Who are my teachers, my role models, from whose works, but also from whose mistakes can I learn?
“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to talk with your enemy.”
On 18 July, the world will mark 100 years since the birth of Nelson Mandela. After 27 years spent in prison as a political prisoner, at the first elections held after his release, which were also the first elections where everyone in South Africa was entitled to vote, not just people with white skin, he won. And as the victor, a member of the majority, a victim of the previous system – he chose the most difficult path of reconciliation – by rejecting revenge. He became a symbol of the persistent struggle for freedom, a struggle he refused to ever give up, because freedom was paramount. And when he could have taken revenge for the injustice he suffered, he renounced vengeance and righteous wrath. Having been made into a symbol of freedom, he saw himself also as an opportunity for personal change that would lead to social change. He decided to be a figure who would change both himself and the world around him, and not a bronze statue with a raised fist.
In 1994, his victory, which marked the end of political apartheid in the world, was not the main news in our region. Those days and years, we had our own wars, the numbers of dead, displaced and expelled were the main news where I come from for a decade. Meanwhile, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was doing its work, and we tried to set one up here, but reconciliation was not politically as important for anyone to truly engage with it.
In order for people to reconcile, they must first want to do so themselves. Otherwise, it’s just a line from a children’s rhyme: “Peace, peace, peace, it’s nobody’s fault.”
Nelson Mandela chose to be president for a single mandate, and then he withdrew from executive politics. He devoted the rest of his life to reconciliation as a political concept. It would be impossible to say that South Africa is a country of equality these days; realistically speaking, no country is, equality as a concept is simply the desire of peace activists the world over, and still an unattainable goal of their struggle. Still, the structural violence perpetrated by the state and its officials against the citizens is no more. This is visible in South Africa and the people–though still dissatisfied with their lives and the pace of change–feel it.
The situation here is best described by a saying from Bosnia: “It’s good as long as there’s no shooting.”
“One of the things I learned when I was negotiating was that until I changed myself, I could not change others.”
*Text was published in the magazine “Lice ulice” in July 2018, marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Nelson Mandela