Flashback: University of the Free State workers, who were humiliated in a video made by students in 2007, make peace with the perpetrators. Rudi Buys, who was brought in as a consultant after the video was made public, has written a book, Brugbouers. Picture: HANNES PIETERSE
Flashback: University of the Free State workers, who were humiliated in a video made by students in 2007, make peace with the perpetrators. Rudi Buys, who was brought in as a consultant after the video was made public, has written a book, Brugbouers. Picture: HANNES PIETERSE

The events of 2007 at the Reitz men’s residence at the University of Free State (UFS) remain etched visibly on the nation’s face and psyche. The video made of the humiliation of black adult support staff by young Afrikaner males was the clearest indicator of the extent to which our society remained deeply wounded by its ugly past.

Rudi Buys was brought in as a consultant to help with the aftermath and was subsequently appointed dean of students.

His book Brugbouers (Bridgebuilders) wrestles with the critical issues that came to the fore. He provides a participant-observer view of the complexities of wrestling with a past that is still present and threatening the future that is struggling to emerge.

The book holds a mirror to all South Africans about matters from which they would like to avert their eyes. It is in the heat of the Reitz video affair that the widespread nature of persistent racism, sexism and chauvinism are exposed in their full flower.

The perceived crisis of land restitution without compensation is also revealing the extent to which denialism of the dispossession of indigenous people of their land is laid bare. Those resisting the need to redress the inequities that continue to undermine our dreams of a prosperous society and are without any hint of irony invoking property rights are embedded in the same constitution that demands restitution.

Buys’s genius is in not sparing himself and those close to him in his incisive analysis of what it would take to build the bridges essential to true reconciliation. He makes plain that reconciliation is not the easy way out. He takes readers on a roller-coaster journey of seven lessons.

First, both black and white people have been deeply affected by racism, sexism and chauvinism. South Africans’ behaviour has been conditioned by their upbringing. It takes hard work of questioning assumptions to see beyond this.

Second, transition periods are uncertain times. The known is no more, but the unknown remains ill-defined. It is also a frightening time. The path is unclear within an institutional context that is also unclear.

Third, people must acknowledge their ignorance before they can learn to lead. There are no quick fixes. People learn by doing and making mistakes.

Fourth, embrace and reprisals are essential experiences on the uncertain path to reconciliation.

Fake embraces are par for the course; those embracing you today may turn against you tomorrow. Their own wrestling with the past in the present undermines their tentative steps across the divide.

Fifth, transformation is a chaotic and confusing process, not the orderly one touted by armchair critics. Contradictions are part of the journey.

Access to campus by black students does not amount to a change in the culture. The intimacy between white students who lack wisdom and empathetic black workers old enough to be their mothers enabled forgiveness. Yet, the white male students’ upbringing that bred disrespect for black people made them disrespect their elders — contrary to their Afrikaner upbringing.

Sixth, new knowledge has emerged pointing to what it means to be black and white in SA and the impact of racism on individuals and collectives. Building bridges between black and white did not necessarily lead to peace and reconciliation. The process of bridge-building is long, painful and often frustrating, with reversals and tears.

Seventh, bridge builders assume a new identity, an "in-betweenness" that is uncomfortable with the cultures people grew up in, before they can become comfortable with the emerging culture that is forged through trial and error and is highly unsettling.

The value of Buys’s book is its challenge to society’s complacency, while remaining and reframing its future beyond the ugly, divided past.

We are the "in-between" generations that need to take the risks to build durable bridges. That work requires us to make the psychological, cultural and spiritual transition to the society we committed ourselves to in the constitution. A just, equitable, human rights and dignity-respecting and inclusive society requires much more work than we have been prepared to invest over the past 24 years.

We also need to acknowledge that healing the wounds we all carry, will require commitments to investing in creating safe spaces for conversations that will enable us to shed our blinkers and face ourselves in the mirror. Allowing ourselves to see, hear and encounter one another is all it takes. We do not have to be superhuman to be part of the journey of healing and reconciliation.

Buys provides a profoundly spiritual insight: "My sure knowledge and belief that reconciliation can succeed in our society and bridges to the future are possible is not dependent on my own conviction.

"The fact is that it lies beyond me, in the underlying newer identities and insights of people in transitional times …. through which people from diverse backgrounds grow from ignorance to knowledge and eventually become bridge builders rather than victims and bystanders."

Writing the book in Afrikaans gives it a special feel and captured the depth of emotions boiling over, waiting to be settled through healing. My rusty Afrikaans still enabled me to engage the depth of feelings of those involved in this very South African drama.

This is a must read for all students, academics, university leadership and the wider society, including government and the business sector. We need to move from being victims and bystanders to becoming collaborators in bridge-building. Our future depends on it.

Brugbouers will be launched at Cornerstone Institute in Cape Town on August 21 at 6pm. Ramphele is co-founder of ReimagineSA.

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