Thursday, February 10, 2011

Being an eternal victim

Every now and again throughout my life, I have found myself bowled over by something said, or read, or reported. Something which is so utterly profound, that my entire perspective, from that moment on, is completely altered. They are moments of enlightenment, of nirvana, of extraordinary understanding. Unfortunately, I can’t think of a single instance of such ingenuity emanating from me! But, I suppose, it is that which separates the geniuses from the mediocre.

There is a wonderful moment in Peter Schaffer’s play “Amadeus”, where Salieri, a somewhat pedantic and altogether boring contemporary, who is hopelessly outshone by Mozart, lament’s his rival’s genius. What galls him most is the fact that Mozart seems to show no appreciation for the tremendous gift he has. All Salieri can do is watch, and listen, and seethe. He rails against the God that created things so unfairly and so maliciously, by enabling Salieri to recognise that genius, but never to produce it.

Some years ago now, I was reading Albert Luthuli’s autobiography Let my People Go – and words leapt at me from the page. Luthuli was reminiscing about his teaching days at Adam’s college and recalling a white member of staff – a Mr de Villiers, who was later to become Secretary for Bantu Education. Luthuli remarks that this man made him understand something of the way in which Afrikaners understand themselves as being victims of their past. And then. Almost in passing, Luthuli makes a remark which changed my perspective forever. He says this, “The tendency to see oneself perpetually as a victim will lead to the evasion of responsibility and the condoning of evil…”.

I was standing in a queue which was, apparently, going nowhere this week. I was born in June and therefore I needed to take myself off to the licencing department to get a new driver’s licence. I thought it might probably take about half an hour. I was wrong. Hopelessly wrong. It actually took four hours!

But standing in that queue gave me a chance to not only hear some curious conversations, but to reflect on one or two things as well. The sojourn didn’t begin well. Three of Cape Town’s finest members of the master race decided that they didn’t really need to worry too much about the curious, but terribly reasonable etiquette which one follows when standing in queues. Had they been black and jumped the queue, there would have been hell to pay, I can promise you. But they were white. So people behind them just sort of pretended that it wasn’t happening.

I felt my blood pressure peak and said loudly, clearly and in my most indignant and assertive English voice, “Excuse me, but that is not your place”. Now, one would expect some measure of embarrassment. One would expect some sign of contrition.. One might even expect them to move. None of the above happened.

The woman in the group – let me describe her. Shortish, lycra longs, pulled over her stick-insect legs, feet forced into medium high heeled shoes (one heel a bit worn), brightly coloured top with badly dyed hair, blue make-up on her eyes. Anyway, this blommetjie van die veld rounded on me like a snake. Who did I think I was? she asked, not requiring an answer. How long had I been standing there? she wanted to know. Did I have any idea how long she had been standing in the queue? She had been there longer than anyone, and she was sick of it. I looked like the kind of person that was just looking to cause trouble. Why don’t I just grow up!?

I have to say, words, for once, failed me dramatically. I looked around me for support. There wasn’t much, I can tell you. Two blacks who were unfortunate enough to be behind this woman and her cronies looked like they wanted the ground to swallow them up. The people I was with looked supportive, in a non-involved sort of way, but said nothing.
I tried saying something else, I forget what. She with the blue-eye make-up rounded upon me again. “Oh shaddup!” she said between clenched teeth. “I’ll give you a bladdy slap!”

I realised that she wouldn’t be moving. The two men she was with looked minimally more contrite than she did, but they were clearly onto a good wicket, so they just stood around, bodily disengaged in some mysterious way from the real action – parasitic on the ferocious one.

Standing in the queue for the next few hours, listening to their inane chatter, enabled me to ponder the situation in some considerable depth. What I realised was that this woman’s real gripe with the world was that she was somehow owed something. Due to what, in particular, I did not know. But that was the reason behind this patently unfair behaviour of hers. She could justify the clearly unjustifiable, by resorting to the “I am owed” reality in her mind.

I have written often on the issue of black entitlement. Of course, the entitlement is not and never has been a black preserve. There is good reason to argue that the whole edifice of apartheid was built on the belief that whites were entitled. And behind all of this, lurking in the shadows, gnawing at the vitals, is the concept of victim. I am a victim, therefore I am owed.

I was talking, the other night, to someone whose life is spent dealing with victims. Real victims, that is, not the imaginary ones who just believe themselves to be victims. These are people who have been tortured, raped, abused, hijacked and so on. He said that he often holds workshops for victims and in them, there often comes a point when a victim is faced with his or her own ability to victimise. That is the turning point. That is when a person stops being a victim and has the courage to face their own inadequacy – their own evasion of responsibility and condoning of evil. Often they find themselves facing their own much more active victimisation of others. And then – and perhaps only then – they are free.

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