Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa


I take it back: South Africa’s history is indeed unique enough to explain the persistent vocabulary of resentment and racial antagonism.

I’ve been struggling with racial tensions lately.  I can’t help but wonder if, as a Canadian, I’ll never fully grasp the depth of history in this country.

Part of me wants to simplify things: why can’t they just celebrate tolerance and diversity like Canada?  How do we make a South African version of the Multicultural Act?

As you can probably tell, I am very pro-multiculturalism: I think it’s one of the best parts of being Canadian.  In the federal government’s official Multiculturalism Act, we recognize that diversity is of part of Canada’s culture.  Yay for tolerance!  It ensures social equality regardless of race.  Furthermore, it clearly spells out that minorities have the right to enjoy this culture.

Great, right?  More festivals and celebrations for all!  Plus more choices at the Food Court!

Multiculturalism is not without criticisms.  Some people say that it emphasizes differences between groups rather than creating one single Canadian identity.  Others say that it leads to racial stereotypes or even geographic ethnic ghettos.  But I say that you critics need to get out and travel more!  Obviously multiculturalism isn’t perfect and needs to be continually improved upon – but I think we’re doing way better at dealing with immigration that most other countries.

I don’t agree that Interculturalism is the solution or the next evolution of Multiculturalism either.  Interculturalism is Quebec’s brainchild: “We claim to welcome people of all origins, but you must assimilate into Quebec culture.”  But I’m not going to get started on Quebec – like most people from the West Coast I’m slightly belligerent towards our French-speaking province.  Not that I have anything against French, I just think they complain a lot. 

(On the other hand, I was 100% behind the student protest last summer.  I even pinned a red square to my backpack.  But that’s another story.)

South Africa celebrates itself as the Rainbow Nation.  Unfortunately, this analogy is too accurate: each colour exists by itself, on its own path.  I don’t advocate a melting pot like the United States (how much did that policy fail?), but I prefer Canada’s kaleidoscope: pieces of colour moving and interacting with each other.  We have so many different shades and shapes – each one adds to the tapestry.  It’s the contrast of our different ethnicities that makes us so beautiful and distinctive.

I grew up in a multi-ethnic household in a multi-ethnic family.  I went to a hippy school that taught me to love Multiculturalism (even though it was 96% white).  These values were instilled in me from childhood.

I want to say, “That’s what South Africa needs!  We need to teach these kids to love their country for its differences!” but the sad fact is that most ZA children go through the school system without learning proper grammar or basic math.  Maybe a new kind of nationalism isn’t the biggest priority.

But then what’s the solution?  I know a lot of people would argue economics: once people don’t have to worry about food, shelter, and basic needs, then we can address the social problems.  But how can we convince the rich to share (through higher wages, taxes, etc.) when the rich are mostly white and the poor are mostly black and they don’t want to get along?

That’s another simplification.  Most people want to get along.  However, they still tend to blame the other side for the country’s problems instead of seeing that everyone contributes.

Maybe we all just need to take a little more responsibility for our countries.  We are, in fact, active citizens and each of our experiences is just as valid as the other person’s.  Moreover, we each impact what it means to be “Canadian” or “South African.”

After I started traveling, I became a lot friendlier back home.  If I see someone standing on a corner with a map in his or her hand, I’ll always ask if they’re lost and need directions.  I’ll ask about the person and make recommendations for things to do while they’re here.  And you know what?  I bet those people go home and say, “It’s true!  Canadians are really nice!”

Each time I hear a white South African complain about blacks and their sense of entitlement, they’re driving that racial wedge a little deeper.

So do we ignore colour?  Of course not.  We all see different ethnicities and make generalizations.

But let’s recognize our stereotypes and racism and try to overcome it.  Let’s stop over-simplifying the issues – and the people.  Let’s shatter this rainbow and splash colours all over the place!


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