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Democracy, racism and other long-held beliefs: can people really change?

- Associate Professor William Gumede

Changing long-held beliefs, perceptions and values are not easy. Such change can either take place at the individual, community or societal level.

At the individual level, changing long-held beliefs and values is even more difficult when one's beliefs are intertwined with one's identity, conception of self, and one's belonging to a particularly community.

Changing long-held beliefs in such circumstances can also come with a heavy price. One can be ostracised by family, friends and community. It is therefore lonely, causes displacement and community marginalisation.

What turns someone who grew up a racist who believes black people are inferior into someone that embraces all races on merit? Or someone who grew up believing women should be confined to their "place" at home, or that gays and lesbians should be forcefully "changed", or that there should be no redistribution measures for those who suffered under apartheid?

It is, of course, easier to change one's long-held beliefs if there's no immediate threat to our place in the world, our own identity and our understanding of our reality.

When change contradicts the beliefs we were born into, whether cultural, political or religious, it becomes even more difficult. In such cases, one has to question one's fundamental reality. In fact, if information doesn't square with one's prior beliefs, one's tendency is to discard such information.

To make the change requires courage, open-mindedness, curiosity and compassion.

Change by individuals could be because of one Damascus experience, a transformative event or moment, or can happen gradually as one interrogates new evidence, get to empathise, see the view and discover the shared values of the "enemy", the other race or political opponent.

The great South African economist, Sampie Terreblanche, born into a close-knit white Afrikaans, Calvinist and racially-prejudiced community, is an example of someone who changed the long-held beliefs he was born into.

Terreblance started off in the 1970s as a loyal Broederbonder, but changed to become a critic of the National Party, a supporter of the ANC, and then a critic of the ANC.

He had at least two personal transformative experiences. First, he saw first-hand as a member of the Theron Commission in 1977 that looked into the conditions of the Coloured community, the terrible poverty of the community under apartheid. Terreblanche, seeing first-hand the terrible oppression of the black communities he was prejudiced against, changed his own views.

Secondly, there was former apartheid strongman PW Botha's failed Rubicon speech on 15 August 1985, in which he refused to dismantle apartheid and instead threatened international and local opponents of apartheid. The economy fell into a tailspin. When he changed his long-held support for apartheid, Terreblanche was ostracised by his own community, and was not necessarily embraced by the black community.

A big cataclysmic global or personal event can change long-held beliefs of both individuals and large sections of society.

South Africa's new democracy following the end of formal apartheid in 1994, with its new democratic Constitution, values and norms forced many ordinary citizens of all colours, communities and religions to confront their own deeply-held racist, patriarchal, sexist and undemocratic beliefs.

A few changed their beliefs overnight, many did so over long periods, and many others never shed their own anti-democratic beliefs. What makes one change one's mind about long-held political, religious and racial beliefs, perceptions and values?

A global elite consensus that apartheid was wrong, nations across the world in public sentiment condemning apartheid, combined with new information available to them from within and outside South Africa, meant that many white South Africans changed their beliefs, if only in public, about the wrongness of apartheid.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, and the revelations of oppression of ordinary by Stalinist Communist Parties, the widespread corruption and enrichment of the communist elite, forced many in the ANC family to change long-held political views of the supposed virtues of all-knowing vanguard parties.

Similarly, more recently, the global and Eurozone financial crises also changed the views of many ideologically unfettered free market believers, that we need to regulate, police and democratise markets to stop runaway greed.  

A gradual national change of belief among elites with new information and concerted public mobilisation for change can slowly filter down to ordinary people, and over time change their beliefs also.

In the case of those who changed their views from racist, sexist or homophobic at the transition in 1994, South Africa saw different prominent elites, whether from the ANC or the former National Party government in many instances changed their beliefs, or at least were convinced they needed to change, and their members, followers and sympathisers followed suit.

Political organisations, trade unions and companies can also change the self-identity of their members to one that is more inclusive, progressive and democratic.

For example, many sexist male members of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) during apartheid were convinced by the trade union to embrace non-sexism. Similarly, many members of the ANC during the struggle were conscientised to be more non-racial, democratic and open-minded.

But a personal transformative event or incident can also spark change in beliefs. A racist may change their views if their son marries someone from a different race. They get to know the person, and eventually discovers the shared values of the person, which is not based on skin colour, but on character.

Similarly, a homophobic person can change his or her beliefs if they see close-up the shared values of a close family member, a co-worker or political comrade who are gay, or their personal agonies and suffering from homophobic attacks.

As corruption, mismanagement and violence engulfs almost all sectors of the South African body politic, many ordinary people are increasingly shaken by the actions, decisions and behaviour of political parties, traditional authorities, religious and business organisations they are part of.

Corruption, mismanagement and enrichment under the ANC of President Jacob Zuma is now reaching cataclysmic levels, which is shifting the core beliefs of many ANC members and supporters. The ANC, instead of conscientising members to become more democratic, honest and racially inclusive, appears to foster a culture where it is acceptable to behave corruptly, sexist and violent.

As more information comes out of the blatant corruption, mismanagement and manipulation of struggle beliefs by Zuma's ANC, many ordinary members and supporters are increasingly abandoning the ANC and its beliefs.

Many white South Africans similarly abandoned the National Party after 1994, as more and more information became available of the corruption, mismanagement and manipulation of white fears of blacks and communists by the National Party.

The corrupt self-enrichment and debauched behaviour of traditional leaders, chiefs and kings are also increasingly changing people away from these institutions, to either seek to reform them or to abandon them altogether. Similarly, the outrageous exploitation, corruption and sexual abuse by many religious leaders are pushing people away from religious institutions.

Changes in governing elites do help change negative stereotypes of different races, women and gay people. Civil society organisations must keep mobilising publicly against corruption, racism, sexism and chauvinism to foster in the public consciousness that it is wrong; and that redistribution to previously disadvantage individuals and communities is socially just.

We need a deeper, better quality discussion on what constitutes a new post-apartheid South African self-identity at the individual and communal level. South Africans will have to transform their individual self-identity away from narrow white, isiZulu, Coloured or Indian identity to a broader South Africanness.

Such a broader South Africanness must be based on self-identities that are vested in the common Constitution, democracy, democratic institutions and democratic values.

South Africans of all colours must interact more genuinely with each other at higher education institutions, workplaces and public spaces. We need to hear, read and discuss more about all of our diverse histories. This will help build a new social solidarity, empathy and compassion for the vulnerable across race, colour, religious and political beliefs.

Finally, we should strengthen the debate on our constitutional, democratic and socially just values – because these should be at the centre of self-identity.  

This is an edited extract from an address by Gumede at a tribute for Sampie Terreblanche at the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice at the University of Johannesburg, on 29 January 2018. 

This article was first published on News24.