Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A troubled family history of complicity

My grandparents lived in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s. I never had the chance to discuss that time with them (my grandfather died before I was born, my grandmother when I was still too young to think about asking) but I know that they were ordinary people trying to raise a young family during a terrible time. I imagine they did not want to ‘rock the boat’, or draw unfavourable attention to themselves. I understand that they chose not to risk their family or their freedom (such as it was) by standing up against the Nazi regime, but with hindsight I also understand that their silence was a form of complicity.

I grew up in Apartheid South Africa, and was blessed with parents who were liberal thinkers. They taught me tolerance, not just in word but in deed, and they opened my eyes to the wrongs in the system that surrounded us. But what they believed inwardly and what they lived outwardly did not match. They were both government employees and were too afraid of repercussions to share their opinions publicly. They were too afraid to risk their jobs, their freedom or the benefits they received as a result of that system of oppression, to stand up and speak out for what they believed. The vast majority of white South Africans did the same. Afraid of repercussions they kept quiet, and that is why Apartheid lasted as long as it did. The greater part of the population, through their silence, were complicit in keeping Apartheid in place.

As an adult, I have often wondered what I would have done had I been in their shoes. Would I have been brave enough to stand up for what was right, or would I too have kept my head down to avoid repercussions?

I am sure we all think we would do better. I certainly hoped that under the same circumstances I would choose differently, but sadly I didn’t. The year before Nelson Mandela was released from prison, I was barely eighteen and a student at Wits University. There were constant protests on campus. Did I join them, did I stand up for what was right? No. I was annoyed because the protests occasionally interfered with my lectures. I chose the status quo. I chose complicity.

My coming of age took place against the backdrop of South Africa’s first free and fair elections and the end of Apartheid. My entire adult life has been spent in a country undergoing radical transformation, and in the process I too have been radically transformed. I now know better. Now, when I ask myself the question “will I be brave enough to stand up for what is right, or will I keep my head down to avoid repercussions?” I’d like to believe that my answer would be different from what it was at eighteen.

This past week, that belief was tested. The storm surging through RWA (Romance Writers of America), which I will not comment on here, has forced me to face that old dilemma.

It would certainly be easier to hide my head in the sand, to stay out of the fight, to keep quiet and avoid repercussions. It would be safer and less exhausting, and as a white, privileged person who is not personally affected by the RWA’s issues, I have the luxury of being able to choose to stay silent. But silence is complicity, and now that I know better, I plan to do better.

Could standing up for what I believe is right draw the wrong kind of attention? Yes.
Could I be inviting personal attacks by stating my opinions publicly? Yes.
Is it a risk to my career to take a public stand and state my opinions? Yes.
But still I have to do it, because I cannot do anything else. My conscience tells me that I have to learn from my personal family history, and I have to do better.

Digging further back in my family history, I have one heroic ancestor I can look to for inspiration. Christiaan Mauritz Botha Murray fought for the Boers as a double agent against the British in the Boer War, and was caught and imprisoned at the Diyatalawa PoW camp in Ceylon. He was not afraid to take risks or do what he believed was right. I’m going to channel his spirit and find the courage to stand up for what I believe.

So I am stating here, for all the world to see, that I believe all people are equal, all people are deserving of love, and all people should get their Happy Ever Afters, both in real life and in stories, irrespective of gender, sexual orientation, race, religion or ability. I acknowledge that not all people receive fair and equal treatment, that both overt and covert discrimination exists, and I acknowledge my own privilege. I accept that I need to learn, to listen, to provide a safe space for those who are marginalized, and I will try to check my own privilege. I will actively work towards levelling the playing field for those who have been or are discriminated against. I will not be silent and I will not be complicit in perpetuating discrimination of any kind.