Politicians are going to try and divide us in 2019. We must resist
As we approach the elections, our politics is going to become even more conflictual and divisive
“Why was it Sanjay and not Mohammed?” asked the Muslim father of the bride as his daughter and her fiancé sat on the brightly decorated stage, minutes away from being married.
What we were witnessing last week was one of those taken-for-granted wonderworks of SA: an interfaith marriage in a world dangerously divided by faith, culture, class, caste and custom.
In other family homes a Hindu-Muslim wedding would cause great conflict, even banishment of one or both partners from the family home. In some countries where religious fundamentalism is rife, the couple themselves would be in mortal danger.
The father’s speech was carefully ordered. Even in this most tolerant of religious communities, Cape Town, the father knew that he had to make a public case for his Muslim daughter marrying a Hindu man. In one of the best speeches about interfaith community I have ever heard, the father spoke not about the elaborate symbols and sacraments of their ancient faiths but about what he observed about the shared values of the couple: care, compassion, trust, commitment, respect and responsibility.
These values transcended the outward differences of religious observance and bound the two young people together in bonds of love that were deep, enduring and universal.
I sat entranced by the powerful meanings embedded in this public witness of how we can and should be as South Africans.
In this union a lingering apartheid myth was destroyed, namely, that when we as human beings come together across our social or cultural or racial differences, then something is lost. The Hindu-Muslim wedding shows exactly the opposite – everybody gains. The one partner does not become less Muslim or the other less Hindu; both become more human based on the embrace of common values that in fact strengthen their individual religious identities.
Of course, none of this was easily achieved. There were difficult negotiations between the Muslim and Hindu families. The ceremony, it was agreed, would include Muslim as well as Hindu wedding traditions. The imam performed the Duah (Muslim prayers) and the Hindu priest took the couple through a dazzling display of rituals including walking around an on-stage fire four times and then through seven steps before confirming the marriage. Indian dancing was preceded by traditional Muslim wedding songs, as well as popular music familiar to the richly diverse audience.
Somewhere in the middle of these events a Christian minister was asked to offer a prayer for the newly married Hindu-Muslim couple and I remember saying: “Only in South Africa”.
As we approach the 2019 elections, our politics is going to become even more conflictual and divisive as the politicians milk our supposed differences for political gain.
That sheep-slaughtering spectacle on one of Clifton’s beaches was in large measure about parties manoeuvering for political advantage in a province that remains stubbornly moderate in its electoral choices. We are world leaders in the politics of the spectacle and, no, actions such as slitting a sheep’s throat in public are not instruments of the powerless to draw attention to their marginalisation. The primary arena for displays of the SA spectacle is parliament and these are hardly powerless, marginalised, hapless victims of society.
And so with the spectacle, as at Clifton, the one party must “out-race” and “out-black” the other in a show of opportunism that does nothing to dismantle the inequalities of race and class that bedevil social cohesion in our country. It is going to get worse, in parliament and on the streets, as we rush headlong towards the coming elections. Mark my words, Indian, coloured, white, African – all these apartheid-legislated racial identities – will come under attack in the next few months.
Which is why this beautiful Hindu-Muslim union at the end of 2018 gives me so much hope.
These two young people have committed themselves to a life of service, the one a teacher and the other a healer (doctor). They represent the majority of SA youth: Those who desire the unity of lives and purpose as we tackle seemingly intractable problems of education, health and more. As the couple discovered, achieving that unity is not easy. As the father of the bride realised, moving communities in the direction of unity is as much an educational act (teach the people) as it is an act of social courage.
This wedding offers a powerful counter-narrative to the divisiveness of our politics. Such stories not only inspire hope among many whose nerves are unsettled by the toxicity around us; they counter the lie that we cannot re-build our country, together.