This was the transformative experience that gave rise to the writing of this story. It’s controversial I know. And I somewhat fear for writing this.

I have never approved of the segregated church I am part of. I cannot remember a day in my life that I both knew about Belhar and rejected Belhar. Everywhere I went I always made the more pro-unification choice that was on the table. Sometimes I even attempted to stretch the table a bit, to put options on the table that weren’t considered. I remember attending an URCSA meeting in 2007 that NG students were invited to, but being the only one who went. I remember the setting up of the meeting of URCSA theological students leadership and NG theological students leadership in the same year, and we actually organized a visit of both groups to a worship session of the other. Few students attended, but the experience was positive. I guess I didn’t change the face of the faculty at UP in the process, but at least I made some friends.

At times I have been extremely critical of my own church, and the process of unity. I guess taking things a few notches further than most of the “open” voices in the church. I’ve been uncomfortable with the idea that we become one church structurally, without local congregations actually reflecting this. What I dream of and hope for has been for true unity in worship and action for many years now.

Deconstruction makes you mad, I sometimes think. Once you start down that rabbit hole, realize why you are doing what you are doing, what you are actually saying, how this is being heard by other voices, and how far away from “justice”, “mercy” and “truth” your one life really is, it becomes almost unbearable. But Africa has taught me that I can never fully deconstruct myself. I need the other to deconstruct me. I need to be open to the voice of an other, a different perspective, to help me interpret my own life and actions, to understand what it is that I am actually doing.

I don’t want to make a hero out of someone, and most of my transformative experiences was with voices that you have never heard of. And this one was only possible because of these voices, and others, who have helped me to make me open to hear the different perspective this post is about.

It was at the opening of the South African Missiological Society of 2010 when Jonathan Jansen spoke, and he dared to say that the Dutch Reformed Church is irrelevant (and this in front of a mainly white crowd). The way I heard him was that the Dutch Reformed Church was teaching their members week by week that it is OK not to ask : “Who is my neighbour”, by allowing them to sit in all white churches in South Africa. This might not have been what he said, but this is what I heard.

Deconstruction makes me mad. My thoughts went on to think in the line of liturgy. What was this liturgy of white worship communicating week by week, whatever we might be preaching? I saw it as communicating that the white ghetto was OK, that the lack of friendships with people of all races and colours was OK. That the distance we kept between ourselves and black people was OK. My thoughts went on to the idea that we might be doing a hell of a lot of development work in South Africa, but we will never be able to contribute to the transformation and reconciliation of a country if we keep this liturgy of whiteness.

OK, if you have followed my tweets the past few weeks you’ll know I’m reading Jonathan Jansen. A lot can be said, but his book is brilliant in my opinion. This story was one that really caught my attention. I just quote, make of it what you want.

Knowledge in the Blood. Page 138-139:

Just before I stood down as dean and resigned from UP in 2007, I held my final lunch with the ten designated first-year students. For the first time, those organizing the logistics for the dean’s lunch made a mistake; instead of sending five white and five black students, ten black students showed up. Initially I was disappointed, for the purpose of these events was to encourage integration by modeling these ideals early on through the planned lunches. But having ten black students was an unforseen blessing, for these bright and articulate young people said things they would probably not have volunteered if white students had been in the room.

After formalities were over, I opened the discussion as usual with the question about how they were experiencing the education campus of the university and what we could do as the leadership of the Faculty of Education to strengthen the quality of those experiences as undergraduate students. Immediately to my left sat a strikingly beautiful young woman, her hair in braids. She spoke clearly.

You know professor, we really enjoy being here, and we must thank you for everything you and your staff have done for us as first-year students. But you know, where we live in Res [residence], it’s so artificial; I would really like to date some of those white boys.

I nearly fell off my chair in shock. Date white boys? I was expecting the usual concerns about enough parking spaces for students, the unlit areas of campus needed lights, limited access to the Internet, the restricted library hours, the odd lecturer who is unfriendly, and other familiar student complaints. But dating white boys was completely unexpected. I was still stuttering, and unsure what to say, when a handsome young man to my right, brightly bald, chirped in: “Prof, I agree with Thandi, I would really like to date some of the white girls on campus.”

This was too much for my black consciousness state-of-mind, and I remember saying to myself: “Damn, the goal of the national democratic revolution was not the date white folk!” But I dared not utter this sentiment. As an experienced teacher stumped for a response, I again played for time. “Well,” I said to the now eagerly awaiting audience of ten young black students, “tell me more.”

As the students spoke during that lunch time, I cringed at the clear but gentle criticism coming from my black students. As university leaders, we had created the architecture for change and integration on the education campus, they said, but in reality the black and white students continued to live separate lives. What was natural among college students, the act of dating, took on severe and rigid racialized forms. When dancing was organized between two or more koshuise, it was white students going with white students, and by language. The students, though physically together in the formal arrangements, lived light years apart. If there was one act of social interaction that was never discussed, but in which the lines were firmly drawn, it was on this matter of dating.

It took me some time during this extended period of listening, on my part, to realize that this criticism had little to do with dating per se and everything to do with the artificiality of social relations between black and white students. What would come completely naturally to young people, the act of dating, was the one firm line that nobody would cross on this race-divided campus. Nowhere was this racial distancing between girls and boys more acute than at the former Afrikaans universities.

… No knowledge has been more forcefully transmitted from parents to children before and after Apartheid than the knowledge of racial and ethnic purity that must be maintained at all costs. Something about race and sex drives white South Africans into a state of madness.