Earlier this month, I was in South Africa teaching a course in Stellenbosch, an exceedingly picturesque university town, 50 kilometres east of Cape Town. One afternoon, in a rare gap in our rigorous schedule, a senior British barrister invited a Nigerian British colleague and I to lunch, at one of Stellenbosch’s finest restaurants. During the meal, rendered all the more delicious by the restaurant’s breathtaking setting, our host casually remarked that a little more than 15 years ago, the three of us could not have eaten together at this place. As I then glanced around the table, I realised that each of us sitting around the table, represented the three major racial groups in South Africa: white, black and Indian.
Although I laughed at first, the comment made me uncomfortable and I decided to explore apartheid through the experiences of the people who had lived it. In the course of my enquiries, I discovered that the serene Stellenbosch had not only been an Afrikaner stronghold, but also the intellectual breeding ground of apartheid. I also noticed that despite the repeal of laws that had socially and economically segregated South Africa along racial lines, there was not only little mingling of races but also a tremendous disparity, especially between the whites and the blacks and to a lesser extent, the Indians. Of course, no white South African I spoke with, admitted that he or she had supported apartheid, but equally, no black South African I met seemed entirely comfortable in his or her surroundings.
My initial reaction was one of relief for being born a free citizen in my own country. I also felt somewhat superior due to my Islamic heritage: after all, Islam prohibited slavery. Had not Hazrat Bilal (RA), who had been brought to Arabia as an Abyssinian slave, been set free by the efforts of the Holy Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) and over time, become one of his esteemed companions. Very soon, I started to feel judgmental: I wondered what it was about the white races that lent itself to so much cruelty and thought, that troubled though it may be, Pakistan was better than South Africa because it did not suffer from racism. I ended on the usual note of victimhood: if only we had a little bit more economic and political stability, our people would be second to none in the world.
My smug reverie did not last. A colleague who had just had news of terror attacks in Jamrud in which 30 people had been killed, wanted to know if my family was safe. I assured him that it must be as Jamrud was in the northwest and I did not have any family there. Although he seemed relieved for me, his eyes had such a look of pity for what it meant to be a Pakistani that the South Africa that barely minutes ago had seemed to be the alien ‘other’, became a mirror, cruelly reflecting the injustice in Pakistani society. I realised that whilst Pakistan may not suffer from overt racism, it had, despite its Islamic pretensions, become an increasingly inhumane society, bitterly divided along lines of religion, class, ethnicity, gender and politics. The only difference being that the oppressors and the oppressed could not be easily recognised by their skin colour.
I wondered, if it was perhaps the legacy of the two-nation theory from which we trace our very existence that has affected our psyche in such a way that we are more attuned to recognising factors that divide rather than join us as a society. However, rather than delving into historical causes, it is perhaps more important to focus our energies on our future, which seems to me to lie in accepting and respecting each other first and foremost as Pakistanis, regardless of all other identities we may subscribe to and, to borrow the concept from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in consciously embracing our diversity as a many coloured rainbow. The day before I was leaving South Africa, I asked an Indian South African, who had grown up in the apartheid era, why Indians had not protested against injustice in their society. “We were not exposed to the world”, he said, “we did not know better”.
What is our excuse?
Published in The Express Tribune, February 1st, 2012.