Now is the time for white people to listen and learn

Monday, 15 August 2016

Saarah Survé

Stellenbosch University – Mary Maria Burton (76), former president of the Black Sash and a commissioner on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), said that it is time for white people in South Africa to listen to and learn from black people.

Burton made this comment when she addressed honours students from Stellenbosch University’s journalism department.

“I said that it’s time for whites to shut up,” said Burton referring to a recent interview. “I think what I meant is that even today we tend to have opinions and speak them, especially those of us who were opposed to the previous government and were accustomed to fighting for a space. I think it’s time to listen, more than talk. It’s time to learn, more than teach.”

Zenariah Barends, head of investigations for the TRC in the Western Cape, worked closely with Mary Burton during the TRC process. Barends spoke about Burton with great admiration. “She was amazing, a wise woman who I had an incredible amount of respect for. She was never arrogant or boastful. She was very mild-mannered. She always listened. She was someone that you felt you could actually talk to. ”

Barends agreed that those who have benefitted from apartheid need to listen and not be defensive. “They should in fact heed to the words of someone like Mary Burton.”

Burton explained that South Africa’s western bias does not allow for a diversity of opinions and ways of settling disputes that are traditionally available in South Africa. “It does not leave space for learning from one another.”

Although Burton said that the Black Consciousness Movement isolated the Black Sash, her sentiments are not in opposition to what Steve Biko, the founder of the movement, expressed in his book, I Write What I Like.

Biko was against the “superior-inferior, white-black” divide that made the white person a teacher and the black person a student. Biko was also “against the fact that a settler minority should impose an entire system of values on an indigenous people”.

Allister Sparks, in his book The Mind of South Africa, wrote that Biko believed in the primary necessity of “blacks to emancipate themselves” so that “they could deal with whites on equal terms in their own minds: otherwise the inequality would continue, with whites calling the tune and the blacks following submissively”.

Burton alluded to this when she asked: “Can we sufficiently sit back and not say ‘yes, but…’ when people tell us things?” She said that South Africans have a fantastic opportunity ahead of them if they learn to listen.

“I see signs of great courage among young people now, whose parents were exhausted and also felt that they could not betray the cause by criticising their leaders,” said Burton. “I think that has changed and I hope that we have not left it too late and that this next generation is going to bring about the change.”

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