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OPINION: The question of transformation

I worry about my nephew. A wide-eyed seven-year-old with a smile that could melt glaciers, he is inquisitive, kind, sensitive and mischievous. More and more, I find myself worrying about the world that he and his little sister have inherited, and how they will make sense of their place within it.

From how I notice them saying 'blue is for boys and pink is for girls', to adopting cut-and-paste masculinities and femininities, I find myself thinking about how these little bodies become repositories for the ways of thinking, being and acting that are discriminatory, oppressive and pervasive. Because so many of them remain unchecked or go unnoticed.

A while ago, I heard that he was having trouble fitting in and making friends at school. Trying to figure out the reasons for this, I asked him who his friends were. He named one boy.

"Who are your other friends, D?" I asked. "No one, else," he responded, his eyes downcast and small hands nervously busying themselves with the laces of his shoes. That moment still makes my heart feel squeezed into a tiny ball of compressed, acute and indescribable pain.

When I probed further, I found out that the children at his school were generally sticking to their race groups. His friend was a fellow coloured boy. The things we teach children… intentionally and unintentionally.

We should not be surprised that children learn the way the world works, its invisible rules, terms and conditions, and then replicate them. That they, growing up in a world dictated by racism, sexism, classism, transphobia and the like, internalise the messaging and reproduce it. And yet it still it shocks us how deeply embedded old ways of doing things are in our 'transformed' society.

From questioning Heyneke Meyer's World Cup Springbok selections, to the student movements at Stellenbosch University and other campuses, in many ways we are trying to figure out what transformation looks, feels and sounds like. Often, we conflate the 'win' with solely giving access, positions and space to bodies that look different to those that dominate - as if it is that easy and straightforward. As if aesthetics are the issue.

I found myself pondering the exchange with my nephew as I read an interview with University of Stellenbosch rector Professor Wim de Villiers in this week's City Press, titled 'Is Stellenbosch lost in transformation'?. In it, he responds to the powerful Luister documentary on racism at the university, the Open Stellenbosch movement and issue of transformation.

De Villiers says he is tackling the problem "by assigning Professor Nico Koopman, deputy vice chancellor and dean of theology to 'social impact, transformation and personnel'. He is a coloured man and that gives him credibility". I read the last sentence multiple times, trying to make sense of the logic that enables the idea at the heart of it.

Beyond the fact that many of these transformation forums rarely go beyond dialogue and talk shops, there is the problematic idea that simply being a part of an oppressed group means that you cannot perpetuate or be invested in sustaining, continuing and replicating systems of oppression.

Koopman simply being a coloured man does not mean that he is naturally invested in the transformation project and concerns that have been voiced by students.

While on one level the issues of representation and having a similar or synchronous lived experience to the students is important, it is not the whole thing. This way of thinking speaks to the way we assign particular politics to particular bodies.

When we speak about white supremacy, there is a problematic assumption that we are solely speaking of white bodies or think that only white people are capable of perpetuating it. Similarly, when we talk about patriarchy it is conflated to talking about men, and not the way that it structures all of our lived and touches everyone.

This is an incorrect assumption, and even when we constantly state exactly what we mean by these terms, that we are speaking about structural things that all can partake in, it remains mistranslated and misinterpreted - often purposefully so.

Many of us are well versed in the language, vocabulary and grammar of white supremacy or sexism, transphobia or homophobia and classism, because we live in a world shaped by it, and consequently have our lives structured by it. We are bombarded with messaging that shapes our thought in these ways. And because of this, it is often rooted deep inside of us, in how we make sense of ourselves, other people and the world we live in.

Simply being black, brown, female or homosexual bodies does not protect us from the imprint and reproduction of whiteness and a range of other structural oppressions, in our daily interactions, connections and ways of thinking.

Similarly, it is often thought that being 'progressive' on a single issue means that you have stellar politics on other issues. This has been proven incorrect time and time again when people who fight against race are shown to invest in and be blind or apathetic towards sexism, people who campaign on sexism are shown to be tone-deaf on queer issues, or when mainstream feminism frequently shows a disregard for women of colour and the challenges they face.

Simply adding women to get rid of sexism, black people to get rid of racism or queer people to get rid of a range of anti-queer phobias in our friendship circles, places of work and sports teams will not solve the entire problem.

Representation is part of the solution, and necessary, but does not undo things at a structural level. We will simultaneously need to be focused on changing cultures, ways of thinking, interacting, living and being.

It is hard, necessary and daily work - a marathon where the finish line resembles an ever-disappearing horizon. You are never done.

The transformation that we seek will not be easy, because we will have to undo many things - including our assumptions about how and who perpetuates oppressive modes.

These modes are clearly still prevalent in the lives of a new generation of youth, who were supposed to be the beneficiaries of social change, 'born free', and yet still find themselves undoing centuries of systemic oppression, on all levels. Or seen on a school playground, where a seven-year-old boy finds race subtly imprinted in his possible friendship choices.

When I look into his brown eyes, I see a reflection of an untransformed world, where he is already learning that he will have to find a way 'thrive in the midst of well-manicured and eloquent hostility', that will play a huge role in determining the shape, structure and path his life follows.

How to achieve this change presents us with no easy answers or blueprints. When thinking about this, I find myself constantly thinking of a quote attributed to Mark Twain, "there is no easy road to the future, but we go 'round or we scramble over the obstacles". But, in many ways, we will need to be focused on identifying the many real, visible and invisible obstacles - which is not as easy as thinking that any of us can escape or be above oppressive ways of thinking and being.

Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler