On March 21, 1960 in Sharpeville in Gauteng, 69 people lost their lives and countless others were injured protesting against having to carry a pass (dompas) that identified them as third-class citizens in the land of their birth. Most of them were ordinary people, all of them asking only to be respected as equals.
Today, those 69 deaths and countless injuries serve as a grim reminder of the dark side of human nature and the very real, dire consequences of structural violence. The police brutality on that day was state-sanctioned. It could be perpetrated by individuals however who saw the people they were brutalising and killing not as people like themselves, but somehow as lesser entities. Not so long ago in the Rwandan genocide, similarly the other was described as "cockroaches" and therefore worthy of extermination. Stripped of their humanity, a former neighbour in Rwanda or fellow citizen at Sharpeville became a fair target for violence bred from fear.
Part of apartheid's success lay in the fact that for many years it successfully sold the idea that "separate but equal" was a viable option. And that many people believed it to be true. Equally that it used institutionalised and structured state-sanctioned and other violence to repress any disagreement. Violence is often the fall-back position of the fearful, and of those who - in O-Sensei's words - are out of synch with the Universe.
Today, nearly 5 decades later, the situation is different. We have a Constitution that recognises the inalienable right of each person's equality, dignity and freedom. We have the freedom to associate with whomsoever we wish, of free economic activity, of access to health and water and education. And yet in many ways the situation is very similar. While the politically-sanctioned state violence has disappeared, the structural inequalities that stem from a generation of treating people as less-than, are now fueled by a changed global economy that does not value skill-less people. So the unmet expectations are still there; as are the fears; as is the violence.
Our responsibility - as good citizens, as fellow human beings just - is to confront the violence in our own way. Not with more violence, but with understanding. And that understanding can only come if we open ourselves to meeting others and to discovering who they really are.
Our practice on the mat presents an ideal opportunity for us to engage with each other in a manner that is free of judgment. Whether our partner is tall or short, large or petite, young or old, a man or a woman, black or white makes little difference other than offering us the opportunity of discovering how best to engage with them so that our practice can improve.
"Ubuntu ngumtu ngabantu" - I am a person because of other people; or as John Donne (John Donne - For whom the Bell Tolls ) put it:
No man is an island entire of itself
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main...
Any man's death diminishes me
For I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
So take this opportunity on the mat to get to know someone who in the ordinary course of your day you would not meet; improve your technique and ensure we have no Sharpevilles in our future.
See you on the tatami,
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