This past week has seen a meteoric rise in the interest and participation in the Facebook Group #ImStaying.

The group describes themselves in this way:

This group is dedicated to the South African women and men of all races and all religions, who remain loyal to South Africa. This group is to honour all those who still believe that we as a nation can turn things around. To all those who choose to stay and work together to save this beautiful country we call home! This group belongs to all willing to make a positive difference! #ImStaying is our hashtag

Absolutely inspiring right? How could anyone possibly have anything against that?

Yet there have been some rumblings…

You put your one foot in, you put your one foot out

The group went from being fairly small to boasting a capacity of more than 200 000 people with most of the influx happening in the past week. For whatever reason, the vibe of the group caught people’s attention all at once and momentum started to build. i was invited to the group as were many others and a whole bunch of people started interacting with posts and people in there.

But within no time at all i heard of friends of mine who had left the group. Some after pretty much dipping their foot in; others after two days; then two good friends of mine who had both been engaging quite deeply with people [or trying to] left this morning [two women, one black, one white].

And i started hearing whispers and murmurs and conversations and statuses and inbox and Whatsapp messages and was involved in a whole number of them.

After initially make a comment speaking about critiquing the group one of my Facebook friends went off at me about not being positive and embracing the heart and spirit of the group and saving negative conversation for other places.

Eventually, after a whole lot more conversations i decided that i needed to respond in some way and so i hosted a Facebook Live conversation, which is probably the most interactive one i have had, in which i shared some of my concerns with the group and invited others to engage with some of theirs.

The Uncomfortable Nature of #ImStaying

To sum up what i said in the 35 minute video, these are the main points i raised:

  • The promotion of ‘colourblindness’ – the idea that we should all move towards a place where no-one sees colour. Problems that i have with that, as well-meaning as it is which i totally know it is, is that when we live in a country which has been so shaped and developed around the concept of colour [especially in terms of past and continuing oppression] then we just absolutely HAVE to continue to see colour until we have successfully dealt with those things. The other side of it for me though is that when we don’t see colour, we stop seeing people. The future i envision is one where colour is seen and acknowledged and celebrated as all the different colours and cultures and races join together in the melting pot that is South Africa. What we want to say is that people will not be judged as “less than” in any way because of the colour of their skin, or any other superficial reason. Colourblindness, i believe, is trying to suggest the same thing, but i find it deeply problematic in silencing or erasing rather than engaging with and embracing.
  • The Rainbow Nationism of the group. While i absolutely believe that the idea and concept of the Rainbow Nation is a beautiful one, we are fooling ourselves if we believe that we have arrived there, or are even close. The distinct gaps between rich and poor, which still largely fall along colour lines thus bringing colour into it, means that there remains much work to be done here. Comments like “Can’t we just forget the past and move on” avoid and ignore people’s past and present pain in the interests of seeking a comfortable present that doesn’t shake things up to much. Which feels gopod [for some] but is not real or honest enough for the majority.
  • The Whiteness factor. Both in terms of who moderates the group [as far as i understand – although it may have changed] all of the moderators except perhaps one are white and there was an announcement that there were 16 moderators this morning and they have just added some more so not sure if that has changed at all. But when i arrived at the group and started reading posts [and even now as i do] it feels like the overwhelming majority of them are from white people. Who make up 8% of the people in this country. In a group looking to celebrate the people of South Africa that feels heavily over-represented. And problematic.
  • The White Saviour stories held against the “good black” or “good person of colour” stories. So a story is shared where a black person or family ended up having a lack and a white person swooped in and bought them all the things and everything was okay. Or the converse which is a white person lost their wallet and a black person found it and didn’t even steal any money [the suggestion that all black people would have kept the wallet but this was a good black person and so the exception to the rule] so let’s celebrate them being a decent person and an exception. Which is horrendous and problem-filled and hopefully i don’t need to say too much more about why.
  • One way in which the whiteness or white saviour stories play out is a lot of uncomfortable posts about domestic workers/the people who clean houses and look after children and how they are described as “my best friend” or “part of the family” and yet what isn’t mentioned is that they are the best friend/family member who cleans your toilet and doesn’t get public holidays! Possessive nouns used when describing employees [“Our domestic worker” “Our Susan”] which objectify and dehumanise, even when i don’t believe for a second in this space that is meant or intentioned [but we know too well that in other spaces it has been and continues to be]. Photographs of white people and black people together in harmony [particularly children] which give the idea that all is well, despite issues not being dealt with or deeper work done.
  • Which brings me to the next one which is where it feels in #ImStaying as if any dissent, challenge, call towards or away with is muted. Posts have been deleted, some people have been kicked out of the group, comments have been muted or deleted and it doesn’t feel like there is much space at all to deal with serious issues that need to be dealt with. The idea that we have to just be positive is presented loudly both inside and outside of the group which led me to write this status, which i hope helps explain why that is problematic:

“Can’t we all just be positive?”

Not if your positive means injury to another… if the words you use are unkind or demeaning, if the comments you make are oppressive or racist, if the stereotypes you share are abusive and blind, if the power you demonstrate is belittling or condescending.

And certainly not if you are suggesting that being positive means that we refuse to do the necessary work that has largely been avoided or ignored for the past 25 years. Or shutting down, deleting or blocking anyone who calls for that work to be taken seriously. Sometime we have to start doing that work.

One person’s positive is another person’s oppression.

  • Another huge factor is the aspect of Privilege. Some of the posts asking people to post their favourite places in the world or giving a bucket list of 50 places to travel to in South Africa which highlights the privilege of those who are able to travel at all, let alone out of the country. In fact, the group name itself #ImStaying, is one of privilege because it speaks to a group [of particularly white people, but also largely middle class and above] who have the means to make a decision to stay or go. When the majority of the people in South Africa do not have that option. Saying I’m Staying is a very privileged place of speaking, which has not been recognised or acknowledged. Which shows how out of touch some of the posters are with the real lived situations that the majority of the people in South Africa face.

Adrian’s Post

i was alerted to a post from a South African who lives in the US but had some similar concerns with the group, which [and a lot of others] deeply resonated with:

Adrian Fleur [24 September at 16:33]

I’ve seen so many positive stories from the #ImStaying group. Some are truly heartwarming ❤️🌹

But I can’t help but worry – it’s what we South Africans are so good at. I can’t help but be wary of the kumbaya rainbowists, the colourblind purple people, the “We are one viva Mzansi!!!” folk – where does it all go once the likes are forgotten and the shares have stopped making the rounds? What happens when we switch off our phones and shut down?

At the braais and the bars, do we tell our friends to stop making racist jokes? Do we correct them when they casually dismiss the pain of apartheid, or complain about the “blacks” in government? Do we stand up to them even if it means our friendships will be fractured, and then do we question whether we need friends like that in the first place?

And at home, do we tell our family too – we’re over it, we’ve had enough! No more garden boy or maid talk, no more fantasizing about a UK full of Saffas, no more reducing this country’s harrowing history to a plea for the farmers above anybody else who suffers. Just stop!

And then online, do we interrupt the incessant racial profiling on our neighbourhood watch Whatsapp groups? Do we tell our connections on social media to stop sharing fake news that inflame racial tensions? Do we make a noise on Facebook pages when people are being ignorant, divisive, hateful?

And away from all these comfort zones, out in the wider world, do we challenge our disregard for the working class, disdain for the poor, disgust for the homeless? Do we boycott the corporations committing crimes against us and our earth, do we get involved in our communities, do we keep up with all the different ways to help and serve? Do we actively try to tackle the disharmony in our country?

Because I’m certain it’s not with positive vibes alone…
We need more. We need deeper, difficult conversations. We need healing and understanding and a whole lot of patience. We need to face the truth of our nation: broken by violence, and never allowed a proper chance to recover. Never given a moment of peace or an opening to prosper.

South Africa is a traumatised country, which means its people are traumatised. Yes, today. Yes, trauma is carried down through generations. Yes, this needs to at least be acknowledged for the healing process to begin. Singing kumbaya and we are one is all fine and dandy, but underneath the surface, there has to be real work. There has to be sincere and committed action. To me, the hashtag shouldn’t be #ImStaying. It should be #ImShowingUp! ✊✊✊

Some words from the crowd

i have grabbed some of the comments that were written as the live video was happening which share some more concerns and add to those i have already shared.

Alexa Russell Matthews:  Struggling with good black stories or people in multi-racial families are being held up as THE sign of a non racial society

Jax Augustyn:  Completely agree, Alexa Russell Matthews. Struggling with those stories too. While they are heartwarming and encouraging they don’t mean that racism/white privilege are not a big issue.

Christie Mae Roberts: And the adoption stories. Been thinking so much about the white savior narrative and the violation of children’s stories 😕

Alexa Russell Matthews: Christie Mae Roberts I have been struggling with this so much… It’s everything we are saying please don’t perpetuate. It’s such a violation of so much 🙁

= = = = = = = = = = =

Terence Mentor: Here’s why I don’t like the group:

White person: I think this about the country.
Person Of Colour: This is why our reality is different from what you are saying
White person: HOW DARE YOU!

= = = = = = = = = = =

Christie Mae Roberts:  “Dismissive” is a word that comes to mind when ANYTHING is hard or challenged

Christie Mae Roberts:  This is something I have wondering about – is it possible to celebrate the positive while also holding space for the difficult conversations, safe for people of colour, moderating and admined by a diverse group where privilege and the “nice” racism is addressed. In love 😉

= = = = = = = = = = =

Adrian Fleur: Since I wrote my post about the group I’ve been exposed to even more problematic and disturbing things. Everything that Christie highlights in this thread for instance. The racism that’s being allowed in the group without moderation is really alarming while the group poses as a positive space, likewise the censorship of anything remotely critical or questioning. No, just no 😫

In short I think the function of the group is to stroke white people’s egos, uphold privilege and support denialism. It’s a dangerous space.

= = = = = = = = = = =

Terence Mentor: That being said, I think being involved in a group like this important, not for the people posting the nonsense, but for the onlookers. From my experience, you can’t change the mind of the people who feel like they have an unique, clever perspective on race…especially white people. But you CAN move the needle for people who are thinking about these things.

Terence Mentor: I think we all need to understand power dynamics and colonised minds.

Terence Mentor”: Like…”My POC friend is okay with X, so you should be okay with this too” – we need to remember that many POCs have centuries of “white is right” pushed on them. They may not have thrown those heavy shackles off yet.
(I’m still struggling with this. I’m constantly asking myself if the way I behave and think is actually ME, or what whiteness has told me to be)

Terence Mentor: Worst thing my white friends have said about me: “You’re one of the good ones”

Brett “Fish”: Can we just take a moment to acknowledge how awful and hideous that statement is, with all of the assumption that is hiding in there. Something along the lines of ‘Coloured people are mostly bad but you’re not like the rest of them!’ – Wow, cannot even begin to get my head around that. Similar statement to: “I don’t even think of you as black!” – as if being black is a negative thing and this person has somehow escaped that. Urgh, this stuff is so toxic!

= = = = = = = = = = =

Alexa Russell Matthews: Someone asked this morning & it got deleted if the white people in this group recognize the damage of Apartheid & what restitution looks like…. So so sad this got deleted

Alexa Russell Matthews: Important – a BLACK group member asked WHITE people… To reflect on restitution and reconciliation and what this means practically.

= = = = = = = = = = =

Nobuntu Webster: So I have a list of issues with the group and am writing an opinion piece about it – but have struggled to articulate it – questioning whether I would be raining on the kumbaya parade. BUT, I then looked back at the past 25 years and realised that that was the very problem with 1994, 1996, 2010 etc… We faked love at the expense of truth. We can never genuine love without truth. And so, we have to speak the truth…In the same breath, lets speak the truth in love.

= = = = = = = = = = =

Dylan Hibbert: The group kinda feels like the 2010 world cup where we all hugged and played friends, but issues aren’t really addressed.
I also think there is a fear of posting honest conversation online as a result of backlash from the public.

= = = = = = = = = = =

Themba Thwala: Silent voice: “our relationship has problems that need to be addressed so that we can strengthen it and face whatever future challenges come our way, together. How do we resolve these/here are my suggestions …” Members/Moderators: “No sorry, this is not a forum for such discussions. Let’s rather sing Kumbaya …”

= = = = = = = = = = =

Ruth Irene Barnabas: · It really bothered me this morning when a black person who was expressing past hurts comments was removed mid dismantling. – it really projects the overall feel and rhetoric of the group which is deeply problematic. Which I think we have established.
How is anything truly “positive” in the light and reality of the deep injustice and inequality that still exists. Can we embrace it when firstly – white voices are privileged and setting the tone, when black voices are being stifled. It almost seems as if this group is successful because it allows whiteness a pass at self evaluation, it harbours privilege. It’s going to cause deeper issues of internalised racism for people of color there, black people are only accepted or acknowledge on condition of whiteness remaining superior because let white people dare hear that black people have legitimate feelings and experiences. They get muted, treated with whataboutism, etc
I have more to say but toddler is jumping on me.

The group is only as equal and diverse and inclusive as its admin team

= = = = = = = = = = =

Whose Group is it Anyway?

That last line from Ruth really jumped out at me: The group is only as equal and diverse and inclusive as its admin team

As of this morning, that was a team of sixteen people of whom one was a person of colour, from what I have heard. They put out a call today and asked for people to submit videos if they wanted to join the moderation team, so not sure how much that has changed.

Let me sum up my thoughts on #ImStaying by saying that i do think there is some good potential in there. You have a huge [and growing by the minute] gathering of people who are positively minded and dreaming of a country where we all just get along together [not a bad dream!]. The missing piece seems to be the one about doing any of the work needed to get us there. And the immediate dismissal of conversations and questions that seem to touch on that stuff. As well as the problematic nature of some of the posts, pictures and ideas being expressed that are positive to some and alienating to others. There really need to be some black, coloured and indian people who are part of the leadership of the group and listened to in terms of understanding how best to move it forwards.

So yes, you are staying, but are you willing to do the hard, uncomfortable, awkward, time-consuming, costly work that is needed to turn this country around? And can you lay your defensiveness to the side long enough to hear the pain, fears, dehumanisations and negative experiences of others? Or does that interrupt the melody of the Kumbaya tune that you are trying to play?

If you are a white person and committed to South Africa, one very practical place to start is over here with a list of 40 things you can do…

[A follow up post on an exciting group you can join called ‘Conversations for a Just South Africa]

#ImStaying Kumbaya