A couple of months ago I went to a conference on African development and the presenters at the conference were talking about the possibilities of development in different parts of Africa. As the conference proceeded with dignitaries from different African countries and representatives from different developmental agencies I asked a few critical questions about development, which were left unanswered. Developmental agencies have the habit of speaking about development without saying anything. At some point during the conference after expressing concern about the motives of development in Africa I was shushed by an older black man who said, “you need to respect your elders.” This statement shocked me because I was really not expecting it in that setting, but there it was. Now, this is not the first time I have been shushed by someone using this statement, in fact I here it almost too often.
When I ask difficult questions to older people, particularly black older people, I am told that I should not speak to elders “that way.” I have learned that “respect your elders” means that do not be critical, it means do not ask questions that are potentially embarrassing for older people, and do not contradict older people. This can be really tricky for us young black people who want to question the ideas of older people in our communities, who want to ask difficult questions about our cultures, and who want to hold older people accountable for their actions. Without being disrespectful.
It is easy to understand that people who are older have gone through life and have accumulated experience and can make sound judgement because of that experience. But it is also true that young people might have a different vision of the future and that future vision can contradict the current ways of doing things. I do not think however silencing young people by saying, “respect your elders” is a productive way of dealing with dissenting voices.
Of course “respect your elders” can easily be translated to “do not question your elders” and I find this problematic on many levels. The big fallacy behind the “respect your elders” statement is that older people, or more precisely older people in positions of authority, know better. We know this is false because history has shown us that older people sometimes do not know any better. Just as history has shown us that young people, like the recent 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner, do sometimes know more than older people. Age is not a barometer of good or bad ideas. Age should not be used to silence people with opposing ideas. There has to be a free flow of ideas, even when people disagree on those ideas.
Of course the idea of “respect your elders” is not unlinked to the ubiquitous belief that black people must agree on everything and they must stand by each other no matter what. The idea that older black people can’t be critiqued is unsound and it is a destructive way of living our lives and building a better South Africa. Even when people are related they sometimes disagree. We can’t be afraid of critiquing each other as black people for fear that you are going to be regarded to be as a traitor. We need to have dissenting voices and we need to be able to call each other out and hold each other responsible in order to build great communities. Critiquing another black person is not an automatic solidarity to whiteness; on the contrary I think being able to critique each other strengthen us as communities.
The idea of being able to ask difficult questions, and critique each other also has to do with our ability to be honest with each other. It is a way to keep each other accountable to each other as community members. If we aren’t able to call each other out, who will? If we can’t set each other straight, who will? How are we supposed to build a strong society with functional communities if we can’t be honest with the critique we give each other? This is not to say that the critique can’t be given in a respectful manner, but it has to be given. It is necessary to critique the current structures of society like the government and/or our current cultural practises that are unhelpful in the building of a functioning and healthy society.
I think it would be helpful for all of us to understand and function under the philosophy that no one is above criticism. No one is above being called out particularly if they are engaging with people in a public forum. This is even more so for individuals who represent people in any government office. Ward councillors are not above criticism, professors at university are not above criticism, radio presenters are not above criticism, religion in all its varieties is not above criticism, President Zuma and his ministers are not above criticism, and even my mother is not above criticism.
After understanding the idea of everyone being open for critique, particularly people in public office, South Africans need to cultivate a culture of critiquing each other’s ideas without attacking the person who presents the idea. For example, there is a difference between critiquing the idea of assisted suicide from attacking and vilifying the person who believes in assisted suicide. It is possible to critique the idea of assisted suicide without talking about the personality or what you personally think of the person who is arguing for assisted suicide.
The issue of being able to critique elders is not easy because South Africa’s past of colonisation and then apartheid, in that many people feel African practises like the rule of “respect your elders” are not adhered to because they are destroyed by the previous oppressive regimes. This is a legitimate point of contention, and needs to be discussed at length on its own. I understand the complexity of living in 21st century Africa where traditional values are jostling with western culture for the dominant narrative. But in the same ways we critique and reject western ideas of normality that dominate our lives, we need to have space where we call into question African traditional cultural practices that are problematic and sometimes destructive. I refuse to participate in the charade where African traditional cultural practices are used as a way to escape accountability by silencing dissenting ideas.